Norris, who hosts NPR’s “All Things Considered,” told students to “go home with your laundry and come back with your history.”
In a warm and conversational hour-long talk, award-winning journalist Michele Norris implored students in Packard Auditorium to preserve the stories that make up the fabric of America’s national history.
“As young people, you have a special role to play by asking questions about your family’s past, about their lives,” the host of NPR’s “All Things Considered” program said Thursday. “Take every opportunity to learn about your heritage—not necessarily about race, but whatever your personal story is. Go home with your laundry, but come back with your history.”
Norris delivered the keynote address during Lehigh’s weeklong celebration of the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the late civil rights leader. She followed her own advice by sharing stories of her family’s past.
At breakfast with an uncle, Norris learned that her father had been shot in the leg by a policeman shortly after he returned from serving in the Navy during World War II. The incident occurred as her father attempted to enter a public building to attend a class on the U.S. Constitution, which he was studying in order to register to vote.
“He never told me. He never told my mother. He took that to his grave. And he was helped by all those around him, who signed onto this conspiracy of silence,” she said. “When I heard that, something inside me shifted. I thought about my father’s distinctive walk, and it turned out that it was related to that shooting.”
“I have decided to stick with love”
The story also offered deeper significance to a quote by King that her father had saved with his most treasured possessions in a dresser drawer. A sheet of paper with the words, “I have decided to stick with love because hate is too great a burden to bear,” was bound to a picture of his family and a sticker that read “I voted.”
“I talked to several other veterans, and to a person, they each had a story like this, but they never talked about it,” Norris said. “And despite this, my father had a sunny disposition, even though he had every reason in the world not to. I saw this as an incredible act of grace, to give his children his ambition instead of his anger.”
Through these and other conversations with family members while researching her book, The Grace of Silence, Norris learned that her grandmother earned a living as an itinerant Aunt Jemima—a job she loathed—and that the Minneapolis neighborhood where she grew up became integrated only because many white families moved out after her family purchased their home.
“But those [white families] who stayed,” she said, “had children who became friends with my generation. And that’s how we’re evolving—home by home, block by block, school by school.”
Many of these painful recollections, she said, tend to bubble up during “periods of historic indigestion,” such as when Barack Obama, then a young senator from Illinois, launched his successful candidacy for U.S. President.
“Many members of my family are deeply conservative,” she said. “Yet, when they saw an image of a man of color behind a great big desk in the Oval Office, their feelings shifted because they saw someone who looked like them, like their son. They saw what was possible.”
Norris asked members of the audience to participate in her Race Card Project, which asks individuals to express their thoughts on race in six words.
Photo by Christa Neu