Reviewed by LisaMarie DeSanto
Ask people to summarize their youth, and you’ll hear a variety of descriptions. Our childhoods are laced with humor and heartbreak, tragedy and joy, failure and triumph – all in varying degrees. Some parents gave their all, though limited emotionally, financially, or physically. Other parents had much to give but thought only of themselves and neglected, abandoned, or abused their children.
Some of us, as children, possessed an innate tenacity and self-assurance, while others, instead, harbored self-doubt and timidity. Some of us thrived, some of us crumbled, and some of us are still trying to come to terms with who we are and how we feel about the men and women who raised — or didn’t raise — us. Whatever our backgrounds and tendencies, our journeys had something in common; what we wanted wasn’t always what we needed, and sometimes what we needed wasn’t what we received.
Sarah Bracey White’s Primary Lessons is a memoir that chronicles White’s struggle to establish an identity and to define love, despite the social and cultural upheavals upending her and her family. A story that spans from 1945 to 1963, Primary Lessons describes how Sarah, a precocious and free-thinking five-year-old, is ripped from the only home she ever knew and loved – a nurturing, supportive, middle-class home she shared with her aunt – and transplanted to her mother’s poverty stricken, dysfunctional home in the segregated South.
Suddenly faced with new limitations because of her race and poverty, to say nothing of her single mother’s constant attempts to curb Sarah’s inquisitiveness and assertive nature, Sarah finds herself struggling with feelings of abandonment, alienation, frustration, and confusion. Ultimately, her determination and unfailing sense of self get her through several tragedies.
Primary Lessons is more than just a “coming of age” memoir; it’s a fearless account of what life was like in the Jim Crow South, as told through the eyes of a child. It is because of that unique perspective, in addition to Sarah’s captivating narrative, that readers don’t just learn about the injustice of segregation – they feel it on every page. It is also impossible not to notice the parallels between the author’s struggles and the struggles of an entire race that was and is denied choices, freedom, and authenticity.
I recently befriended Sarah White. An exuberant woman who radiates warmth and positivity, this 67 year-old author has experienced her own share of hardship that didn’t tarnish her view of the world or the people in it. Quite the opposite. It seems her relentless self-examination and determination have enabled her to overcome turmoil and have given her incredible wisdom, strength, tolerance, and compassion.
Sarah says she spent most of her life believing she never loved her mother, and that she wrote Primary Lessons to make peace with her mother, who died when Sarah was just 17. What Sarah learned in the process of writing not only surprised her, but also, it seems, healed her. What she realized is that each event in her life made her the woman she is today. She learned, as well, that the two women who raised her, despite letting her down, also loved her. And while Primary Lessons is about a young black girl during a time of racial inequality, its themes speak to the child in all of us, and to mothers and daughters of all backgrounds – everywhere.
Sarah, like so many of us, didn’t always receive what she wanted or needed from her caregivers. But parents and relatives whose limitations wounded us also instilled in us the very qualities that made us strong, independent, and resilient adults.
Sarah, for her part, lived with her mother for only 12 tumultuous years. During that time, despite their different views, and despite Sarah’s never feeling the affection and joy that she needed, her mother taught her valuable lessons she needed to survive and even thrive in a harsh world. “What I wanted was a warm, loving mother,” she says, “What I got was a loving mother’s guide to life. It wasn’t perfect, but it was enough.”
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