In The Rising Podcast

Episode 109: Wendy Sanford, Author of These Walls Between Us

October 19, 2021 Bettina M. Brown Episode 115
In The Rising Podcast
Episode 109: Wendy Sanford, Author of These Walls Between Us
Show Notes Transcript

 In a year when racism has made headline news over and over again – how can we break down the walls to understand the life experiences of others who are not like us? Friendships.

                In her new book - THESE WALLS BETWEEN US - author Wendy Sanford, a white woman, tells a story of her 60-year friendship with her family’s live-in Black domestic worker, Mary Norman. They met as teenagers.

                The book gives insight about race, class, gender, family, and friendship. It’s a story of constantly-unfolding self-knowledge and ever wider understanding of how we are divided by race and class—and of two women's decades-long determination to reach for friendship across those boundaries.


Wendy Sanford website:


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Speaker 1:

[inaudible]

Speaker 2:

Hello and welcome to in the rising podcast. My name is Bettina brown, and this is the platform I've chosen to talk about living a life that's in alignment with your hopes, your dreams, and your goals, and walking away from the shame and blame. And my guest today is Wendy Sanford, the author of the walls between us, a memoir of friendship across race and class. And in this book, she really highlights the sixties, the seventies, the eighties, and how her entire perspective was from the generation before. And of course the generation before that, in an era, when we are looking for inclusivity and trying to open up diversity, we also know that , um, things are not always the way we want them to be, right. Where sometimes just as far back as we were, but she's shares her insight. And I'm really excited to share this conversation with you.

Speaker 3:

Well, thank you for your time, Ms. Sanford. Thank you so much.

Speaker 4:

Thank you, Bettina . I'm very glad to be here.

Speaker 3:

All right. So I wanted to get right to the gist of it because you wrote , um , a phenomenal book, these walls between us, a memoir of friendship across race and class. And I found it powerful , um, because I, myself am biracial. So I am white. I am black, or African-American how some people refer to it. And , um, I felt the conflict from both. And so it was really an eye-opening experience also from both sides, because I kind of have both in one person. Right. So this was really a great book. Um, and thank you so much for time. So you, you wrote this with your friend , share a little bit how this book came into origin, how it came to birth.

Speaker 4:

Okay. Well, I have to start back when Mary Norman , uh, was , uh , 15 years old and I was 12 and I won't take forever, but it's got to go back there because my family, my upper middle-class white family went on a vacation , uh, in the summer of 1956. And , uh, my mother hired a young black woman , uh , to come be her helper, really her domestic worker for that time. And that was married . She came all the way up from Virginia, rural Virginia in what was really one of the late waves of the great migration. She came up, her aunt had gotten her, the job, her aunt lived in New Jersey. Her aunt helped her housed her while she did the long trip. And she finally made it to the coast, the very, very white coast of Massachusetts , uh, an area of Massachusetts that was , um , just all kind of upper, upper middle-class white people. And she was 15 years old going on 16. And she was to do all the hard work and the family while we had vacation . And I was 12. So I w it wasn't like I was, I was , uh, a baby that she was taking care of, but still her job involved, studying what I liked and finding out what I liked and what I wanted to do and what my parents liked. And I was not encouraged as a young white girl at that time to be very curious about her. Uh, you know, I grew up with these illusions of white superiority that I picked up from my family, from watching TV from anything, you know, at that time in the, in the fifties. And , um, so , uh , I think we were friendly, but she really learned much more about me than I ever learned about her for a long, long time and then other things. And she came back every summer just about, because my FA she did such a good job, and my parents thought they just couldn't have a good vacation without Mary being there. And she, so she supplemented her income of her regular job for years and years and years doing that job. And so we would see each other every summer. And as we both changed in life , uh, we both got married, got divorced, were single parents. She had , uh , her own career in , um, uh, corrections as she was leading the way for women in the correct incorrections in New Jersey as the first woman officer , um, in the, in the Mercer county, New Jersey. And , um, I was becoming a feminist activists and thinking about women's lives. And , um, uh, and then as I started getting some feedback as a white feminist, that white feminists were just acting like we were leading the whole movement, and we were the, we were the big story and that we could say, we think this, and we think that and speak for all women. And it was a rude awakening and a really important wakening with a criticism from black , uh, health activists that we were focusing on issues that were important, but that were completely leaving out some of the key health issues for, for black women, for instance. So I started on a mission of reading everything I could about, and by black women, because my education to that point had been all white people. I majored in English. So I read all books by white men , uh , uh, mostly upper class white men at the time. This was, was in the fifties and sixties. Um, so we started Mary and I started walking the beach together and talking about our lives. And you can imagine we couldn't do it during the daytime, cause it was a very elite beach and she had to be in her uniform and her little white uniform to go on the beach and to be serving people. So we started walking at night , uh, and talking about our lives and that's how we started to become friends and the stories. So doesn't stop there because a lot of what I learned as a white person and a lot of the racist ways of thinking and the ignorance about Mary's life really affected our friendship and affected some things I did and said in the friendship that ended up hurtful microaggressions that I wasn't even aware of. So as I kept learning , uh, at, we kept telling each other more of the truth. That's how I see it. Um, and when I became a lesbian, I , um, I didn't want to tell , I didn't tell her at first for a whole year, although she knew she knew immediately. I mean, the , the level of , um, uh, perceptiveness that she had to draw on working for this fan for a white family , uh, uh, was so powerful. She just knew I was in love with this woman I kept talking about, and she didn't want me to tell my parents cause it would have been pretty bad for me if , if I did. But when I finally told her, she said, I knew that a year ago.

Speaker 3:

So she, she really knew you because her survival and her like her summer jobs, like the return was also dependent on her being very perceptive. And yours was not at that.

Speaker 4:

Exactly, exactly. Patina. You

Speaker 3:

Wrote this in , in the book you said, and I'm going to quote, my parents valued. Mary's invisibility, her gift for doing her work without drawing notice to herself, they would have said that they saw her as a human being, but they wanted her like furniture to be invisible. When you hear that now, and you have this conversation or any conversation with Mary or any personal color, how does that make you feel like we've evolved or have we

Speaker 4:

Really evolved as a human race? You mean , um , that's, you know, that's a question for the ages. I can say. I hope I've evolved. It's been a long study and I still do read, mostly works by, by people of color. And that's partly so I don't ask my black friends to teach me because that's a burden they don't need. Um, and , uh, I think I'm much more aware now that there's a whole life that person's in a whole life that's been affected by , um, some of the things that have given me , uh, comfort. Uh, and so , uh, not to , to bring guiltiness in, but to bring awareness in and to understand that we haven't been moving on a level playing field on the same playing field. Uh, so, and have we evolved as a human human beings or as, as you people in the U S around that , um, oh, I'd love to say we have, and I think some areas have, but you look at, I just so upset by the return of Haitian immigrants to , uh , migrants back to a country that's so torn by , um, earthquake and storm and flood and , um, you know, or the , uh, the continuing killings of, of black people by police who shouldn't even have guns as far as I'm concerned. Um, so , uh, have we progressed maybe some individuals on an individual basis, there's a whole lot of work that the country has to do. And I felt that as a white person, what I, what I could do is be as transparent as I could about my own errors of understanding and judgment , uh, so that white people might read the book and talk about it and think, oh, I've done that same thing. Let's think about this, or let's talk about it in our family, or let's, you know , um, start some of that deep change that's needed.

Speaker 3:

I really enjoyed that. You talked about your family history as well. Like you described that your family, and I don't remember who it was, was a Riker and their new Amsterdam. And I thought, wait a minute, it wasn't that New York. And I'm like Rikers island, like that was somehow into family. And to just think that that was your background, you, you were unconsciously in this place of not knowing it was not necessarily intentional, but that was how you were raised, but now you made a conscious decision to learn more. And that is everyone. Yes .

Speaker 4:

Yeah , yeah .

Speaker 3:

You , in several places in the book, you describe yourself, you describe a situation you say later, I realized later, I think about later, I see, I know you described earlier how people were telling you, Hey, your, your view is a little bit different, but when was later like a gentle, gradual, or was it really just like a Powell for you one time? I'm like, wow.

Speaker 4:

So there were so many moments like that. And that's why the book took so long to write. But there was one moment that, that I, that is very important for me to remember, which is in my reading , uh , in, I would , this is around the time I was in my forties. I was in seminary and I read and studied and really worked hard to understand a book by a woman named Anne moody. African-American woman who grew up in Mississippi book is called coming of age in Mississippi. And it was a real eye-opener to me about sharecropping, about Jim Crow and about the , um, survival of this young woman , uh, partly by writing about it and partly, but by becoming an activist. And , uh, I, I gave, I was reading it and I mentioned it to Mary and she said, she'd like to read it. So I lent her my copy and she stayed up all night, reading it. And the next morning I said, what did you think of the book? And she looked at me and she said, Wendy, that was my life. And that was the moment that you just mentioned the , of just everything opened up to me. I thought, oh my God, if Ann Moody's life in Mississippi was Mary's life. I think of her as my friend and I do not know her at all. So that was, you know, that was one step. That was really important.

Speaker 3:

Yeah. You described too that , uh , you know , certain areas where she just seems like she has this, she , um , we're married. Just gives a little sentence, but holds back a little sentence, like a little glimmer, but she understands what you don't understand. Did you feel that she was always like welcoming to slowly teach you and show you at your learning pace?

Speaker 4:

Uh, so I do think we started talking more of the truth to each other, but it was very slow and it, and in fact , uh , she once told me to stop walking on eggshells. If I kept, if I did, if I kept walking on eggshells around her, around racial issues, she wouldn't be able to talk to me the way she did that was like 40 years ago. Just last year we were talking, we text a lot. So that's , that's how we communicate a lot right now. And , um, uh, and she texted , uh, we were talking about how I used to think she was workaholic because she worked three jobs. I had no idea what it's like to be a working class person who one job isn't enough. Particularly if you want to try to own your own home , uh, if you're black and the housing, you know, the bank is charging you higher , uh , mortgage fees, them they're charging white people because of where you live. Um, you, you need to work three jobs. And, and the fact that I thought she was workaholic is just shows how little I knew at the time. So I used to say, please just give up one of those jobs, you're harming your health, blah, blah, blah. And so we were talking about this very recently and she said , um, I knew how much you didn't know. I knew that you didn't. She said, and I actually had to walk on eggshells around you too . So here we are full circle. She had asked me not to walk on eggshells. And then finally let me know. There was so much of her life. She didn't tell me because I wouldn't have heard it. Right. I wouldn't have heard it. I wouldn't have let it in. And now, so when I say that, we , we tell each other more of the truth. That's a huge thing to say for me that we tell each other more of our truth.

Speaker 3:

Dan's to both of your characters, that, that you're able to live in your truth and be open to one another, instead of having the fists up, basically metaphorically of your different color, but to allow those walls to come down and have this, that speaks a lot to you. And you described even a moment where it's not just a racial book, it's also classes things that we don't talk about in the United States class structure. And I think the story was that your mom was kind of shocked that Mary didn't have money a day or two before. And it's something that's very familiar to me that has happened in my life, but the way you describe her shock, because for some people that is a shock to not have money at any day of the week to that, they'll forget about a payday . And there are others that they think about payday, the next payday right here. They're really thinking, you know ,

Speaker 4:

Calculating what's going.

Speaker 3:

So they're already thinking that the class structure so far as socioeconomic status was also highlighted in this book, not just race.

Speaker 4:

Yeah. I think , uh , uh , at least in the context of this story, I couldn't talk about one without the other.

Speaker 3:

And you also said about feminism that you had your child and you were having some postpartum depression feeling a little sad. And you, you talked to your doctor and your , after your son, Matthew was born and he , the doctor told you not to expect too much from your husband, that he was busy from work. And that , that, you know, you needed to move on, but this is your quote. You said that a nuclear family was a lonely place from others . And there wasn't always that support. How did you feel like you were finally able to gain some support from where you describe where you were at that time to now, you know, an activist and , and feminist author, how do you feel you were able to find that support? And

Speaker 4:

It has a lot to do with my friend, Esther, who , uh , started going to this women's group , uh, that were talking about women's bodies. And she thought it would be good for me, cause I was so depressed to come and just be with a women's group and learn about childbirth and sexuality and all those things. And she told me to go and I didn't go because if you're depressed, you usually don't go do something that would be for you. So the next day she picked me up and took me there. And , um, I walked into a room full of women, white as I didn't notice at the time they were all white, but we were all white and , um , some were nursing babies, et cetera. And they were talking about sex and they were using words out loud that I had never, ever even whispered about women's bodies. And , um, uh, I was very quiet and listened, listen, listened. And then we broke down into small groups, which is a pedagogy I didn't even know yet , uh, which is a great pedagogy. And I went into my small group and there were a lot of mothers of small children there. And we did talk about sex for awhile . We've talked about , um, women's orgasm and, and , uh, how to teach your partner, what pleased you , but they didn't really want to learn because if he was a male partner, he really felt he should know everything already. You know, we talked about all that , um, which I hope has changed, but you never know. Um, cause this was 19 60, 19 70. Um, and uh, then they started talking about postpartum depression and two or three women in the group had had postpartum depression and started to study it a bit. And I learned that night that what I was experiencing, wasn't my fault, that there were reasons for it that the nuclear family was pretty lonely for women and , uh , probably for men too, but for me, and , um, that there were physical reasons and societal reasons. And one woman said I'm studying up on it so that I can be sure that other women don't go through what I went through. And that is the women's health movement in a nutshell. And it just, I felt such relief that I stayed with the women's health movement for the next rest of my life. So that's, I think what helped me come out of isolation and I was so lucky,

Speaker 3:

So much to offer. The last question I'm going to ask is what, what are your goals or intentions with this book and your story? What would you like to, what, what is the impact or legacy you would like to leave?

Speaker 4:

Well , thank you for asking that. Um, Mary and I have talked about that a lot. Um, and uh, I think that we hope that , um , people of color who read it , uh, find that it's authentic and honest and accurate, and we hope that white people who read it will start thinking about their own lives. And just say, one friend of mine said, oh, Kevin's I did so many of those things to , you know, a friend who read it. Um , and will , I hope that white people will buy it, we'll talk with each other. We'll take it to a book club and talk about it and bringing their own life to it. And , um, see the ways they've been carrying obstacles within them, that they didn't even know about , uh, to interracial friendship and , um, to working for justice. I hope that some activism will come out of it. Also

Speaker 2:

What an inspiring story that Wendy Sanford had to share. And also her friend, Mary, you know, these are women that lived and grew up in a different time than me, but still shared their experiences. They were a product of their experiences as much as we are a product of ours, but that does not mean we don't have the option and the responsibility to open our own eyes and adjust our behavior. So if you found this podcast, riveting and worthwhile, go ahead and share it. Um, or also leave a five-star review. It does so much for the podcast and it helps put it in the hands and the ears of those that will benefit from it. And until next time let's keep building one another up.