When the Jim Crow South welcomed Sarah Bracey White with a hard slap, the plucky if bewildered young girl found her power in books and, later, in writing. Here’s an interview with the memoirist whose Primary Lessons (Cavan-Kerry Press, 2013), in its fourth printing, is helping heal the wounds of segregation in a small — and never to be forgotten — South Carolina town.
Women’s Voices for Change named Primary Lessons one of the most lauded memoirs written by women in 2013. Sarah Bracey White’s essays have appeared in Dreaming in Color, Living in Black and White (Simon Pulse, 2003), and Aunties: 35 Writers Celebrate Their Other Mother (Ballantine Books, 2004), among others. She is executive director of Arts and Culture in the Town of Greenburgh, New York, and lives in the Hudson River Valley with her husband, Bob.
AC: What did it mean to you to speak recently at the Sumter [South Carolina] Library?
SBW: The fortress-like Carnegie Library, that I was forbidden to enter as a child, is a now-abandoned building on Liberty Street that I’ve driven past every year I’ve gone to Sumter for high school or family reunions. As an exhibitor at the 2015 local authors book fair at the new library, I wasn’t permitted to read from Primary Lessons or speak as I had requested — it was simply a “book signing.” However, I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a young black librarian who managed the book fair! Much has changed.
AC: There’s a scene in Primary Lessons where you’re waiting in line in the local department store and a white woman cuts in front of you, then a little girl, and your mom. It seems to encapsulate all the elements of your story — can you share what happens?
SBW: Under Jim Crow segregation, colored people (that’s what we called ourselves back then) understood that they could shop in white establishments, but they would only be waited on after all white patrons had been served. When I was about 11, after a sales clerk in the Capitol Department Store walked away from us to help a white woman who had just entered the store, I said, “Come back. We’re next!” My mother slapped me. Another white woman nearby said, “That’s right. Teach that child to stay in her place.”
AC: Your mother’s desire to protect you felt like she was supporting the status quo, and that must’ve hurt.
SBW: I was angry, hurt, confused. I couldn’t understand why my mother let white people treat her the way they did. I wanted her to speak up in her own defense, like I had watched my Aunt Susie do when I was living with her in Philadelphia. I didn’t understand that speaking up could have cost my mother her teaching job, or our lives. (This was only two years after 14-year-old Emmett Till was killed.) I didn’t realize that my mother was simply trying to protect me by making me adhere to the “southern way of life.” She had seen our family torn apart because of my father’s refusal to follow the southern way of life, but I knew none of that and I vowed never to grow up to be like my mother. I was a prime example of the arrogance and ignorance of youth.
AC: You started out in life in Philadelphia, where you had no or little sense of racism or poverty, correct?
SBW: For five years, I lived with my aunt and uncle who owned their own home in an integrated North Philadelphia neighborhood. My aunt ran a laundry business out of her basement and my uncle worked at a hospital. I got everything I wanted. My aunt made me feel that the sun had come up when I ran into her room each morning. I was loved, listened to, and indulged. I watched my aunt shop wherever she wanted and buy whatever she could afford. She demanded respect from salesclerks (white and colored) in stores.
AC: So, when your mother decided to come get and return you, at age four, to the family in Sumter, it seemed like a cruel trick of fate.
SBW: I was absolutely incensed! I thought Aunt Susie didn’t love me enough to fight for me because I’d seen her fight for – and get – everything she wanted. I decided that if she didn’t love me, I wouldn’t love her, or my mother.
AC: How did you cope with the poverty and segregation when you had known neither in Philly?
SBW: More than anything, my return to Sumter deprived me of the emotional support my aunt provided. I went from being an only child in a two-parent family to being one of five children in a single-parent home. My mother had little time to indulge me with the attention I was used to getting. My siblings were much older, and not at all charmed by a smart-mouthed baby sister who thought she was better than they were.
As time passed and I entered Catholic school, I turned to God for consolation. I vowed to become a nun and love only God, who, my teachers had assured me, loved me. My sister told me that I had slept with a rosary under my pillow. After my Methodist mother got tired of my citing Catholic rules and regulations, she put me in public school. I then turned to books for consolation and hope. I loved school and believed that education was the key to my escape back to the life I once knew.
AC: Every African American family has known some racism. When your father, a teacher, attended the first NAACP meeting in Sumter, that simple action altered his life trajectory forever. Tell us what happened.
SBW: The NAACP came to Sumter in the early 40s to seek equal pay for colored teachers. The night after they held one of their clandestine meetings, my father was called into the office of the white, district superintendent and asked to give the names of teachers at his school who had attended the meeting. My father had a wife and three children at the time, but he believed that he was his brother’s keeper; so, he claimed no knowledge of such a meeting.
The superintendent fired my father and promised him that he’d never again teach in South Carolina, or anywhere else. That white man kept his promise. Our family lost everything. Thereafter, my father worked menial jobs in lumber mills and furniture factories — when he could get work. He drank to ease his shame at being unable to provide for his family and became a wanderer.
AC: He ended up like Zora Neal Hurston, working in the orange groves of Florida. Did you ever see him again?
SBW: My father died in Kissimmee nine months after my mother died. He was picking oranges for the Donald Duck Orange Juice Company. I only saw my father twice in my life. First, when I was ten. I answered a knock at our front door and a strange man asked to see my mother. When I stared at him, he said, “I’m your father.” My mother let him stay for dinner, then sent him on his way. The next time I saw my father, I was seventeen and he lay in a casket in Jackson Funeral Home. I searched his face for some resemblance to me. I wrote the poem, “Lasting Impression,” about that experience.
AC: Did you make some promise to yourself to get out of Sumter, or do better than your parents?
SBW: From the time I arrived in Sumter at age four, I planned to get out of Sumter! I lied to Catholic nuns in order to enter school a year early so I could learn to write and send a letter to my aunt. I was sure that if I told her that life in Sumter wasn’t like she told me it would be, she’d come and save me. When she didn’t come, I decided that I had to save myself.
AC: You were pen pals with a white girl. What did that correspondence mean to you, and have you reconnected today with her?
SBW: From age twelve to sixteen, I corresponded with Sharon Yarian, who lived in South Dakota. She was the first white person I actually got to know. Her acceptance of me — without reservation — confirmed what I always thought: If white people simply got to know me, they wouldn’t hate me.
My correspondence with Sharon also taught me that white skin didn’t make life perfect. Like me, she hated the place where she lived and wanted to make a better life someplace else. We talked about attending the same college, Dakota Wesleyan, but my mother scoffed at the idea. She told me not to be fooled by my friendship with “that white girl. Things will change if you go out there to college.”
My last year of high school, I stopped writing to Sharon because I felt guilty having a white girl for a friend when I was reading about the abuse being heaped (by white children and their parents) on black children who were just beginning to integrate white schools.
A few years ago, I began to search for Sharon. The Internet revealed nothing. I contacted Dakota Wesleyan’s alumni office and sent letters to South Dakota newspapers. A few South Dakota genealogists even joined my search. Nothing turned up.
AC: When did you realize you wanted to write?
SBW: I’ve been a reader all my life and a letter writer since age twelve. In addition to Sharon, I exchanged letters with the boy I fell in love with in seventh grade. His father was a Tuskegee airman and his family moved to New Rochelle, New York, the next year. I wrote long descriptive letters keeping him abreast of life in Sumter. Then in ninth grade, I took a journalism class and began to write stories for my school newspaper. I also wrote and delivered over the local radio station a weekly school-news report. When I was named editor-in-chief of my school newspaper, I was naive enough to think that one day, I would be Barbara Walters’s replacement!
AC: How have your parents’ struggles inspired you?
SBW: During one of my book talks, a reader said I have “the survivor’s syndrome.” I didn’t disagree. I work hard at everything I do and excellence is always my goal. My mother and teachers ingrained that in me. I inherited my parents’ abilities and live in a world where I can utilize those abilities in ways they never could. Thus, I’m obligated to live fully — because they couldn’t. I was named for my maternal grandmother, Sarah, who never learned to read or write. When I began to write, I took her last name, Bracey, and made it my middle name so that Sarah Bracey, the illiterate, would have her name on books in libraries.
AC: What authors nurtured, affirmed and/or inspired you early on?
SBW: My early reading included the likes of Willa Cather, John Steinbeck, and Edgar Allen Poe. In college (I attended a HBCU — Historically Black College or University) where I was an English major. There, I was introduced to the works of Claude McKay, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and other Harlem Renaissance writers. I wrote poetry during the 70s and admired Sonia Sanchez, Maya Angelou, and other wordsmiths of color. When Alice Walker rediscovered Zora Neal Hurston and her works became available, I read them. Her tell-it-like-it-is approach to storytelling inspired me, since I considered myself a southern storyteller.
AC: For years you fictionalized your family’s story, and then decided to write memoir. What changed your approach, and what are the challenges of writing autobiography?
SBW: While my husband and I were having breakfast in a Long Island restaurant, I pointed out a waitress who reminded me of an old friend and began to tell my husband about the wild nights my friend and I had enjoyed in Baltimore’s discotheques. “That’s the kind of story you should be writing,” he said. “Not made-up stories. Your life is what people want to hear about.” Now, my husband’s an engineer with no experience in creative writing; so, I scoffed at his suggestions. I wanted to write literary fiction that would “stand the test of time,” not bawdy stories about girls in bars. About this time, my agent was shopping around a work of fiction based on my family’s life in South Carolina. Time and again, publisher reps would ask if the book were a memoir and said that I should write a memoir instead.
I still resisted. Southerners keep family business behind locked lips. How could I reveal all the skeletons in my house? But my husband, Bob, wouldn’t give up. That Christmas, he and my stepdaughter, Lisa, gifted me with a website, www.onmymind.org. “All you have to do,” Bob said, “is write the stories you’ve been telling me and Lisa will put them on your website. People will love it!” Reluctantly, I began to write and people soon emailed me how much they loved my stories. Local newspapers and magazines then published several essays. One, about my 1963 experience as a cook’s helper at a girl’s camp in Vermont, appeared in a Simon and Schuster anthology, Children of the Dream, and later in Dreaming in Color and Living in Black and White. My husband had been right.
Everyone in my family is not happy about all the things I’ve revealed in Primary Lessons and many of the people I talk about are dead! As I work on my second memoir, I still struggle with how much of my truths I should share. For now, I’m writing like it was. I’ll decide later whether or not to delete sensitive details; I don’t want to hurt people unnecessarily.
AC: What has most amazed you about the impact of Primary Lessons on readers?
SBW: That what I consider a small, personal quest to make peace with my ambivalent feelings toward my mother seems to have such universal meanings across color, age, and gender lines.
AC: What is the book doing for people in Sumter – who lived there when you did, and those that live there today?
SBW: The Internet facilitated contact with white southerners who I never expected to reach or interest in reading Primary Lessons. That helped, as I couldn’t get the local paper to print anything about me or my memoir, even though I was a Sumter native and the book is about my early life there. I stumbled upon and joined a Facebook site called “You must be from Sumter if you remember….” One day, on “Throw-Back-Thursday,” I posted a copy of the miniature diploma I received from Lincoln, the segregated high school where I had graduated in 1963.
Someone young asked where Lincoln was, since she had never heard of it. Soon, a thread of conversation erupted as white members my age began to talk about the educational divide that existed before integration took place in Sumter in 1971. Someone made the comment that he had always wondered what life was like for the black students before integration. I immediately responded with a post about Primary Lessons and its story of life in Sumter before integration. Within days, I had a number of “friend” requests from white Sumterites who promised to buy and read my book.
Many did. They made posts encouraging others on the Sumter site to read my book. I was overwhelmed when many white readers commented that they recognized some of the places and people I wrote about! Someone even produced photographs of Lady Moore, an old black woman who rode a bicycle through Sumter in all kinds of weather, collecting reusable things from everyone’s garbage.
AC: So Facebook helped you connect with your readers.
SBW: Yes. My book jacket appeared on these white readers’ home pages and their friends began to buy and read the book. Some sent me private Facebook messages telling their personal stories that illustrated, for me, the dichotomous conditions that existed within the white community during the late 1960s.
A retired teacher said she had been the only white teacher at the black school when integration took place and how nice all the colored teachers had been to her. A seventy-year-old man wrote seeking information about the black woman employed by his father to care for him and his siblings after their mother died.
A white woman wrote a two-page letter about how she too had been cared for by a beloved aunt after her mother died and how she hadn’t wanted to return Sumter when her father remarried. It was as if I had unleashed a pent-up desire for discussion about what life was like for whites during the 1960s.
Some of my white Facebook friends turned up for autographs when I did a signing at “Books-a-Million” and at the Sumter Library. Others sent relatives to get my autograph in their books. I was pleasantly surprised by a white woman who had retired to Sumter from New Jersey and wanted to buy my book in order to learn what Sumter was like “in the old days.”
AC: What’s next for you as an author?
SBW: I’m at work on the second book in the trilogy of my life. It will cover the period from the second semester of college, where Primary Lessons ends, until I marry.
AC: You received a graduate degree, worked for the mayor of Baltimore, and then headed to New York to pursue your dreams. What’s been particularly rewarding about the way your career unfolded?
SBW: My mother always said I was going to be a jack-of-all-trades and master of none because I flitted from one thing to another as a child. So, to quiet my mother’s voice in my head, I earned a master’s degree. It’s been the “jack of all trades” part of my life experience that has served me best. I’ve recreated myself many times over as I’ve acquired new skills – mostly from the “university of the streets.” My current job as executive director of Arts and Culture for the Town of Greenburgh is a job for which I had no professional training, but one that people tell me I’m well suited for, and at which I excel.
AC: Describe the Kids Short Story Connection and what it achieves, and what its graduates have accomplished.
SBW: Twenty years ago, Lindsay Camp, a neighbor’s nine-year-old daughter, rang my doorbell and thrust a sheaf of papers in my hand. “My mother says you’re a writer,” she said. “Can you get my stories published?” At that time, I’d self-published a collection of poems, but had no commercial success under my belt. I’d never taught children but was teaching writing classes at Mercy College. I thought a seminar like the one I taught for adults might work for kids. It did.
The program, The Kids Short Story Connection (KSSC), has served as a haven for young writers. Every other Saturday morning, kids who love to write meet at Greenburgh Town Hall in small classes led by adult writers who teach peer support and constructive criticism. In some years, I’ve had as many as five teachers and fifty students. Many kids join KSSC when they’re nine and stay until they go to college. One graduate, Zach Wigon, had his first premiere at the Tribecca Film Festival a few years ago. Another, Jan Rosenberg, is a playwright and I’ve attended off-Broadway performances of her work. I wish I’d had a program like KSSC when I was growing up.
AC: Your whole life has tracked and, in many respects, benefitted from the Civil Rights Movement.
SBW: Because I didn’t formally participate in the Civil rights Movement, I’ve always felt a sense of guilt that I’ve benefitted from it. I first heard Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on television and it had a profound effect on me.
I grew up in a house where I was taught to hate white people. But Dr. King didn’t preach hatred. He dreamed that the world he lived in would change, and that his little children would one day be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. He verbalized a dream that I held for myself. A dream my mother couldn’t begin to embrace.
I reasoned from Dr. King’s speech that you can’t ask others to give what you’re not willing to give in return. If Dr. King wanted acceptance for his children – and by extrapolation, for me – then I too had to apply those same principles of acceptance to people I had considered my enemy. This idea allowed me to stop being afraid of white people.
Still, I kept an emotional distance from them. Then, when I was forty-four, a white man romantically pursued me who said he’d stick around until I stopped looking at the color of his skin and looked at the color of his heart. After much introspection, I had “a change of heart.” I began to see him as an individual, not a white man. This is what it takes to implement Dr. King’s dream. We each must judge those different from us on their individual attributes, behavior, and character. By the way, that white man and I have been married for 24 years.
AC: Speaking of Dr. King, you met his father and he gave you some insights into his son.
SBW: In the mid 70s, when I was working at Baltimore City Hall, I wrote a speech for the mayor to deliver at the dedication of a park in Dr. King’s memory. When the mayor couldn’t attend the dedication, he sent me. So, I wound up standing next to Dr. King’s father who had come to the ceremony. Rev. King Sr. marveled at his son’s crown and said to me, “When Marty was a boy, we loved him, but we never had any idea he’d grow up to be so loved by so many.”
AC: For years, writer friends had asked you to visit Vermont and you refused – recalling a summer job as a cook, after your mother had died, at a white girls’ camp where you were forbidden to swim in the lake and/or talk to the campers. You finally agreed to visit and when you arrived, there was a letter waiting for you from then Governor Howard Dean. What did he say to you?
SBW: In 1963, immediately after graduation, I worked in the kitchen of a girl’s camp on the shores of Lake Fairlee. I thought I was headed north where freedom for all existed. However, in Vermont, segregation masqueraded as classism. In Vermont, I was “the help” and couldn’t talk to the white campers or counselors. I had to address them as “Miss” even though they were younger or, at best, about my age. I couldn’t swim in Lake Fairlee or ride the camp’s horses. Wherever our little brown band of kitchen helpers ventured offsite, the locals stared at us. That summer added Vermont to the list of places I never wanted to see again.
Then, years later, a friend who owned a summer home in Vermont invited me to visit. For several years, I politely refused. Finally, at her insistence, I drove up. When I arrived at her house, she presented me with a FedEx package. My friend had sent Vermont’s governor, Howard Dean, a letter describing my 1963 experience and inviting him to read my essay, “Freedom Summer,” on my website. He had done so and his letter expressed his apologies for the trauma I had suffered all those years ago. “Vermont has changed,” he said, and he hoped I’d grow to love the state as he did.
AC: And did you swim in that lake?
SBW: Yes, I swam in Lake Fairlee and washed away all the old animosity I had for Vermont. Today, I look forward to my annual summer visit to Vermont.
He disappeared before I could record his face,
and no image of him inhabited our house.
So, I fanned the embers my sisters tried to drown,
begged them to paint me a picture.
They did, using our bodies:
my oldest sister’s lips full, like his,
our brother’s high forehead, a perfect replica.
My piano-playing sister’s slender fingers rivaled his own.
And me? I had inherited heavy lidded eyes.
Still, that was not enough.
I stare into my father’s casket
and long to touch his face,
afraid to mar the powder that separates us.
Instead I memorize: gaunt hands,
crossed. Strong chin. Hair grey
at temples. Did he go willingly,
not caring that he was leaving behind
a daughter needing an image to last a lifetime?
Spilling tears onto his immobile cheek,
I whisper Daddy and turn away.
— Sarah Bracey White