Sigh ... More silence than grace

The name of the book is "The Grace of Silence." The author of the book is Michele Norris of NPR, a unique voice in American print and electronic media.

The recent feature about the book, and its author, ran in the Washington Post and GetReligion readers will not be surprised to hear that the powers that be in the Style section did an excellent job of handling the "silence" part of the title, but not the "grace" part.

This is sad, especially since it's clear early on that faith is a large part of the story and its setting -- a family drama set in the heart of the Civil Rights Movement and the African-American church experience in Birmingham, Ala.

The silence? Growing up, her parents did not tell her the full truth about many of the events that helped shape their lives, even bitter moments of racism. They did not want their children to live lives defined or even framed by the acid of racism. On some issues they were silent.

... (Her) parents did not deny racism. They made sure Michele knew the names of the four girls killed in the church bombing the way white kids could recite the names of four pop stars from Britain.

It was the personal indignities that were the hardest to talk about.

"I understand the silence," Norris says. "And I understand there was a generation of men and women ... who had every reason to be angry at the world and to be angry at their lot in life, and instead of feeding their children a steady diet of anger and frustration, they armed them with their hopes and their ambitions. And that is an incredible act of grace."

And yet she cannot fully reconcile a paradox: The silence shaped her, helped make her who she is -- journalist, professional talker, breaker of silences.

And the grace? Even the current-day event that shapes this story, a speaking engagement about the book, is shaped to some degree by religion.

Sundown in Birmingham. ... A couple of hundred people find seats in the red-carpeted sanctuary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

Norris's radio voice fails her for a moment, as if the tragic majesty of the space were pressing her vocal cords. Already her Web site is filling up with racial reflections submitted by readers, and now she invites the predominantly white audience in the church to join the conversation.

James Wright Jr., 82, describes how his father used to be a blackface minstrel performer, and his Irish mother told young James never to refer to black females as "ladies." They were "women." Only God can cure such attitudes, and God has a lot of work left to do, Wright declares with great pessimism.

"I appreciate your candor, you speak a hard truth," Norris says to Wright. She cranes to locate him several pews back. "I want to see you when I say this. ... My father was a victim of the attitudes of which you speak, that's the cudgel he grew up under. He didn't necessarily escape it, but he didn't let it define him. ... It would have been so easy to give in to that, to let everybody know how angry he was, maybe to pick it up and hurl it at somebody. But he didn't do it. It left me with a profound sense of possibility. That's what I choose to hold on to."

OK, that's it. That thought, this ghost, lingers in the air.

Simply stated, is there an element of Grace in this story or simply grace? The story -- literally -- contains no thread of content that helps readers make any sense of several isolated references to religion, the role of the church, etc. The story is haunted. Period.

Does this particular silence, this ungraceful silence, come from Norris or from the editors in the Style section? Who knows.


Please respect our Commenting Policy