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These Walls Between Us

In the mid-1950s, an African American teenager named Mary White (now Mary Norman) traveled north from Virginia to work for my family as a live-in domestic for our summer vacation by a remote New England beach.  Mary was 15, I was 12. As the Black “help” and the privileged white daughter, we were not slated for friendship. My family came to depend on Mary’s skilled service. Summer after summer, Mary endured the extreme loneliness of the elite white beachside location in order to supplement her income. Years later--each of us divorced, each a single-parent, Mary a rising officer in corrections and I a feminist health activist—we began to walk the beach together at nightfall.  We talked about our children, our work. We began to consider each other friends. 

Based on decades of visits, phone calls, letters, and texts between Mary Norman and myself, These Walls Between Us chronicles our friendship, focusing on my oft-stumbling efforts, as a white woman, to see Mary more fully and to become a more dependable friend. I examine the obstacles created by my formation in a narrow white, upper-class world, reveal realities of domestic service rarely acknowledged by white employers, and draw on classic works by the African American writers whose work informed and challenged me along the way. I lift up Mary Norman’s enlightened work in corrections in the 1970s and 1980s. Mary has read and commented on every page. I hope this story will incite and support white readers to become more informed and accountable friends across the racial divides created by white supremacy and to become active in the movement for racial justice.

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. . . riveting . . . excellent and revealing . . . A moving account of awareness of privilege and the courage to move beyond it.

—Kirkus Reviews

Excerpts from These Walls Between Us


I GREW UP IN THE NORTHEAST UNITED STATES, AMIDST white people who thought ourselves a world apart from the white supremacists of the Ku Klux Klan—the violent, radical fringe. And yet, I grew up embedded in racist violence myself, just of a variety that was polite and normalized in American life, in which every institution advanced white people at the expense of people of color. I also toddled my first steps into a fraught zone between my white mother’s blue-blood, owning-class family and my white father’s hard-scrabble-farm Georgia roots. I channeled both my mother’s assumptions of superiority and my father’s urgent, resentful aspiration to rise. 

My parents united in the project of training me to become a white, upper-class, wealthy woman. They only half-succeeded. As an adult, I thrived in the women’s health movement, joined the Quakers, immersed myself in writings by people of color, and fell in love with a woman. I am grateful to the many magnets that drew me outside my family’s elite bubble and landed me in a more humane life. Most centrally, I am grateful to Mary Norman, whose friendship is the magnet that has mattered the longest. 

More than sixty years ago, in the mid-1950s, a young African American teenager named Mary White traveled north from Virginia to work for my family as a live-in domestic worker during our summer vacation. Mary was fifteen, I was twelve. As the Black “help” and the privileged white daughter, we were not slated for friendship. Employers like my mother used the word “friend” to manage domestic workers, not to connect with them. Soon, however, came the dynamic social movements of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s: the civil rights movement, multi-racial feminism, and liberation theology. These movements opened friendship as a possibility between Mary and me. We stepped into that opening. Across the stark differences of race and class between us, we began to shape a bond. 

Some thirty years after we met, in the late 1980s, Mary declared that we should write a book about our friendship. She, more than I, understood how many rules of the dominant culture we had violated in our journey towards becoming friends— unwritten rules of domestic service, carefully policed barriers between white and Black, between rich and poor. “No one will believe our story,” she said. At the time, we had been sharing novels and essays by Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, and Alice Childress. Especially electrifying for us both was Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi, which Mary said came the closest to expressing her own experiences growing up Black in the rural South. I had worked with a team of women as coauthor and editor of Our Bodies, Ourselves, a feminist resource on women’s health and sexuality. All this made Mary’s suggested writing project seem possible. We even fantasized being invited by Oprah to appear on her new-at-the-time TV show. 

These Walls Between Us is not the book Mary and I imagined we might coauthor together. The book would not exist without Mary, based as it is on innumerable conversations between us— by phone, in person, via email, and, in later years, via texting. Mary has read and commented on every draft, but These Walls is very much my story. It focuses on my often-stumbling journey towards seeing Mary more fully across the socially constructed barriers between us—that is, towards being a truer friend. It is written with a white readership in mind, to explore our relationship to white supremacy culture. 

It’s 2020 as I finish this book. Mary is eighty years old, I am seventy-six. On weekly phone calls, we carry on about politics and family like the observant, caring old women we are. As we vented about the Trump presidency, Mary said of the book, “I think of the climate we are living in now, all the hateful things mostly young white males are doing that fall into the category of hate crimes, putting a wedge between people. The people who elected President Trump want to take the country back to the good old days. This book can show what those days were really like.” 

For my part, I hope These Walls Between Us will also be a testament to the power of love that has kept us, each in our own way, reaching across the obstacles arrayed against our becoming close. I hope that it will inspire you as a reader to consider what you bring to your own cross-racial and cross-class relationships, to examine the obstacles that you, perhaps unknowingly, carry within you.

From Dream Wedding (1964)
From  Beach Walk (early 1980’s)

At the end of our walk, perhaps because the companionable stroll with Mary made me feel confessional, I blurted out, “Mom’s worrying about me this summer. She thinks I’m not socializing enough.” I thought nothing about how my words might land. 

Mary unlinked her arm from mine. “You shouldn’t be spending all this time with me.” 

Immediately I knew I had hurt her. I had thoughtlessly implied that, for me, “socializing” didn’t include our time together. “That’s not what I meant at all! I love our walks,” I said, trying to repair the moment. 

“Your mother is right,” Mary said flatly. She sped up her pace, heading for the splintered stairs. 

“She’s not,” I said, stumbling as I tried to keep up. But I had lost Mary. 

Microaggression. This is the term that activists in the twenty-first century use for my careless comment about socializing. Microaggressions are the demeaning comments and subtle insults that Black people encounter daily, often from ostensibly well- meaning white people. Though microaggressions may appear more subtle than outright discrimination, they are a deadly part of the daily trauma of racism, and they take a cumulative toll. White people, like me, who seek to nurture friendship with Black colleagues, family members, or lovers, need to stay vigilant about this toll. We need to understand, in all humility, that we commit microaggressions all the time. We need to understand, if such a friendship continues, what an astounding amount of forgiveness may have already come our way. 

MARY’S ROLE IN MY 1964 WEDDING ON NANTUCKET, AND the wedding itself, took on a starkly different aspect for me fifty years later, when I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The 2015 National Book Award winner is a searing, book-length letter to Coates’s teenage son about brutal realities in their lives as Black Americans. Coates chronicles multiple assaults on his body and his life as a young man trying to stay alive in one of the poorest sections of 1980s Baltimore. Profiled by police and targeted by armed teenagers on the street, he also found no refuge in school, the place where young people should be educated and protected. Coates found himself utterly barred from access to the middle class American (read, white) Dream. 

The Dream, Coates writes, “is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint and tastes like strawberry shortcake.” This is the Dream touted by advertising and Hollywood, the Dream that white middle- and upper-class Americans either appear to live, or strive to attain. What’s more—and what skews the moral arc of my own life—Coates understands that the dangers and deprivations that characterized his childhood actually sustain the (white) Dream that excluded him. “Fear ruled everything around me, and I knew, as all black people do, that this fear was connected to the Dream out there, to the unworried boys, to pie and pot roast, to the white fences and green lawns nightly beamed into our television sets.” Marxists have long argued that prosperity for the upper and middle classes depends on the existence of a deliberately impoverished underclass. Coates puts this more directly, more boldly, and in contemporary American terms to which all of us bear witness. The Dream, he warns his son, “rests on our backs.” 

I grew up securely inside this Dream of access for me and exclusion for others. I was one of the “unworried” children. I worried, yes, about the slammed doors and whimpers of family violence, but I did not fear for my bodily safety on the streets of Princeton, New Jersey. I had no reason to doubt that I’d get a full academic education. And I had no inkling that this ease in my own life actually required the dilapidated housing of the Witherspoon Street section of Princeton, no idea that my comfort and sunny prospects depended on the poverty and ragged education that sent Mary, at fifteen, into domestic service. Recalling the events of my wedding week, I understand now that I married within my family’s upper-class version of the very American Dream that, as Coates would argue so cogently fifty years later, thrives for white people by excluding people of color. 

Like many in her social set back then, my mother viewed a proper wedding as a portal through which a young woman took the all-important step to a successful life: marriage to a man “from good stock” who would “do well.” And so, she resolved to create a perfect Nantucket summer wedding. Dad wired his London tailor for a navy-blue blazer with antique brass buttons that shone with the luster of generations. Poised at what would be the peak of his success as president of a large liquor corporation, Dad reserved the company jet to fly select guests in for the wedding. Perhaps because his own father had worked his way up from stock boy to department store CEO, Dad prided himself on being able to give me the kind of wedding that he aspired to— and that my mother took for granted. 

As part of the grand plan, my mother called Mary. Twenty- three years old, married, and with a two-year-old son, Mary did day work at that time, cleaning house for my mother and other Princeton families. Mary had no plan, herself, to return to Nantucket the next summer. The previous August, she’d brought her new baby boy, Dennie, to the cottage for two weeks. While she labored to give my parents their accustomed vacation, the baby slept in a crib beside the ironing board in Mary’s room—with the door closed, as my mother required. As the summer ended, my mother didn’t beg Mary to promise to return the following August. Little Dennie would be a toddler by then. Having him underfoot, my mother said, wouldn’t do at all. With my engagement, however, my mother believed that only Mary—with her diligence, stamina, and sweet service—could help her with the heavy lifting a wedding would require. She begged Mary to come—and to leave her child behind. Mary said yes. If Mary had other plans, she changed them. I asked no questions. This blissful ignorance, this disregard, is part of the Dream. 

I’ve understood, over the years, that Mary could not have said no to my mother without risking future work. A ready yes to whatever my mother asked of her—this was an unspoken job qualification. Mary says, of the time, “How do you say no to your mother? It was an impossibility. She was so frantic about the wedding. She said she couldn’t deal with it unless I was there. That’s why I came.” Involved for nine years already with my family, in the charged intimacy that sociologist Judith Rollins names “between women” who share a household as “boss” and “servant,” Mary knew that my father was likely to be volatile and even dangerous as the wedding approached. She knew that my mother needed her kind companionship (and possibly the protection of her presence) just as much as her physical help—an emotional net that my mother did not mind brandishing in order to get what she wanted. 

Mary sacrificed her own needs in coming. As she told me years later, “I really didn’t want to leave my boy. He was at that stage of ‘don’t you go anywhere without me.’ I had no babysitters, had never even been gone from him overnight. When you have your first baby, you think that no one can do the right thing but you. But your mother said she just could not cope with all the things to do if I were not there. After wondering what to do, what to do, and my mother agreeing to keep him, I came.” Like so many new mothers, Mary was certain that no one could care for her child the way she did, and so her next words are particularly chilling. “When I got back home to him, some of the closeness was gone.” 

My family didn’t blink at Mary’s sacrifice of irreplaceable time with her baby. Throughout the “dream wedding,” we would continue to act in ways that epitomized the racism and classism of the time. We would continue to treat Mary as a helpful, indeed desperately needed, adjunct, rather than a full human being. 

Mary flew to Nantucket a week before the wedding, and my mother sent me to pick her up. “Mary’s coming for you, you know,” my mother said. I hear in this a convenient fantasy that Mary was so invested in my happiness that she wouldn’t want to miss helping out with the big day. Perhaps my mother used the story to condone, for herself, pressing Mary to leave her son behind. As I headed out the door for the airport, Mom called out, as though reassuring us both, “Mary loves us. And we love her.” To build a friendship with Mary that merited the claim of love, I would have to open my eyes to everyone’s humanity, find my way to the edge of the (white) Dream, and wake up. 

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