Did the election of Barack Obama herald the arrival of a "post-racial America"? Or was it instead the start of a more complicated national conversation, one that earnestly tries to discuss race but in fact really talks around it? That's the question that Michele Norris, co-host of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," set out to answer when she began reporting a book on race in 2009.
What Norris discovered was that before she could come to any conclusions about what was on the minds of other Americans, there was someone she needed to interview first: herself. So what started as strict reportage turned into "The Grace of Silence," a deeply personal reflection on what her parents and grandparents did and did not tell her about her history and identity as a black woman.
Norris grew up near Minnehaha Parkway in south Minneapolis. When her postal worker parents, Belvin and Betty, bought their Tudor-style home in 1961, they were the first black family to move into the neighborhood. The "For Sale" signs on their neighbors' homes went up before they finished unpacking.
Many of those homes were purchased by black families. But Belvin and Betty were determined that the remaining white residents would never be able to complain about their black neighbors. The sidewalks of their corner lot were always the first to be shoveled; their garden became an oasis of peonies, roses and black-eyed Susans. They were, in Norris' words, model minorities who raised their daughter to be a model minority. "Hair pressed. Clothes ironed. Shoes spit-polished," Norris writes. "We didn't just emulate the all-American white families in the Coca-Cola commercials -- we tried to top them."
But there were secrets stashed behind the unblemished stucco and can-do attitude -- secrets Norris didn't learn until she started writing her book. Betty's mother had toured the Midwest in an Aunt Jemima costume, which she wore when she performed pancake-making demonstrations for farm women. Belvin served his country in World War II, only to return home and be shot by a white police officer in his hometown of Birmingham, Ala.
Neither Norris had ever discussed these painful incidents with their daughter.
"What I did not know until I began this project was that I was also shaped by the weight of my parents' silence," she writes. Norris' quest to understand that silence takes her from rural Minnesota to Alabama.
The result is a fresh and candid reflection on this most important conversation.
Elizabeth Foy Larsen's work has appeared in Mother Jones and other publications. She lives in Minneapolis.