Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

NPR HOST TO SHARE SHOCKING STORIES BLACK HISTORY SEARCH TOOK PERSONAL PATH [Corrected 02/04/12]

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

NPR HOST TO SHARE SHOCKING STORIES BLACK HISTORY SEARCH TOOK PERSONAL PATH [Corrected 02/04/12]

Article excerpt

For Michele Norris, co-host of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," seeking the truth is second nature.

But when this veteran journalist set out to better understand the lives of her family, some stories she verified shocked her and left her with some questions that will remain unanswered.

Author of the 2010 memoir "The Grace of Silence," Ms. Norris will speak Monday at 7:30 in Oakland's Carnegie Music Hall. Joining her will be Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of "The Warmth of Other Suns." The writers' appearance will be the seventh of 10 literary evenings sponsored by the Drue Heinz Trust.

Ms. Norris' maternal grandmother, Ione Brown, was among an army of women deployed by Quaker Oats to play Aunt Jemima while cooking up pancakes for grocery shoppers and promoting the company's product.

A 1950 newspaper account of one of her grandmother's appearances at a market in Minnesota is reproduced in the book. The headline reads, "Only Negro Alexandria High Graduate Portrays Version of 'Aunt Jemima.'

In 1950, Ione Brown was 47.

"I'm not saying that it was easy to imagine her in that hoopskirt. I understand it at a much deeper level because I got to know how she did the work," Ms. Norris said in a telephone interview.

"Quaker Oats keeps no information about this group of women. ... They did it their own way. They were able to buy homes and send the next generation to college. Many of them, like my grandmother, refused to speak in the slave patois," written in a script handed to them by Quaker Oats, Ms. Norris said.

Her grandmother was determined to make a good impression in her public appearances. Since the book's publication, Ms. Norris has heard from lots of women who played Aunt Jemima. She plans to post some of their stories and pictures on her website in February, which is Black History Month.

If you look back one generation in many African-American families, Ms. Norris said, you'll find someone who held a subservient position as a slave, sharecropper, cook, maid or Pullman porter.

Instead of running from that past, Ms. Norris said, people should embrace it because it was "one rung on the ladder. …

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