Candid Michele Norris lecture at Coe stresses listening in race conversations

'You're going to confront something you don't like'

Published: February 13 2014 | 12:29 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 3:37 am in

Michele Norris spoke for an hour in Coe College’s Sinclair Auditorium on Feb. 12, and encouraged the audience members to listen. Not to her, but to each other.

That was one of the many things the National Public radio host and special correspondent learned since she began The Race Card Project in 2010. Norris started the project, a collection of submitted six-word stories about race, while she was on tour for her memoir “The Grace of Silence.”

Norris began her speech, part of Coe’s Marquis Lecture Series, talking about one term: “post-racial.” She asked audience members to define the buzzword overused to describe America in the wake of the election of President Barack Obama in 2008. From there, the former “All Things Considered” host walked the nicely sized crowd down a path from covering race with her colleague Steve Inskeep  in York, Pa. during the run up to the 2008 presidential to The Race Card Project.

Her language was clearly that of a skilled writer; poetic and descriptive but never flowery, even when the Minnesota-native described herself as a “political cicada” for her election-timed trips to Iowa once every four years.

Race is a notoriously tense topic, and Norris sprinkled effortlessly witty asides into her candid comments as if to give the mostly white but still diverse Coe crowd a chance to exhale. Audience members responded with relaxed laughter as Norris imitated President Obama’s gait and re-created the pleased sigh female audience members do when Norris mentions Denzel Washington, both references to the way many black men add a little something to their strides.

One theme ran throughout Norris’ comments: family. She read an excerpt of “The Grace of Silence,” which is subtitled “A Family Memoir,” and told stories of her relatives: how a white police officer shot her father in Birmingham, Ala. – describing the resulting “lilt” in his step is what led to the Norris’ asides about Washington and President Obama – for trying to vote in the days of Jim Crow.

Norris also spoke of her grandmother’s work traveling the Midwest doing pancake demonstrations dressed like Aunt Jemima, a character widely derided as a negative stereotype of black women.

Norris spoke confidently, wisely avoiding what could’ve veered into maudlin pleas for sympathy, as she shared what had until recently been secrets unknown to even her. She mentioned that Iowa was one of her grandmother’s stops in the 1940s and 1950s and that she made sure to make eye contact with the children as they likely had never seen a person of color before.

More than half a century later, Norris now stood before a rapt audience in the same state. It was a reminder of how far things have come.

“Black babies cost less to adopt.”

“Angry black men are so scary.”

“Race doesn’t scare me. Clothes do.”

As Norris read those among other submissions from The Race Card Project, which now includes stories from individuals in 52 countries and all 50 states, she showed people in attendance how far our nation still has to go.

Norris took three questions following her prepared comments and, in response to someone who asked about the future of The Race Card Project, offered a disclaimer about the archive of 38,000 six-word essays and our nation’s racial discourse.

“You’re going to confront something you don’t like,” she said. “I keep them up there because this is an honest conversation about race, and if you’re going to have an honest conversation about race you’re going to confront something you don’t like, something that makes you uncomfortable.”

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