The Daily Tar Heel

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Saturday June 10th

NPR host Michele Norris speaks at UNC

Host finds family in history

Michele Norris tried to create an impersonal chronicle of race in America, but she couldn’t escape her own family’s stories.

“I like to say I found the ‘I’ in history,” she said.

Norris spoke Monday about the full circle she made during the writing of her new book, “The Grace of Silence.”

Instead of writing an impersonal book of essays on race, as she originally intended, Norris — the first black female host at National Public Radio — began to uncover the secrets of her own family history and the unspoken stories that shaped who she became.

About 50 people, including self-proclaimed news junkies and NPR nerds, came out to hear the journalist and host of “All Things Considered” speak in Carroll Hall.

English professor Randall Kenan gave a gushing introduction.

“Her honey tones, her intelligence and her quick wit are a joy to behold,” he told the audience before Norris regaled them with personal anecdotes.

Her interest in her family’s past was sparked by the story that her grandmother, a well-educated, churchgoing woman, worked as an itinerant Aunt Jemima character in the 1940s and ‘50s, dressing up as a slave woman and teaching small northern towns how to use pancake mix.

Her family had hidden this story and was shamed by it, yet Norris dug deeper.

“There is grace in silence, but there is such great power in words,” she said.

She found newspaper articles that proved her grandmother had taken a job that could have been denigrating and turned it around, using her position to be an ambassador of the black race.

After this secret was unveiled, more stories kept pouring out and Norris was unable to ignore them.

Senior Anita Rao, a women’s studies major, said Norris’ personal angle was enlightening and entertaining.

“I was really excited to hear her speak,” she said. “I find it really interesting to hear about big thematic issues from a personal perspective — it adds a new layer to the conversation.

“When we talk about race it’s easy to fall back on generalizations, but she focused on specifics and used instances of discrimination against her own family to bring to light these issues.”

Norris ended the talk reiterating the power of knowing one’s past. As someone whose entire career has been based in telling stories, she said her roots are in stories that were never told.

“I was shaped by things (my family) never talked about,” she said.

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