Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Q&A with Wendy Sanford



Photo by Richard Curran


Wendy Sanford is the author of the new book These Walls Between Us: A Memoir of Friendship Across Race and Class. She was the co-author and editor of versions of the classic book Our Bodies, Ourselves from 1973 to 2011. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Q: What inspired you to write These Walls Between Us?


A: My book is the story of a friendship. Mary Norman is an African American woman, and I am white. We met in the summer of 1956, when Mary was 15 and I was 12, and she had come North from rural Virginia as a temporary domestic worker during my family’s summer vacation.


Mary took this job each summer for many years, and she and I gradually became friends. By the mid-1980s, we were both in our 40s. Mary worked full time in corrections as the first female corrections officer in Mercer County, New Jersey. I was active as a feminist and a co-author of Our Bodies, Ourselves.


We were both divorced by then, and both single parents, and we were each for our own reasons lonely out there on that secluded beach. We began walking the beach together after nightfall, and talking more openly with each other about our lives.


After a few years of these walks, Mary said that we should write a book about our friendship. No one would believe it, she said. The story might even get us on Oprah!


Mary and I had been sharing books by Black novelists in that rich 1980s outpouring of literature by black women, and I was working collectively to create OBOS. So, writing a book together seemed very possible to us.


These Walls is the book that resulted 30 years later. It’s the story of Mary Norman’s and my friendship of 65 years; how we each negotiated the alcoholic family that I grew up in and Mary occasionally worked for; the many missteps that I made in our friendship, as a definitely clueless white person.


It’s also about the social movements and classic writings by people of color that taught me to see Mary more fully and to be a more dependable friend. Multiracial feminism, for example, and Black Lives Matter.


The book touches on Mary Norman’s humane and progressive-minded work in corrections at a time when the tide was turning away from rehabilitation and towards punishment, and her deeply community-based ethic of caring.


Q: How was the book’s title chosen?


A: At first Mary and I settled on the title “Walking the Beach at Nightfall,” because so much of our early friendship developed on those beach walks.


As a Black woman and a domestic worker, Mary was welcomed on that elite, upper-class beach only in service to a white employer. So we had to walk at nightfall. But this title, much as we liked it, made the book sound like a summer beach read.


As I mulled and prayed over a better title, the words “these walls between us” came to me. Some friends tried to correct the diction to the walls between us, but I absolutely wanted the intimacy of these walls.


The walls that separate the two of us are not only societal; they are close, they are intimate, they are made of our histories and those of our peoples. Mary approved the new title, and here it is.


Q: How involved was Mary Norman in the writing of the book, and what does she think of it?


A: While Mary Norman had the idea that we should write a book about our friendship, her discretionary time was extremely limited, and I ended up do the actual writing.


The book grew out of the many conversations we had—on walks, in our homes, across kitchen tables, on tape, on the phone, and most recently and very fruitfully through texting.


Ms. Norman read many drafts through the 30 years it took to create the book. She has approved the final version, and what makes me so happy is that her two grown sons like it, too. 


When Mary felt hesitant about doing publicity, due to her age and advanced arthritis, they encouraged her to do it. Now she is willing to participate in media interviews as much as she can.


In a recent interview, she said, “It’s just a privilege, really, to have the story told, and I am happy about it. It had most everything we wanted to put in it, I think… We wanted to note how our friendship has lasted all these years and has been wonderful...and most unlikely, considering our different backgrounds.”


Q: How would you describe the dynamic between the two of you, and how did it change over the years?


A: That changing dynamic is a story that takes approximately 300 pages to tell!


In brief, I believe Mary Norman and I may always reach out to each other across my internalized white dominance and, for Mary, the deference that was absolutely required of domestic workers when she worked for my parents.


I would say a big change between us is the degree of personal truth that we are able to tell each other. We also edit ourselves less and less in conversation.


Finally, we talk more openly about politics as the years go on. We have found to our delight that we share a reliance on MSNBC for both news and sanity. We shared joy at the Obama family’s years in the White House, and despair and fury at the regime that followed.


Q: At a time when this country is wrestling with issues of racial justice, what do you hope readers take away from your story?


A: My hope is that well-intentioned white readers will be drawn into this very personal story of a friendship and come out with more understanding of how racism works within us, more awareness of their own barriers to cross-racial friendship, and a new readiness to join the leadership of people of color in working for racial justice.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: To be honest, I am one of those people who, as we get older, take longer doing everything, and so my main work right now is to be faithful to the commitment I’ve had to carry the book to fruition, which at this point involves learning how to do social media outreach!


For this reason, I am grateful to you for being interested in the book and wanting to do this blog interview. Thank you!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Here is the link to my website, which has a page dedicated to Ms. Norman’s progressively-minded work in corrections from the 1970s to the 1990s: https://bit.ly/TheseWallsBetweenUs.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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