Norris brings The Race Card Project to Syracuse University
Race is a subject many don’t want to talk about. But Michele Norris found a way to simplify it into six words.
Norris, a special correspondent for National Public Radio, created The Race Card Project, in which people are invited to submit six-word sentences or phrases that express how they feel about race and cultural identity on the project’s website. On Sunday, Norris will serve as the keynote speaker for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration in the Carrier Dome. Norris said the project fosters conversations about race and cultural identity in America.
“It’s an archive where people speak with courage and candor and depth about a subject we have a hard time talking about,” said Norris, who lives in Washington, D.C.
The official website of The Race Card Project includes a tab called “On Location,” where visitors can see race cards from certain areas of the country. Norris said it’s interesting to look at the conversations regarding race happening in areas all over the nation based on what’s happening there.
Syracuse University will soon have its own tab, Norris added, and visitors of the site will be able to see the archive of race cards submitted by students, staff and community members later in the week.
“It’s amazing because some people will send not only their six words, but also an explanation of the story behind their six words,” Norris said. “You get to hear their story, which they chose to share freely. It helps you better understand America and this highly diverse country of us.”
The Race Card Project evolved from Norris’ personal family memoir, “The Grace of Silence.” Norris initially wanted to write a book about America, but when she began her research, she discovered stories about her family. Her father was shot in the leg by white police officers after he returned from fighting in World War II, and her mother worked as an “itinerant Aunt Jemima,” traveling to towns to conduct pancake demonstrations.
“When I went out into the world to talk about that book, I realized I was engaged in a conversation about race, and that people were not always comfortable talking about race,” Norris said. “I want to help ease that conversation and make people think about their own experiences with race in America.”
Reverend Tiffany Steinwert, dean of Hendricks Chapel, said it was important for the university to enter what has been a national conversation about race, prompted not only by events around the country but events on campus as well.
“We wanted to bring The Race Card Project to campus as part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration as a way to foster, cultivate and continue that dialogue on race beyond just the night of the dinner,” Steinwert said. “It’s a way for us to bring them together in order to foster the dreams, aspirations and values that King embodied.”
Steinwert also said the event is the largest programmatic celebration and dinner of its kind throughout the nation, having hosted about 2,000 people in the past.
When it was started in 2010, The Race Card Project was made up of postcards people would mail to Norris over time. She said it eventually “blew up on social media,” and people began sending their race cards through platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
The project’s fast growth prompted Norris to create a website for the project to not only collect but also to display the cards for the public to see. Norris said the project continued to grow to the point where she began to receive tens of thousands of submissions.
Sylvia Langford, associate vice president of Student Affairs, is the chair of this year’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration committee.
Langford, who has served on the committee for six years, said her goal last spring was to have a theme and a keynote speaker chosen before the end of Spring 2014. Together, with the committee of about 15–20 people, Langford reached the conclusion that Norris’ work will “invigorate people and students in ways that they can be active in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King.”
“From Michele Norris’ book to the types of topics she has interviewed people about, everything has often been related to people’s perception of race and the impact of race on their lives,” Langford said. “Syracuse is just a microcosm of the greater society that has never been able to figure out how to handle race, so everything just kept coming back to Michele Norris.”
Langford also said it was interesting they had invited Norris to come speak before the beginning of the fall semester, when campus events prompted discussions about race and identity.
“I think we need to be part of this solution, and so to me it’s very important that we express how we’re feeling about race,” Langford said. “It helps to encourage some self-reflection, because we can’t move beyond race without confronting how each of us feels about race.”
Sunday’s celebration will also include a dramatization of a few submissions of The Race Card Project, which will be acted out by students, Steinwert said.
“It becomes a public platform to have a dialogue — a thoughtful, critically reflective and provocative dialogue about race,” Steinwert said. “It’s not just simply that we’re sending these projects off into the Internet somewhere to show up on someone’s website, but they come back to us as a performance piece that we can see.”
One of Norris’ definite goals is to make The Race Card Project into a book. But another goal she’s working toward is finding a permanent home for the archived collection of race cards she’s received in the past five years.
“Even though I thought no one wanted to talk about race, this project taught me that tens of thousands of people do,” Norris said. “What I hope I’ve been able to do with this project is create a safe place for people to have their say, but also to create a place where people can listen to other people, especially when they don’t agree with them.”
Published on January 15, 2015 at 12:01 am
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