These Walls Between Us
As a white woman with a long-standing interest in understanding race and racism in the United States, I have read many books that examine the structures of racial inequality in the United States and beyond. Books such as The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee, The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, The Debt by Randall Robinson, The Warmth of Other Suns and Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, and How to be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi are a few of many books that have opened my eyes to the structures that create and maintain a racial divide.
In These Walls Between Us: A Memoir of Friendship Across Race and Class, Wendy Sanford, a white woman from a wealthy background, applies, through close observation, that history to her own life and offers readers, with great honesty and vulnerability, a description of a decades-long struggle to recognize the ways in which these institutions have affected her ability to befriend a Black woman with whom she shared a great deal, including a love of reading and a love for Sanford’s alcoholic parents. I know Wendy, though not well, through my Quaker meeting, so I was especially curious to dive into her book soon after it was published.
Sanford first met Mary Norman (then Mary White), in the mid-1950s, when Sanford was 12 and White was 15. White, a Black teenager, had been hired by Sanford’s parents to serve as a domestic servant during a family vacation on Nantucket. Early in the book, Sanford’s description of White’s journey from rural Virginia to Nantucket orients white readers to geographic and social distance White traveled. From that beginning, Sanford carries us through marriages, divorces, child-bearing, and changes to careers and sexual identities as the two girls grow into womanhood and friendship.
While the idea for the book came from Norman, Sanford did the writing, skillfully reporting both her impressions and perceptions at different times over the years and what she subsequently learned from her conversations with Norman and her own investigations into her white privilege. Sanford’s facility as a writer moves readers smoothly through different eras of history, skillfully inserting background insights to explain Norman’s circumstances and her own cluelessness about those circumstances. The account reflects tremendous courage on the part of both women, as well as the investment required to reach the depth of friendship they finally achieved in their seventies.