Michele Norris discusses her new memoirby Tom Crann, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — For Michele Norris, the decision of whether to prepare her son's favorite food, Aunt Jemima pancakes, is a complicated one.
As Norris reveals in her new family memoir, "The Grace of Silence," her grandmother was paid to travel to grocery stores and county fairs dressed in Aunt Jemima's recognizable apron and kerchief.
The work helped support her family, but the image of her black grandmother dressed as the controversial "mammy" character proved difficult for her family to discuss.
Norris, a Minneapolis native who co-hosts NPR's All Things Considered, joined MPR's Tom Crann in St. Paul this week to discuss her grandmother's unusual job and her family's decades-long silence about it.
An excerpt of the interview is below. Norris continues the discussion with Tom Crann at the Humphrey Center in Minneapolis Friday night. The event begins at 7:30 p.m. at the Cowles Auditorium.
Tom Crann: What did you discover about your grandmother, and when?
Michele Norris: I discovered quite a lot about her as I looked back on her life. But the real revelation was that I discovered that she had spent time in the late '40s and early '50s working as a traveling Aunt Jemima, dressing up in a hoop skirt and a head scarf and doing pancake demonstrations in small towns.
She had a six-state region, and she would travel to these towns and set up at county fairs or in the local grocery store, and demonstrate how to use a product that was fairly new at the time -- pancake mix. You know, add water and an egg, and mix, and instant pancakes.
And I didn't know that she had done this, and I didn't know because my mother didn't talk about it. Her sister didn't talk about it. I had a hard time. I just couldn't picture it. I mean my grandmother was very active in the community. She was someone who was very well known. She founded a senior citizens center that still bears her name in south Minneapolis. So the picture that I had in my mind of my grandmother just did not comport with someone who was dressed up in a hoop skirt and a head scarf.
And the more that I learned about her, the more I became sort of fascinated by what she did. I didn't go immediately to shame. I went to curiosity. I wanted to know more about her. And I realized that she was doing things that few women did in 1950. She was working. She was traveling. And she was making money. And she also, I discovered, was serving as an ambassador because when I discovered news stories about her, I saw her staring back at me.
And at that point, I understood what I had thought about conceptually. When you see your grandmother staring back at you, and in this case dressed up as Aunt Jemima, it was like she was talking to me from the page. And she was describing to the reporter how she viewed her job. And there was no hint of shame when she talked about this. She said that she was proud of what she was doing.
She was discovered while she was singing in a choir, I guess. And she would sing gospel songs when she served pancakes because she wanted the customers to know that she was a Christian. But she would also work hard so that they also knew that she was well spoken. She talked about meeting children in these towns that she knew had never seen a black person, and so she decided to use her role to elevate her race.
I think over time my mom and her sister, and some of her other relatives who have also made this discovery, have come to see this in a different way as we've learned more about her. It's not just the anecdote that grandma was Aunt Jemima. Grandma was Aunt Jemima who did interesting things with her time and with that position to try to benefit people -- which was what she did later in her life, in her work at (a senior center).
Crann: You also did a fair amount of research in, I suppose today in the food business they're called equity characters, right? These brands, whether it's Betty Crocker or Captain Crunch or whatever, except obviously Aunt Jemima is loaded with all sorts of history and, frankly, negatively loaded.
Norris: I wish I had an opportunity to really talk with the people at Quaker Oats about this history. I tried several times to reach out to them, and through their communications department, they did not want to participate.
The history of Aunt Jemima is an interesting one in that she is a completely fictional character, and this whole sort of myth and story line around her was created and very carefully spelled out in a series of very popular and highly successful ads, with lovely illustrations and a lot of text.
They read like little stories, like little novellas, and they told you the story of Aunt Jemima and her famous pancakes and her work on the Higbee plantation. And in these ads they created this sort of strange slave-speak, you know, "lawzee."
Crann: Like a patois.
Norris: Yes, exactly, the sort of strange slave patois that they would write out phonetically and that would be part of the ad. And the company has moved forward, but what do you do with a character that drags around that kind of baggage? Because there's a lot of it.
Crann: And what do you do with that character, if you're shopping for pancake mix? Do you ever buy Aunt Jemima at home?
Norris: I hadn't thought about it, so, yes, I had Aunt Jemima pancake mix. And as it turns out ... I have young children, and they love pancakes, and my son in particular, his favorite food is pancakes. ... And he in particular loves Aunt Jemima pancakes.
He likes the mix because it looks like a little person that's on the table, and it looks like her hands are on her hip. And he just really likes Aunt Jemima mix. And I find myself arguing with him in the store. 'Can we just not buy this right now? I'm just in a mood where I'm kind of not wanting to have to look at Aunt Jemima while I'm trying to figure this out.' And I can't tell him what I'm trying to figure out.
Crann: When will you be able to tell him?
Norris: With the publication of this book, it's time to sit down and talk to him. And I don't plan to tell him that he should be ashamed of what his grandmother did, because I don't see shame in that. I don't see (that) she sees shame in the fact that she dressed up as Aunt Jemima, and I certainly don't see shame in the fact that she earned money and tried to raise up her people in doing so.
And I also don't want him to get the message that people who do things in their life that might be seen by others as menial should be looked upon with any kind of harsh judgment. I don't want him to get that message.
And I particularly don't want to give him that message in our family, and in particular as a young black man, because we stand on the shoulders of people who had to do things at times in their life that may have been viewed as demeaning. We are where we stand today because of their time and their sacrifice and their grit and their hard work.
But I also want him to understand that it is OK, and sometimes appropriate, to stand up to any effort to define him through images that are forced on him, that he is not defined as a person of color by the images that he sees in the larger world. And so it's sort of a complicated message for a 10-year-old little boy, but I'm going to make sure that we get that one right.
Crann: You and your mom have a different perspective on this. Because in the book you mention that you found this story fascinating, and I think your mom says, 'Well, wait until I'm gone to tell it, please.' How is she dealing with the fact you're telling this story now?
Norris: I knew that I had to press forward and try to learn more about this. And then at some point, she got in the boat. She just decided that if this story was going to be told, it needed to be told by a loving family member, that we needed to claim the history as our own. And once she got in the boat, I figured that it would be easier to get other family members in the boat.
My aunt Doris, who lives on the south side, has had a difficult time with this. She wrote me a lovely, lovely letter that I now cherish. She said that by talking about this, it's helped her, because she was a young woman when this happened. They weren't children. They were adults and living on their own when grandma was off doing this work.
And it was in the 1950s, in a time when the NAACP and other organizations were really pressuring the company to think about what they were going to do with this advertising icon. It was not a popular time to be Aunt Jemima, so it was probably a complicated time to be the daughter of someone who was portraying Aunt Jemima.
But just talking about it has helped them come to terms with it, and to understand how it was a stepping stone that my grandmother used to go on and do other things.
It's not easy when you write a family memoir, because you bring a lot of people along on a journey that they didn't realize that they were even going to take.
Crann: Or might not want to take now.
Norris: Yes, but I've tried to do this with fairness. I've tried to do it in a way that would look back with very clear eyes, but also do it in a way that honors our family. It's our history, and we have claimed that, and we are able to give our children now the gift of that history.
Crann: We live in a very confessional culture ... and it has been that way for a generation. And the generation of your parents seems to have been the opposite. That's why I think you chose to call it 'The Grace of Silence.' But if there is grace in silence, how do you balance that, what we respect to keep quiet about if it's painful, versus what we drag into the light and get from doing that?
Norris: I think this confessional culture has perhaps swung a little bit too far, but I see silence as almost like a two-sided coin. There is grace in the silence that they exercised in choosing not to talk about their frustrations, or their pain in their life and pass that on to their children, so their path forward would be uncluttered by the pain of their ancestors.
I understand that. I honor that, and I think that I've benefited from that. But there's another kind of silence that I think is perhaps underutilized right now, and that is the silence that applies to talking about every single thing that happens to you in 'Tweetdom,' and we'll just set that aside.
But I think that the silence that I'm calling for, by the time I come to the end of this exercise, is to sit down and ask questions. And then sit back and listen to the people around you to make sure that you really hear what they might be trying to tell you, or what they might be willing to tell you if you have the courage to ask them about their lives.
The core question at the heart of this book, in the end, is: How well do you really understand the people who raised you? And how much do you really know about their lives? And it might be difficult to get them to tell you the full story, but it's worth the effort. And if you don't take advantage of the opportunity when they're still with you, it's not that it becomes impossible, it's just that it becomes really difficult to do that on the other side.
I had to go through a sort of anthropological exercise to get to the heart of the story here, and how I wish I would have asked my father more about his life growing up in Birmingham.
In some ways, we as children, even adult children, can be complicit in that silence. Our parents tell us what they think we need to know, and we're only interested in knowing so much. In some cases, I hope, in many more cases, I hope, after reading this book, people will decide to push past that.
(Interview edited and transcribed by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)