Friends Journal, August 2022, review by Steve Chase
Thankfully, there have always been the prophetic few among us who have shown the path toward a beloved community of justice, peace, and equality. These people are to be treasured as important patterns and examples of wisdom, enlightenment, and compassion. I therefore want to lift up two recent books that reflect their authors’ journeys to becoming, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “creatively maladjusted” to social evil.
The first book, These Walls Between Us, is written by Quaker author Wendy Sanford, who offers fiercely honest stories about her own decades-long struggle to leave behind a conformist outlook that left her “with a large dose of internalized superiority and a habit of dominance.” It helps that Sanford, one of the coauthors of the feminist classic Our Bodies, Ourselves, grew into a deepening awareness of her own oppression as a woman and lesbian. Yet the ultimate power of her book is her remarkable ability to interrogate her own experience and upbringing as a person shaped by both class and White privilege.
There Sanford highlights the story of her repeated Nantucket encounters with her parents’ summer domestic servant Mary Norman—a poor, working-class African American woman about Sanford’s age from the Jim Crow South. Slowly and fitfully, she explores her years of perpetuating small, medium, and large aggressions and indignities against Norman, while also sharing their long journey to break through the social walls between them to become true friends across the boundaries of race and class. Sanford’s story is filled with telling examples of her journey—often made up of moving two steps forward and one step back—on the road to gaining insight into the social power dynamics that harmed and limited these two women who were from very different backgrounds, making real friendship between them almost impossible.
Yet that is not the end of the story. Through reading dangerously; becoming active in social justice movements; engaging with the best of her Quaker spirituality; learning about her own oppression; listening carefully to her supposed “inferior”; hearing Norman’s challenges; and reflecting deeply on their intertwined histories, differing social worlds, and complex experiences together, Sanford ultimately becomes capable of being a supportive and caring friend with Norman. Their early, warped relationship as “skilled, attentive server and sometimes conflicted beneficiary” ultimately heals and moves toward a more just and beneficial relationship over time. It is a moving journey.
Steve Chase is a member of Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.) and the author of the Friends General Conference book Letters to a Fellow Seeker: A Short Introduction to the Quaker Way.
Midwest Book Review
A treasured contribution to the growing numbers of African-American biographies, and a timely, valued, and recommended addition to community, college, and university Race Relations and Contemporary American Biography & Memoir collections, it should be noted for personal reading lists that "These Walls Between Us: A Memoir of Friendship Across Race and Class" is also readily available in a digital book format (Kindle, $8.99).
Wisconsin Bookwatch: February 2022
James A. Cox, Editor-in-Chief, Midwest Book Review
A memoir of a relationship between a domestic worker and her employer’s daughter.
Sanford, a founding member of the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective and co-author and co-editor of multiple editions of Our Bodies, Ourselves, offers a riveting account of her friendship with her family’s housekeeper. Growing up in a well-off WASP family, Sanford experienced all the perks of their world. The story begins with the arrival of a young Black domestic worker named Mary White, who was just 15—barely older than the author—when she started working for the family in 1956. The book chronicles the changing dynamics of their relationship—which became a close friendship—along with Sanford’s own process of moving away from her privileged milieu and later coming out as a lesbian. White was never treated“like one of the family” even though she became an invaluable member of the household—even caring for the author’s mother when she was seriously ill. She worked for Sanford’s family for many years in many capacities, even after finding work as a corrections officer. The author tells of how White managed and covered for severe family problems, including both parents’ alcoholism and Sanford’s father’s abusive behavior. She also describes how White’s work led to a great deal of self-sacrifice, including following Sanford’s parents to Florida when they retired there, and why she did so wasn’t always about money. Over the course of this book, the author reflects on the personal growth and increasing awareness that accompanied her changing relationship with White. Along the way, she effectively highlights the uneasy dance that she undertook as they moved away from an employer-employee dynamic and how she learned to let White do her job when she was on the job (“My resistance to her proffered help assaulted her in ways I would later come to regret”). Overall, it’s an excellent and revealing account of their friendship, although it’s likely to make readers wish that White could have written a parallel memoir telling her own story.
A moving account of awareness of privilege and the courage to move beyond it.