Crossing the racial divide: Sharing untold stories opens doors to healing

April 14, 2011

One church was founded by slave owners, the other by former slaves. On a recent cold, wet winter night their spiritual descendants crossed the divide that separated their ancestors and came together to share a meal, to talk, and to listen to a national journalist tell the story of conversations about race in her own family.

St. James' Episcopal Church, founded in 1842, and Zion Baptist Church, founded in 1866, are just a funeral home away from each other in downtown Marietta, Georgia.

The churches have a history of neighborliness. When St. James' was undergoing construction a few years ago, Zion opened its doors to let the Episcopalians use their fellowship hall. The pastors have exchanged pulpits; the choirs have sung at each other's worship services.

As interim rector of St. James', the Rev. Dean Taylor had not personally been part of that history. But he was moved by General Convention's call to study the Episcopal Church's complicity in the institution of slavery, and to work toward racial reconciliation.

"Many of St. James' founders were slave owners," Taylor says. "What do you do with that past? Do you pretend it didn't happen? Do you let it paralyze you?" As Taylor pondered those questions, he read The Grace of Silence, a memoir by Michele Norris, host of National Public Radio's afternoon newsmagazine, All Things Considered.

Norris' book contains conversations about race within her own extended family, including things that had not been talked about when she was a child.

Reading the book, thinking about his own church's past, and looking every day at the sign in front of neighboring Zion that reads "Founded in 1866 by former slaves," Taylor had an idea. He called Norris and asked if she would come tell her story to parishioners from both churches. She enthusiastically agreed.

Then he called the Rev. Harris Travis, pastor at Zion, and invited him and his congregation to come eat dinner and hear Norris. He enthusiastically accepted.

And so, to paraphrase the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, on a February evening in the red hills of Georgia, the sons and daughters of former slaves and the sons and daughters of former slave owners sat together at the "table of brotherhood."

"I am so excited about being here," Norris told the crowd, seated at tables of eight, four from each congregation. "Close your eyes and think back to 1946. It's hard to imagine we could be sitting here tonight."

Norris was inspired to write her book after the historic presidential campaign and election of Barack Obama. "The run up to the election was a period where people were thinking and talking about race in new ways," she says. "My intention was to write a book of essays about other people. And then something happened. I realized I was hearing something different even in my own family.

"It was like the elders were going through a period of historic indigestion. All these stories and things they had kept to themselves were coming up and coming out.

"When they picked up a newspaper and saw a man of color sitting in the Oval Office, something shifted. Even for those who are conservative, it felt like they had reached up and touched the sun. And suddenly stories came pouring out."

Norris learned two surprising and unsettling stories about her own family. First, she learned that her maternal grandmother worked as an itinerant Aunt Jemima in the late 1940s and early 1950s. She would dress up and travel through six Midwestern states giving demonstrations on how to use the pancake mix.

"My mother was so angry at my uncle for telling me this story," Norris says. "No one had talked about it; no one in my generation knew. My mother and her siblings had a lot of complicated feelings about it. We're talking about an Aunt Jemima who looked and dressed like a slave woman."

Norris had difficulty reconciling that image with the well-dressed, proud, elegant grandmother she remembered. "I don't know what kind of hard bargain she made with herself, what went through her head as she dressed like Aunt Jemima," Norris said.

As she researched her grandmother's story, she came across newspaper clippings with stories about her and talked to some who had seen and met her grandmother. "I began to look at it differently. I saw that she was traveling and working in a time when women didn't do that. I read the newspaper stories and saw that she had no shame about her work.

"She was often facing audiences who had never seen a woman of color. She used careful diction when she spoke, not the slave patois the advertisements for Aunt Jemima used. She took a job that could so easily have been demeaning, but she did it with great dignity in her own way."

The second story Norris learned was even more shocking -- that her father had been shot by the police in Birmingham. Her uncle blurted it out one morning over breakfast, more than 20 years after her father's death. "You know, your father was shot." Norris didn't know that. Neither did her sisters or her mother.

It took much questioning and digging for Norris to find out the details of what happened that Thursday evening in February 1946, two weeks after her father's return from World War II. Her father, Belvin Norris, his brother, and a friend were in the lobby of the Pythian Temple, one of two buildings that housed offices of black professionals and businesses in the deeply segregated Jim Crow era, when two policemen walked up behind them.

The elevator opened and one of the officers stuck his night stick in front of the black men to block their entrance. Michele's father pushed the stick away. The policeman drew his gun, pointing it at Belvin Norris' chest. His brother knocked the policeman's arm down; the gun went off, shooting Belvin in the leg. In a very real sense, Belvin Norris was lucky; the bullet only grazed him. It could have been much worse. In a period of a week during that time a half dozen black veterans were killed by police officers in Birmingham.

"My father was part of a group of men who fought for their country," Michele Norris says. "They did their part. They participated in the fight for democracy in foreign lands, and they got this crazy idea that they could get a taste of it back home. They loved a country that didn't love them back." People ask Michele if she is angry about what happened to her father. "I don't look back in anger," she replies. "I look back in wonder. My father had so many reasons to be angry, and yet he did not allow himself to be calcified with anger. He responded with grace."

It would have been easy, even understandable, to let the anger, frustration, and shame of the shooting, and the many other indignities inflicted on a black person in the Deep South in that era, eat away at him.

It would have been easy to pass all of that on to his children, to teach them to distrust and hate white people, to be suspicious and distrustful of their country. Belvin Norris chose not to live that way.

And gradually his daughter came to understand that her parents intentionally made the choice not to tell the difficult stories of their past so that their children would not be weighed down and infected by the anger and frustration of their elders. "If you want your babies to soar, you don't put rocks in their pockets," Michele says.

But she also knows that it is now important for her and her children to know the stories of their past. "There is often grace in silence," she says. "But there is always power in understanding." Norris decided to share her very personal family stories in an effort to encourage others to find out about their own family histories. "Think about your own histories, you own lives," she says. "How much do you really know about the people who raised you? How much do your children really know about you?"

As a way to get people started in conversations about race, Norris has developed what she calls "the race card." She passes out the postcard-sized cards and invites people to express their thoughts about race in six words. "That's right," the card says. "Your experiences, thoughts, triumphs, laments, theory or anthem expressed in six words."

Some of the cards she received in Marietta, now posted on her website, offer insights into the thoughts of members of both churches.

"Race is our burden and opportunity," one reads.

"Growing together within the same soil," says another.

"Tomorrow's promise, yesterday's shame, today's discussion," one participant writes.

"Deal honestly and courageously with it," another adds.

"Race: G + Race = Grace," says another.

Speaking from her NPR office in Washington, D.C., the week after her Marietta visit, Norris says she hopes to come back to meet with the churches again and continue the conversation. "It felt very much like the beginning of a journey, not just a single event," she says. "There's much more left to say, for all of them to talk about their stories."

Norris says she believes people do want to tell their stories and talk about race but often don't know how to begin or where to find a safe place for the conversation. "I think it is an incredibly courageous thing these churches are doing," she says. "These two churches can serve as a beacon for others. I've told the pastors that I am at their service; I am happy to come back."

Taylor and Travis say they, too, hope the evening was not a one-time event.

Travis says he can identify with Norris' story. "Back during the era of segregation, you didn't talk about things that happened," he says. "It was out of fear. If you stepped out of place, spoke out of place, something might happen not just to you, but to your family. "When you get into the subject of racism, everybody tends to clam up," he says. "But the only way things will ever change is if we talk about it."

Taylor said he doesn't know yet what the next step will be, but he hopes Norris will come back and that the conversations will continue. "I hope this has eased us into thinking about this as a community," he says. "Maybe we can begin to talk, to share the prickly things, the uncomfortable things community wide.

"When we tell our stories we are standing on holy ground. When I looked out over the room and saw all those tables and people talking to one another, it looked like the kingdom to me."

An image gallery by photographer Cindy Brown is available here.

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