Monday, May 25, 2015

Primary Lessons: A Memoir 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.” (Press release from CavanKerry Press) 
Photo taken in 1963 at Sarah's Debutante Cotillion, age 17
I don’t normally quote a press release when introducing a book, but I couldn’t improve on this synopsis of Sarah Bracey White’s memoir. I first “met” Sarah in the pages of Childrenof the Dream: Our Own Stories of Growing Up Black in America. After reading about her experiences as a Sumter, South Carolina teen working in a camp for wealthy New England girls, I friended her on Facebook and told her about my work-in-progress. She promptly sent me a copy of her memoir which, has since helped fuel writing Half-Truths. I think Sarah's memoir is best revealed in her own words.
The city buses are a sore spot for me. We don’t have a car, and I seldom have a dime to ride the one that travels from Liberty Street downtown to the shopping area. Even if I did, I wouldn’t want to ride the bus because I hate sitting at the back. Maybe we are poor, but even if we had extra money, it wouldn’t change the thing I hate most: the fear colored adults exhibit toward white people, even white children. (p. 127)
Sarah with her family (minus her father). She's the young lady in front,
about nine years old.
At one point their small house is vandalized. Sarah writes,
Even though we had nothing of value, it’s frightening to think that strangers have spent the day in our house—on my bed. Why had they picked our house? Would they come back?... Why had they smashed them [the figurines]? Were they angry because they found no money or valuables? Whoever they were, they had to be colored. White boys stood out too much in a colored neighborhood to consider mischief like this. (p. 131)

Sarah's home in Sumter, SC
 She recalls the role of supportive teachers:
Maybe my teachers like me because they can see that I’m an outsider, trying to fit into a life I don’t want. Or maybe they like me because they like my mama and know the hardships she endures. Whatever the reasons, my teachers are a source of comfort. They give me approval and confidence. By the time I reach high school, they no longer tell me to stop talking so much. In fact, they encourage my outspokenness and open doors that make it possible for me to use my gifts in ways that benefit me. (p. 142)
Sarah writes: "Lincoln Jr./Sr. High School on Council Street. Here, I learned the basics that allowed me to reach higher ground. It was also the place where teachers and classmates quenched my thirst.This school was not integrated until 1971."
In an unusually frank conversation her mother admitted,  
"Mama. . . Still young and hopeful. Roberta Bracey White"
“The people in this town. They always said I wasn’t good enough for your daddy. He came from a fine respectable family, and I came from nothing. They used to say my real daddy was a white doctor who my mama worked for. 

I’m shocked by Mama’s confession. “Is it true?” I ask. 
“I don’t know. I was always scared to ask my mama about it. When I was about ten, I went over to the doctor’s house and hid behind a tree until he came home. I wanted to see if I looked like him.” 
“Did you?” 
“Not one bit! I didn’t look like my daddy either.” Mama pauses. Her eyes glaze, and she sighs deeply. “I loved my daddy. He used to call me his sunshine. Said I was the light of his life and that it was my job to banish the darkness. I never understood what he meant by that. I love the darkness. In the darkness, I’m the same color as everybody else.” (p. 164-5)
When Sarah asked her mother why she didn’t move north like her siblings did, her mother replied, “When you move out of the south you leave your past behind. The only thing that counts up north is how much you got in your pocket. Everybody up north is running away from their past. The past is all I’ve got."

Sarah wrote, "Today I feel like she has exposed the rusty chain that holds her prisoner in Sumter." (p. 165-6)

"My mother, the teacher"

When Sarah is getting ready to make her debut she considers, 
Until those cotillion classes, I’d only been given instructions on what not to do. A long list of restrictions seemed to say that I was the problem, that my only for survival was to be invisible. But I don’t want to be invisible. I want to stand above the crowd and shine. That’s not the life plan for young colored girls like me. Yet being selected as a debutante has nurtured a rustling hope inside me. Maybe, just maybe, I can escape my fate.(p. 176)
At the cotillion she thinks,
Tonight the fact that we're colored doesn't matter. Tonight I feel like a princess, smiled upon and feted by people I respect and who respect me. Tonight I'm more than just another poor little colored girl living in the shadows. I'm filled with the infinite possibilities of who I can become. (p.179)
Sadly, two weeks after that special evening, Sarah's mother suddenly dies. At the funeral Sarah looks at her mother and thinks, "She looks more peaceful now than she ever looked alive." (p.197)

Sarah has no choice but to continue carrying out her plans. In 1963, she works as kitchen help in Vermont before entering college and receives an education:
When I ask Mrs. Lee [the woman who supervises the help] why we can't ride the horses or swim in the lake she smiles sadly and says, "We're the help, and the help doesn't mingle with the campers." Up north, it seems segregation is a matter of class and skin color. 

Despite my anger at these restrictions, I am shamelessly curious about the campers. Never before have I been in such close proximity to so many white people. Daily it gets easier to eavesdrop on their conversations as they grow used to our brown presence and we become about as significant as the pine trees. No one worries about a pine tree hearing secrets. Soon I learn that white skin brings no solace from problems, that money doesn't ensure smooth boy-girl relationships or prevent sadness and heart ache. I also learn that white girls are cruel to other white girls. I had always assumed that whites were only cruel to colored people. I'm especially shocked to learn that white girls openly envy one another's looks. Almost every girl wants to be blond (I always thought long hair of any color was beautiful) and that every white girl would die for a perfect tan. I don't understand why they want to have skin like ours if they don't like colored people. (p.224)
In another conversation with Mrs. Lee Sarah questions why the white counselors make more money than she does, even though they are all "college girls." 

Mrs. Lee shrugs, just the way Mama used to. "That's how life is," she says. 

I can't understand why adults accept everything. Just because that's the way it's always been doesn't mean that that's the way it should always be. When I get to be an adult, I'm gonna change things. (p.225)
Sarah is now the executive director of arts and culture in the town of Greensburgh, NY and teaches at the Hudson Valley Writers Center For more information about how Sarah is busy "changing things," please visit her website
Sumter County Library Author's Fair
January, 2015

"Finally, a seat at the lunch counter."
Sarah writes, "Places like this [a previously segregated lunch counter in Sumter, SC, ] are always a disappointment to me. We weren't missing anything. ….I wanted to see and document. I spoke with the two black women who have worked here for years."  November, 2013


sheri levy said...

Wonderful post once again. So glad society is moving towards diversity and acceptance.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Sheri!

Vijaya said...

What a lovely book review. A local author has just published a book that pays homage to the Black caregiver she grows up with. It's called Hush, Now Baby. I'm so glad these stories are being told now.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thank you, Vijaya. Yes, these stories are a part of history now.

Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

Very thorough and well-written introduction to this memoir,Carol. I hope I get a chance to read it.

Linda Phillips said...

Interesting to read about her participation in a cotillion. Fits right into your own book!

Linda A. said...

I enjoyed reading this post very much. I'm sure reading Primary Lessons helped you to find your voice for your work-in-progress. Thanks for sharing bits from Sarah Bracey White's memoir. It sounds very interesting.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks to both LInda's and Joyce for taking the time to read and comment!

Rosi said...

Thanks, Carol, for this marvelous post. I enjoyed every word and would love to read Sarah's memoir. Wonderful choices for what you pulled.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Rosi. Glad you enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

Carol, thank you for introducing us to Sarah Bracy White. Her determination and passion are inspiring. Her words in the following quote really stood out to me. “I love the darkness. In the darkness, I am the same color as everybody else.” These words are so true throughout history and even today. It captures the feeling of anyone who society may think is ‘different’ to feel a commonality with everyone else. Unfortunately, some people seem to be blind to this idea in the light of day.

Carol Baldwin said...

Kathleen, what a lovely comment. Yes, that passage stood out for me too. I hope you get to read her book at some point.

Linda said...

This is a wonderful review of "Primary Lessons." I love Sarah's memoir. Reading it, I felt like she did--only in the reverse: Growing up in an all-white neighborhood, Sarah's book allows me the up-close look at what it was like to grow up black in America--like her, something I was always curious about. She helped me understand that we are all the same--same hopes, dreams, problems, emotions. I'm proud to count Sarah as my role model, mentor, and closest of friends.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thank you, Linda, for finding my blog and leaving this comment. You are fortunate to know Sarah so intimately!

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