“I love books,” Michele Norris declared as she launched into her presentation of Our Hidden Conversations: What Americans Really Think About Race and Identity (S&S, Jan.) at the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute 2024 in Cincinnati on February 13. She added that, during a sound check earlier that morning, she had maintained that “now is the time for all good booksellers to come to the aid of their country.”

Norris identifies herself as a storyteller, journalist, and “story collector,” and her new book is a continuation of a conversation that she began 14 years ago with an initiative called the Race Card Project. The project, she said, emerged out of her desire to understand how Americans considered race—especially after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 and some heralded the beginning of an “postracial” age. Wanting to encourage introspection and initiate dialogue on “a big and toxic subject” that many people would rather avoid discussing, Norris invited people into the conversation by printing out postcards asking them to explain their experiences relating to race in six words.

Noting that she originally sent out 200 cards and received a 30% response rate, Norris said that she became the “Pied Piper of postcards,” distributing scores more wherever she went and using the prompt “Race. Your Story. Six Words. Please Send.” to encourage people to “distill their thoughts to their essence.” Since then, 500,000 of the cards have been archived, and more are pouring in with the publication of Our Hidden Conversations. “I am a conservator of other people’s truths,” Norris said.

When working on the book, Norris and her team reached out to many of those who'd sent cards into the Race Card Project, asking them for further stories and photographs to provide more context for their six words. Norris shared a few of the most poignant stories from people who participated in the project over the years with the booksellers in attendance, “to let you understand what it’s like to listen to America singing on a subject that no one of us really wants to talk about.” She encouraged audience members to read the words aloud as each card appeared on the large screen before she told the story behind each card. Noting that the card she receives most often contains the words, “No, where are you really from?,” Norris added, “If you ask that question, you have to accept the answer.”

Although she launched TRCP to focus on race, Norris said that it ultimately evolved into a project about identity. “It’s something that we need to talk about,” Norris emphasized. “We have to have that conversation.” She expressed her hope that by sharing the stories of those who have participated in the project, “bridges of understanding” will be created, and that “through these stories, we can find each other.” Pointing out that she has spent most of her career as a television and radio journalist—where, by and large, people listen to her—Norris called Our Hidden Conversations “the most important book I’ve ever done—because it gives me the opportunity to listen.”

After receiving a standing ovation following her presentation, Norris addressed the subject of book banning, asserting: "I've become a story defender, and I feel like I'm in a room full of story defenders." Referring to the importance of books during her childhood, when she had a speech impediment and found both knowledge and comfort in reading, Norris emphasized that bookstores are safe spaces for many but that “they’re trying to take books away from us.”

Norris concluded, “On behalf of that eight-year-old, or that 10-year-old, or that 14-year-old that’s out there and needs so desperately what you offer, I thank you so much for making sure to keep your doors open. I know it’s really difficult right now in this moment.”

On the way out the door, booksellers were encouraged to create their own six-word story on a Post-it note and stick the note to a kiosk in the foyer. Displays began to fill up with signed and unsigned stories describing attendees’ own experiences.

During the debriefing that followed the presentation, Norris emphasized how important it is for people to be able to express themselves in a safe space, suggesting that booksellers might provide a space in their stores where people could post notes, even anonymously, because “a lot of people want to be seen and be heard.”

WI2024 will conclude this afternoon with another high-powered “story collector”: historian Doris Kearns Goodwin will engage in conversation with ABA advocacy assistant manager Philomena Polefrone at the conference’s closing keynote.