A near-capacity crowd showed up for this literary event on race at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple last week. Nearly a quarter of the audience was black, which mirrored our village’s African-American population numbers. The room buzzed with anticipation of this journalist of color’s creative nonfiction foray on said subject.

Her name is Michele Norris. Many know her smooth, sophisticated, articulate voice as the co-host of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” Others know her as the smart ABC News reporter with Peter Jennings or the hard-working Washington Post reporter prior to that. Norris was in town to discuss her new book, “The Grace of Silence: A Memoir,” which she described as “the hidden conversation on race in America.” Norris said her book was both a “public story” and “private story.” The public story centered on the fears and the frustrations of the honest discussion of race in a seemingly “post-racial world,” after the election of a black president. The private story revolved around her dad’s decades-old silence about how, after returning from fighting in World War II, he felt that he had earned the right to walk into a segregated Birmingham, Ala., establishment. Instead, he was shot in the leg during a confrontation with a white police officer.

Addressing the crowd in this historic venue, she said, “What an amazing space. The acoustics are sublime.” Calling herself “just a girl who tells stories,” she began to unravel layers of her family’s, her country’s and even our village’s “hidden conversation on race.” During a question and answer period after her initial comments, an unidentified white Oak Park man asked her if she had heard about the book that told the same kind of story about this village’s historical fight for social and racial justice. Her Uncle Joe Norris, his daughter, Cerise, and a family friend, Heidi, were complimented during the event. Her main praise, though, went to her mom who, like her dad, worked as a postal worker in Minneapolis where Norris was born and raised. Apparently, one secret her mom withheld until continued pressing was how Norris’ grandmother was once a “celebrity pancake mix peddler” who dressed and paraded in public forums as “Aunt Jemima.”

“Aunt Jemima was a construct by ad men who made up the narrative of who learned pancaking on Colonel Higbie’s plantation, and who spoke in slave patois; yet my grandmother spoke closer to the King’s English and dressed with class,” Norris said. “I didn’t feel shame. I felt fascination.” When asked how other audiences, including “Tea Partiers,” received her message, Norris smiled and said, “They’re all loving it!” The crowd roared.

Local audience reaction to her poignant, poetic discussion was very positive. An Asian woman told me she was “fabulous.” A white woman raved about her “profound message.” And an African-American Oak Park man named Ron Lawless, candidate for Cook County commissioner, echoed their comments. “I think Michele Norris is right on for pressing for a public conversation on the hidden issue of race, particularly here in our village where white privilege often trumps racial parity in the local political process.”

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