“Why Now?” Episode 16: The Sunlit Path of Racial Justice

A conversation with historian Matthew Pratt Guterl about his new book, “Skinfolk: A Memoir”

On a flight from Vietnam in April 1975 were three siblings, two boys and a girl, all fathered by different African American soldiers. Their mother, Mae, rightly believed that her children would not only be discriminated against because they were racially mixed but because they were a visible sign of her own, probably necessary, collaboration with the occupiers. These children—Bear, Amy, and Peter—landed in Seattle with their belongings, where they were put on a red-eye flight to Philadelphia International Airport and from there onto a van that dropped them off at a farmhouse near Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

Waiting there are Bob and Sheryl Guterl, a white, Catholic, professional couple from suburban New Jersey who had watched the evacuation from afar and already contacted the adoption agency to see if there was a child for them. Bob and Sheryl had a dream, one that they had already embarked on: an interracial family that would enact their progressive principles, commitments that included anti-racism, and zero population growth. Already they have a natural son, Matthew, and his brother, Bug, adopted from Korea shortly after Matt was born. They know they want at least two more children. And on that April morning in 1975, Bob and Sheryl will take custody of five-year-old Bear, the same age as Matt.

Bear will be separated from his siblings—for now.

In fact, Bob and Sheryl Guterl would add three more children to the family after Bear. Sheryl will give birth to another son, Mark. There will be Anna, also from Korea, whose father was a white American serviceman. And last will be Eddie, from the South Bronx, left stranded by the collapse of his community from the twin epidemics of drugs and poverty.

In their white house with the white picket fence in their white New Jersey suburb, Bob and Sheryl would raise the family of their dreams. And all the while, their son Matt—known to other historians and his colleagues at Brown University as Matthew Pratt Guterl—was unconsciously starting to take notes on race and racism. This project would cohere after Bob’s death, three decades later, when Sheryl gave Matt some large, dusty boxes containing the family’s archive. The result is Skinfolk: A Family Memoir (Livewright, 2023), a beautiful and complex book about racial identity, love, and the contradictions of Bob and Sheryl’s dream, listed by the New York Times as one of the 14 books to watch in March 2023.

Matthew Pratt Guterl and his brother Bear waiting for the school bus in 1976. Photo courtesy of Matthew Pratt Guterl.

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