There was a time when veteran journalist Michele Norris used to resist covering — even talking about — Black History Month, or even anything to do with race at all.
“First of all, black history is American history,” said Norris, the former longtime co-host of the National Public Radio news program “All Things Considered.” “Black history is so large that it is impossible to contain in just one month with only 28 days.
“And yet, here I find myself, at this point in my career, as someone who spends a lot of time talking about race,” she continued. “In fact, conversations about race are the biggest part of my portfolio.”
That continued Wednesday night, as Norris was the 2015 MLK Speaker at Georgia Southern University. Norris, winner of several awards, including 2009 Journalist of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists, talked about her professional and personal life, and race in America, during a free public event in the nearly full Performing Arts Center.
She spent part of the evening talking about the Race Card Project, which grew out of her book tour for “The Grace of Silence: A Family Memoir.” This project, she said, taught her that she had been wrong in thinking that Americans would flee from a public conversation about race. The Race Card Project series, which aired on NPR’s “Morning Edition” in 2013, received a Peabody Award.
Before that project, she had traveled the country extensively in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election. Her family, she said, had “historic indigestion,” as the growing possibility that the nation might soon elect its first black president led her relatives to share stories about race she had never before heard. And she noticed that everywhere she went as part of her NPR duties, seemingly everyone was talking about race.
“I noticed there was this really robust conversation in the country around matters of race and I wanted to figure out how I could get my arms around that somehow,” Norris said in an interview before her public speech.
During the speech, she related the stories of her family members’ individual experiences with race, and the fact these stories went untold for many years.
Her father, she said, was shot by a white police officer in Birmingham, Ala., in February 1946. He had just returned from fighting in World War II. Alabama had passed a law, known as the “Boswell Amendment,” that required anyone registering to vote to “understand and explain” any section of the U.S. Constitution to which the registrar pointed, Norris said.
So her father was going to a gathering of black men at a black-owned business at night to study the Constitution when he was confronted by a police officer. A scuffle ensued, and her father was wounded, she said.
Norris also found out during this time that her grandmother had been a “traveling Aunt Jemima.” Norris’ grandmother, who usually dressed to the nines, was proud of her education and carried herself accordingly, would don the 1940s-era Aunt Jemima uniform — the one in which the famous pancake icon “looked like a slave,” Norris said — and travel around Minnesota and other Midwestern states for pancake demonstrations. It was a source of shame for years in Norris’ family and something they didn’t talk about.
But Norris was fascinated by the story and ended up coming to a quite different conclusion.
“It was the only stage available to her in the late 1940s and 1950s,” Norris said of the traveling Aunt Jemima job. “And I think about it when I step on stage or when I step behind a microphone in my work. My grandmother could not dream of doing this kind of work. She took the job that was available to her, and she used it in a way that lifted herself up and lifted her people up, and there is no shame in that.”
Playing the race card
Norris’ book, published in 2010, deals with her own family’s complex racial legacy. In thinking how she could invite people into the conversation, she came up with the idea of asking them to submit their thoughts about race in six words written on a card — “quite literally, a race card,” she said.
At first she used postcards. When large numbers were returned, more cards were created.
Soon, online submissions were accepted through social media and a page on her book website. Eventually, she worked with web design team to create a dedicated Race Card Project site, www.theracecardproject.com.
The archived submissions now total in the tens of thousands, with tens of thousands more waiting to be archived, Norris said.
“I did this because I thought no one wanted to talk about race. I was wrong,” Norris said in the interview. “A lot of people actually are looking for a way to talk about it in a safe space without finger-wagging or blame.”
After the space for the six-word answer, a two-word question was added: “Anything else?”
“That was like opening up a spigot,” Norris said.
Besides written explanations, people started to send in pictures, artifacts and historical data to support their six-word statements. The project received maps as people spontaneously began submitting contenders for the most diverse ZIP code in America.
Some have also submitted things that, Norris acknowledges, many other people find offensive.
“The reason that we post that, knowing that it will be offensive to people is, we’re trying to reveal what the honest conversation about race looks like, and the honest conversation about race is kind of prickly, not all the time, but sometimes it is,” she said.
She hopes the archive will also become source material for future researchers looking at what America was like right now.
“If you take, say, Georgia Southern was integrated in 1965, you want to understand what life was like on campus at that moment,” Norris said. “Imagine if you had this repository that you could go back and understand people’s thoughts and experiences and attitudes.”
Jason Wermers may be reached at (912) 489-9431.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.