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...

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 (CavanKerry Press, 2013), 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 parents 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.

“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 Whites 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 persons value.”

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