Sarah loves to learn and as a joyous, clever toddler she is growing up in her Philadelphia Aunt’s home where the future is bright. She can be anything, do anything, her Aunt Susie tells her. When her friend starts kindergarten, she wants to follow, and talks her way into the neighborhood Catholic school – even though she’s only four. She’s advanced to the next grade at the end of the year. Except her mother returns and takes her back to South Carolina. She leaves the only home she’s known. A place where she was encouraged to ask questions, seek out answers, and aspire to become whatever she could dream. Dreams are dust in a place defined not by ability, but the color of your skin.
Primary Lessons is the true story of Sarah Bracey White’s childhood and coming of age. This is a personal story reflecting the struggle and trauma of systemic cultural racism and its cousin classism in mid 20th century America. While the setting of Philadelphia is a small part of the book, this provides a comparative backdrop for all that follows. In those crucial early years of 0 – five, Sarah lives in a nice middle class home in a big city, enjoys the ease of indoor plumbing and is encouraged in her creativity and questioning about the world. In Sumter, South Carolina, she is brought back to a family she’s never known. Despite her single mother’s quite respectable position as school teacher, the family lives in poverty, crowded in a small shack compared to Aunt Susie’s home, without plumbing and an outhouse for a toilet. The once distant mother is now ruling her every movement, older sisters perceive her in the way or a nuisance and she has no friends to play with except her paper dolls. Instead of encouragement, she now hears she isn’t old enough. Instead of school she plays alone. Instead of possibility, her life is defined by what she cannot do because of the color of her skin, aggravated by the perception her mother has about what is proper and respectable all driven by her mother’s own demons fueled by the inequities of Jim Crow south. Where a question once brought learning and discovery, now it can as easily bring a slap for endangering the family or future.
Singular events define Sarah’s life. The story presents well how young children learn to interact with their world based upon those decisions they make when small about how their world works and how to protect themselves from hurt. There is a great deal of hurt in Primary Lessons. The harsh impact racism had and continues to have in this country is ever-present.
There is also a great deal of perseverance. Sarah rebels and chafes against the restrictions of southern society and segregation personified in her mother. She grows up longing to belong, for a real family that would envelop her in the love she remembered from her time with Aunt Susie. She will not give in to fate. She will prevail. In the process, she will learn how close love and hate are in a family, hope often wears the mask of despair for its own survival and that every dream requires sacrifice.
About the author:
Sarah Bracey White was born in Sumter, SC. She is a librarian, teacher and motivational speaker. As a long-time arts consultant to the Town of Greenburgh, she designed and manages a creative writing program for children, edits an annual edition of their short stories and sponsors an annual poetry contest. 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; Gardening On A Deeper Level and Heartscapes. Her essays have been published in many regional newspapers and on the internet. Her memoir, Primary Lessons, was published by CavanKerry Press in September, 2013. She lives with her husband in Westchester County, NY.
Sarah was interviewed for Three by Five in July.