The Grace of Silence: The Silencing Impact of Trauma-
11 May 202-
Each year, the month of February is dedicated to honoring the lives, legacies and achievements of black people in the United States. Considering the complex and tragic past black people have with this nation, this month seeks to reflect on their struggle, highlight their perseverance and recognize their major contribution to America’s history. Known as Black History Month today, February sees an overwhelming amount of events across the country all dedicated to commemorating black history.
Before the end of 2020’s Black History month, I had the privilege of attending a presentation by Michele Norris about her best selling book The Grace of Silence: a Family Memoir. Although this book largely discusses the issues regarding the “race conversation” in America, Michele Norris’ hope for her book is that it encourages people to explore their own family’s stories in order to better understand not only their own complex histories but also what that can teach them about the history of race as a whole. Through her telling of her family’s pasts and the cost of her parents’ silence, Michele Norris reveals the silencing impact of trauma on black Americans.
The conversations around race in America have always been long and deeply complicated. Michele Norris set out to write about these conversations when she instead discovered that there were hidden conversations about race in her very home. The Grace of Silence is a memoir that tells the family history of Michele Norris and the secrets her parents kept not only from her but from one another as well. Her parents kept these secrets hidden for so long partly due to shame, and partly to protect their children from the devastating truth, in the hopes of planting pride and ambition rather than hate and fear within them.
One of the family secrets that Michele Norris discovered that largely enhanced her views on race and inspired her book is about how her veteran father was shot by a white officer following his return from World War II. She also discovered that her grandmother worked as an itinerant Aunt Jemima, peddling pancake mix across towns dressed in a hoop skirt and apron. In addition to the shocking content of these discoveries, Norris was completely astounded by the fact that her parents never talked about these experiences that she deemed so fundamental to their pasts. The choice her family made to keep their pasts hidden influenced the direction of her life and her work which now shares the excruciatingly painful price of keeping quiet.
As most of us grow up, we recognize that we have been shaped by the things our parents tell us; the difference between right and wrong and what to do versus what not to do. Yet Michele Norris’ novel teaches us that we are also shaped by the things our parents do not tell us. This realization is a major reason why Michele Norris pushes people to use their own family histories and legacies to gain a better understanding of race in America. After setting out to learn about race from the experience of others, her accidental discovery of her family’s secrets taught her that she learned more from her own family’s past than she ever could have from anyone else. For instance, her grandmother’s past working as an itinerant Aunt Jemima was kept hidden for so long because it was perceived to be a source of shame in a racist society. Moreover, the fact that her father’s encounter with the white cop was never brought up until decades after his death, goes to show how traumatizing and deeply rooted violence is in the history of blacks in America and how that often results in silence.
In this course, African American History, the silencing impact of trauma is widely explored through the devastating consequences of slavery. In Freedom On My Mind, authors White, Bay and Martin convey the psychologically traumatic experiences that enslaved individuals lived through and how that has stripped generations of black people of their voice. One of the most powerful portrayals of this in African American History is Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, which was written as a response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The novel centers around the horror that becomes of Sethe and her family’s life after they were victimized by this act in 1855. Throughout Beloved, Toni Morrison utilizes the color red to symbolize the traumatic impacts of slavery on the characters. This color appears during times of intense and overwhelming emotions. From Sethe’s baby’s tombstone and the ghost’s appearance in Sethe’s home, to her lover Paul D’s repression of lust and his recalling his traumatic past, the presence of the color red reveals the psychological consequences of slavery. This use of color goes to show the silencing impact trauma leaves on its victims, its visual description in the novel capturing a more accurate representation of the experience of trauma, in a way words often fail to do (Bast).
During her presentation, Michele Norris also talked about the Race Card Project, which she created in 2010. The Race Card Project is a platform for people all around the world to participate in the race conversation by submitting the six words that represent their thoughts or personal stories regarding race. This project is yet another example of how strongly Norris believes that learning about race and breaking the generational cycle of silence begins in one’s own home. Through the examples she shared, we learned about the countless unique experiences that people have, how easy it can be to start and join the race conversation, and most importantly, how much weight six words can have.
The role of race in America has largely been distorted and disregarded in the conversations of American history. In the book How We Learn about Race through History, James D. Anderson highlights the extent to which Americans have erased black people’s place in American history. He writes about how the only time race is mentioned in history is “when it is virtually impossible to ignore the question, such as in discussion of the constitutional convention, the defense of slavery, Civil War and Reconstruction, or more recently, the civil rights movement”(Anderson, 88). He further emphasizes that even in these terms when race is finally given some type of spotlight, it is often portrayed as a tragic burden that temporarily slowed America’s progression, which in a sense trivializes it. This very course is created as a result of this fact and with the intentions of changing the way American history is taught in schools and perceived in society. This course, similar to Michele Norris’ novel and project, ensures that the role of African Americans in American history is told in its truest form, and that their culture, perseverance and achievements are recognized as well as their struggles.
Overall, Michele Norris’ presentation on her novel The Grace of Silence, showcased the silencing impact of trauma and how prevalent that has been in the history of black Americans. Norris’ main objective for her book and her Race Card Project is to encourage people to look into their own family’s pasts to see what they can discover about race and also learn how to break the generational cycle of silence in black families.
Anderson, James D. “How We Learn about Race through History.” Learning History in America: Schools, Cultures, and Politics, edited by Lloyd Kramer et al., NED – New edition ed., University of Minnesota Press, 1994, pp. 87–106. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.cttttgtv.11. Accessed 11 May 2020.
Bast, Florian. “READING RED: The Troping of Trauma in Toni Morrison’s Beloved.” Callaloo, vol. 34, no. 4, 2011, pp. 1069–1086. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41412478. Accessed 31 Mar. 2020.