by Sarah Bracey White
As an African-American child growing up in the segregated pre-Civil Rights South, Sarah Bracey White pushed against the social conventions that warned her not to rock the boat, even before she was old enough to fully understand her urge to defy the status quo. In her candid and poignant memoir, Primary Lessons, White recalls a childhood marked by equal measures of poverty and pride—formative years spent sorting through the “lessons” learned from a complicated relationship with her beloved, careworn mother and from a father’s absence engendered by racial injustice and compromised manhood.
Although born in Sumter, South Carolina, Sarah spends much of her first five years in Philadelphia in the care of her bighearted Aunt Susie and her husband, Uncle Whitey. As her parent’s fourth daughter, she has been sent north to ease her family’s financial burden, freeing her mother to work as a schoolteacher. Young Sarah loves her life in Philadelphia, and is devastated when her mother comes to retrieve her and take her back to a “home” she has never known. There, she is shocked and confused to encounter strange signs that read “colored only” and to be told for the first time that black people must behave a certain way around white people and accept their lot as second class citizens.
Still too young to attend the public school, Sarah convinces her mother to enroll her in the Catholic school, where the nuns arrange a scholarship. Sarah’s embrace of Catholicism rankles her mother, who finally transfers her to the public school—yet another disruption in the young girl’s life. Life at home is tough, the family living hand to mouth, especially during the summer when her schoolteacher mother does not get paid. Sarah’s father, once the principal of the local school, took the fall for his co-workers when the NAACP tried to challenge unequal pay for black teachers. His dismissal was a monumental blow to his self-esteemed that deeply affected the trajectory of his life. He has been absent from the family, seeking manual labor, and Sarah does not lay eyes on him until she is ten—and then only for a very brief period.
As Sarah’s mother struggles to support her five children on her own, she clings to her pride. But her acceptance of her fate infuriates Sarah, who believes her mother should seek some pleasure in life and not shrink from the nascent rumblings for civil rights that are beginning to sound in the South. Sarah comes into her own as she enters high school, discovering a talent for journalism. But life at home continues to be a challenge as her mother’s health worsens. With her older sisters out of the house and her brother still young, Sarah becomes her mother’s keeper. Deep tragedy will prove oddly liberating, however, opening up a world beyond Sumter for a young woman ready to take on the world.
Narrated in the present tense, White’s singular childhood story unfolds with the expectancy of life as it happens. “The point of any successful memoir is to discover what the speaker learns on their journey,” writes Kevin Pilkington, author of Ready to Eat the Sky and The Unemployed Man Who Became a Tree in his foreword to Primary Lessons. “[I]t is a trip worth taking when it teaches and enlightens and encourages me to revisit and solidify profound truths I already know to be true. Sarah Bracey White’s journey is a continuous struggle to find her way, a struggle I found both difficult and inspirational. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ Young Sarah becomes aware of this at an early age, realizing being born poor and black is not the measure of a person’s value.”
About Sarah Bracey White
Sarah Bracey White was born in Sumter, South Carolina. She is a writer, teacher, arts consultant and motivational speaker. The author of a collection of poetry, Feelings Brought to Surface, her creative essays are included in the anthologies Children of the Dream; Dreaming in Color, Living in Black and White; Aunties: 35 Writers Celebrate Their Other Mother; and Gardening On A Deeper Level. Her essays have been published in many regional newspapers and on the internet. She lives with her husband in Westchester County, NY.