The main message from The Grace of Silence, the new memoir from Michele Norris of NPR, is that all of us can be black historians — and that we need to hop to it with all deliberate speed. The takeaway points in the book are memorable in themselves — but even more interesting in where they point us.
First, the facts. Norris' grandmother spent years during the late '40s and early '50s doing an advertising gig for Quaker Oats as a traveling Aunt Jemima ("Happifyin' Aunt Jemima pancakes sho' sets folks singin'!"). Unlike the ads, her grandmother made sure to speak proper English, and as Norris notes, "Grandma Ione seems to be throwing off more attitude in the picture than is expected from Aunt Jemima." It's true, and in fact, the set-jawed facial expression shown in a newspaper clip is exactly the one that Gretha Boston used in her portrayal of the Mammy character Queenie in the revival of Show Boat in 1995. But Grandma Ione was already there in the late '40s.
Then, around the same time, Norris' father was shot by a policeman in Birmingham, Ala., who didn't feel like letting him take an elevator to a party. But what strikes Norris is that neither Grandma Ione nor her father had any interest in talking about these things. It was the past; life was what you made of it — namely, life was now.
This is not uncommon among black people who experienced life under Jim Crow, and it can puzzle us moderns. What to them are personal memories are, to us, one step removed as black history. We want to know where we came from, and for many of us, the abuse and the tragedy are a key part of that. Plus, the educated American operates under a common understanding that we are to "deal with" unpleasantness in our past rather than "repress" it, and then seek something called closure.
This kind of thinking is so deeply imprinted on our psyches that it seems more common sense than a paradigm. Yet it would have seemed alien to many of our grandparents — whatever their color. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out not too long ago, not all soldiers who witness hideous things amid battle come out with post-traumatic stress syndrome, and many have done quite well under an assumption that the best coping strategy is simply to move on.
This approach, that of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit to his wartime service, is one that quite a few black people who lived through the Bad Old Days have adopted. "Girl, stop pestering me about details," a cousin of Norris' father complained when she asked about the shooting. "Stuff like that used to happen, but we never really dwelled on it. We moved on, and so should you."
Moved on. That is, they didn't let their lives be defined by abuse from others. It sounds so sensible, and yet it can throw us today when we see it face to face. Remember how perplexed so many were when Strom Thurmond's black love child seemed so, well, serene about the whole business?
I think of my grandfather, who could easily have passed for white. He was the product of a relationship between a white shopkeeper and a black assistant, but it was quite clear whenever conversation neared the topic that no one of his generation had any interest in dwelling on it. The idea that Grandpa was supposed to shout the story to the heavens to provide America a lesson about its roots in racism would have sounded to him like science fiction.
A part of me gets this. "America was founded in racism, and we can't forget it!" someone says — upon which we might reply: "Yes, that is a fact — but you appear to suppose that the remembrance of this information entails something further, and what exactly is that?" One answer is that it is grounds for racial preferences or special treatment — but this occasions more controversy than consensus.
But then, another part of me wants the history for its own sake. We cannot understand the present in ignorance of the past, for one. And if one is to settle scores — although I sometimes wonder whether some people are interested in ever settling them — one must know what the score was.
Even when the memories are good ones, it can be almost counterintuitive how much, for those who lived them, life is still right now. I once interviewed a woman who marched on the front lines of desegregation efforts in Mississippi. She marched, she fought, she worked, she led, for years and years. However, I only found this out by accident. I was helping interview her for linguistic reasons, and another linguist I was with (Stanford's John Rickford) happened to notice a photo on her mantelpiece of a long-ago demonstration and asked her about it. And she was never more than passingly interested in "going back" to what she had done. This was almost 50 years later, and she had done a lot more living since.
Incidentally, we shouldn't assume that interesting black-history memories are only ones about the Harlem Renaissance or marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr. One of the main lessons from Norris' book is that black militancy was much more in the air after World War II than we are often aware today. Black men who fought for their country for four years weren't in the mood for the old nonsense when they got home.
The NAACP lawyers arguing Brown v. Board of Education weren't wearing Afros and dashikis, but the mood in black America was such that you almost wonder why more black people weren't wearing them. Thomas Sugrue's Sweet Land of Liberty is a good source on this era: People were already in the streets. There just wasn't a single uniquely charismatic national personality symbolizing the movement — yet.
In any case, our grandparents may well have stories to tell, and we should ask them before it's too late. We can't assume that they'd have already sat us down and filled us in if they had anything interesting to say. After all, like us, they are living for today. Yet as Norris has it, "There is grace in silence, and power to be had from listening to that which, more often than not, was left unsaid."
John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root. He is the author of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.