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ANOTHER KIND OF FAMILY
It sounded like a heartwarming, interesting read when I picked up the book and read the back-cover blurb: A white, Philadelphia Quaker, middle-aged lesbian couple offer a place to live, and even legal guardianship, to a couple of Black Muslim teenagers who are threatened with losing custody of their triplets. The government welfare establishment, in its compartmentalized wisdom, finds the teenagers economically and emotionally incapable of caring for the babies. The punchline: This is not fiction.
In Walk With Us: Triplet Boys, Their Teen Parents, & Two White Women Who Tagged Along (Crandall, Dostie & Douglass), Elizabeth Gordon and her partner, Kaki Nelson, are at an age where coming out is an almost-distant memory. But like most starry-eyed lovers, the acts of consummating passion include sharing life histories while lying in one another's arms. Kaki's history includes being subjected to a classic intervention (of the type usually employed with alcoholics and drug addicts) arranged by her loving, prosperous, middle-class parents to save their only child from making the life-destroying "choice" of living a lesbian lifestyle. Elizabeth's experience with her working-class Irish family, riddled with alcoholism and abuse, is more direct, manifesting as name-calling and predictions of hellfire and damnation.
The blush is still on the rose of newfound love for Elizabeth (the author of the memoir) and Kaki when Lamarr, the black teenager Kaki met through volunteer work, shows up at their door asking for the use of their shower and, incidentally, a temporary shelter for his 14-year-old pregnant girlfriend. It is an almost casual beginning for the intensely challenging time that is ahead for their relationship.
The pair plunge themselves into a culture about which they know nothing. In the course of their association with the young black couple, they get a first-hand appreciation of a world where people expect to spend more time standing in line for services than receiving services, where people expect to be treated with bored disregard, where people expect to be defined by what they don't have and can't do. Like most family groups bound together by mutual need and caring, the serendipitous family of two middle-aged white lesbians, two black teenagers, and three growing babies explodes into pieces of hurt and misunderstanding, suffers the pain of humility learned, then reassembles in a form more supportive of the people they have become through the experience. Gordon quotes Hannah Arendt: "The only power we can have over the past is forgiveness."
One of the themes that colors this narrative is that long-term racism does not remain one-sided, but bifurcates into a two-way mistrust, creating a balance that erects a wall between human beings. This is no doubt true of all in-group/out-group circumstances. In the GLBT community we see a gay/straight polarization that is felt by many. Straights yell "faggot" and gays yell "breeders," each reducing the other to less-than-human sexual organs. It is the gender version of "nigger" and "honky."
In Walk with Us, seven people lay themselves bare to show us how this works and point us in a better direction. I had expected a story about the difficulties of being lesbian and the problems of cultural differences. I was blind-sided by a story of love and hope and excruciating, debilitating racism. For anyone who wants to understand cultural differences, who wants to understand the roots of poverty, ignorance and bigotry, Elizabeth Gordon has given us a window into that world. She shares her acquired wisdom (and continuing feeling of insufficiency) with palpable honesty and elegant metaphor. She sees her young charges as "caught by accident under the bell jar of her misery" and as "a nail head under the hammer of minimum wage." Gordon is a writer who thinks visually and paints with her pen, and she has created a classic work on racism.