I read The Grace of Silence: A Family Memoir long before I met the author Michele Norris. I had always loved her voice on NPR’s All Things Considered where she was a host and then later a ‘special correspondent.’ I loved the quality and timbre of her voice on the radio – but I also loved the voice she brought to the stories she reported. It was always a perfect combination of professional and personal, serious and appropriately lighthearted. I was thrilled when I heard she had written a book, and read it soon after it was published.
Three years later, in the fall of 2013 I had the wonderous privilege of helping to host Ms. Norris when she visited the University of Oregon as we participated in The Race Card Project. So again I read The Grace of Silence, and it became a much richer read the second time.
The book is something simple – a memoir of a family, Michele Norris’ family. It is the story of how they have navigated the world through the past generations. But it is so much more complex than that. It is a history lesson and parenting classes. It is a personal journey and a universal experience. It is a true-detective story and an exploration of race in America. And, most importantly, it is full of Grace. Not merely the dictionary definition of grace as “a disposition to kindness and compassion;” The Grace of Silence evokes the life lesson “that Grace is also measured by how you climb up on the rough side of a mountain and what you do with your life once you get there.” That is the Grace explored within the books’ pages.
I’ve thought a lot about the title – wondering how Ms. Norris came to find grace within silence. She originally began the project as a way to explore race in America in the months after Barack Obama was elected President. She then realized she first had to understand her personal history and her family’s experience of race in order to better understand the larger context. As she focused her extraordinary reporting skills on uncovering the truths of her own family, she learned much of ‘things left unsaid.’ So many pieces of her family’s history just weren’t talked about. At times, you can almost feel on the page the frustration of a child learning things for the first time (as an adult) such as the fact her father had been shot by the police when he was a young man, just after he returned from serving his country in World War II. And I had to wonder – where’s the grace in that bit of silence?
As I was pondering that question, my dear friend Naomi Kirtner posted something on Facebook that shed light on it for me.
In the last portion of the Torah, there is a strange reference to eish da’at, “the fiery law.” The Midrashim (the interpretive texts) suggest that the Torah was written with “black fire on white fire.” The literal letters of the Torah are the black fire, and they rest upon the foundation of the white fire. The whole of Torah can be fully understood and interpreted only through the relationship between the two.
It seems to me that’s it. The whole of Ms. Norris’ family’s story, the whole of their experience, can only be fully understood through the relationship of what happened and what was revealed about it, and what was not. Of actions and inaction. Through words and silence. That, it seems to me, is the grace of the sometimes-frustrating silence. Only by seeking to understand both the ‘black fire’ and the ‘white fire’ can we truly understand the history of race in our country. Only by listening to the stories told, and seeking out the stories never shared, can we understand the whole of it (of anything!)
As Naomi went on to explain: It certainly is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the black fire is the full meaning–that everything you need to know to gain understanding is in the letters we see on the page. It is so much harder to look at a page and see the negative space–to see the pattern created by absence. And yet…that hidden aspect, the omissions, the space between–commentaries on the Torah say that one informs the other in a living relationship and that both are of equal importance.
What happened in and to Ms. Norris’ family is one of many examples of the dichotomy of race relations in America. And so we are incredibly blessed that she shared her explorations of her family’s history with us because it gives a gateway to explore the ‘black fire’ and the ‘white fire’ of race, the civil rights movement, the election of an African American President; the sound and the fury of those events.
Perhaps the grace of the silence is what sustains the exploration; the silence is ‘of equal importance.’ What is said, the stories that are told, is critical to understanding our history. But so are the stories not told. And that is the exquisite beauty of this book – the telling of those untold stories.