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50 Years After the March on Washington, Americans Share Their Secret Thoughts on Race

The Race Card Project proves that 6 words can really pack a punch

Deborah Ossege’s contribution to the project was “Drinking from the wrong fountain: Colored.”

Kimberly Simon of Minneapolis, who is black, used her six words to recount a time decades ago when one brave schoolmate made all the difference in welcoming her to a newly integrated school. The desks in her first-grade classroom were aligned two by two, and when the teacher asked who would join Simon, all the white kids turned away except for one: Becky Rice. Simon's six words: "She volunteered to sit by me."

The Race Card Project was sparked by my curiosity about people's individual experiences with race but also by my desire to tap into the nation's mind-set on this often explosive topic. It all started when I wrote a memoir, The Grace of Silence, that chronicled my African American family's hidden racial history.

Family Secrets and Aunt Jemima

While researching the book, I learned something even my mother did not know: My late father, Belvin Norris Jr., was shot and wounded by a white policeman when trying to enter a public building in Birmingham, Alabama, soon after returning from his service in World War II. My dad never spoke of the incident. In fact he rarely spoke of the racial indignities that marked other parts of his life, even after fleeing to Minneapolis.

Meanwhile, I discovered that Mom, too, had a secret: During the 1930s her mother had worked as a traveling Aunt Jemima, donning a hoopskirt and a head scarf to do pancake demonstrations for farm women in the Midwest. The work, lucrative as it was, made the family uncomfortable.

Trust me. There is a special kind of vertigo in discovering that Aunt Jemima is a member of your family. And not the Aunt Jemima on the pancake box today with her pearls and wet-set hairdo but the Aunt Jemima who dressed, talked and acted like a slave.

To everyone's surprise, I discovered during my research that my grandmother had steadfastly refused to speak in the slave patois that supposedly went along with the costume. Instead, she used her job to present an image of educated black womanhood that her small-town audience may have never seen.

Once my memoir was published and I went on tour across the country, confronting the topic of race proved unavoidable. As in my own family, the people in my audiences had a multitude of stories, experiences and points of view — some painful, some raw. So I decided to ease the conversation with a trick one of my college professors used for helping students write about difficult subjects: Boil the story down to no more than six words.

I hoped that this quirky little exercise would help crystallize people's feelings about race and identity. Perhaps condensing their thoughts might open the spigot. That was my hope when I handed out custom-made black postcards at the end of all my talks, inviting people to mail their stories to me.

Next page: The Race Card Project goes viral. »

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