WESTCHESTER COUNTY, N.Y. -- Halfway through Sarah Bracey White’s memoir, "Primary Lessons," I had a strange realization. Sarah’s mother was much like mine. A teacher, independent, the main family provider, eager for her children to succeed, proud to a fault, uncompromising in her values, not cold, but certainly not warm and fuzzy, and silently demanding in her expectations of her children.
That was Sarah’s description of her mom, and it may as well have been mine. But of course, the similarities end there. Sarah, one of five children born to an African American single mom in Sumter, South Carolina, spent her early years living with her aunt in Philadelphia because her mother had few resources.
Abruptly, when her mother’s situation changed, Sarah was wrenched from the only home she knew to reunite with her mother and siblings. Forging a new life, in a new town, with a new family was daunting, but her primary lessons set the course for a creative and successful future.
I compared notes with Sarah today. Both our mothers knew that for women in that day and age, teaching was an admirable path to upward mobility and community respect. It was also a platform from which to launch a daughter to be “a somebody.”
These mothers were strong, indomitable and fierce in broadening the possibilities for their daughters, teaching survival skills in a environment that would catapult some and sabotage others. Many of Sarah’s primary lessons were don’ts…don’t marry early, don’t get pregnant, don’t stay out late, and you can’t just say whatever you think, as it will surely get you into trouble.
One of the best lines in the book is when Sarah asks her mother, “where all these rules are written.” Her mother tells her if she disobeys them, “they’ll be written on your behind.” But there’s also the advice she gets as a teen debutante: “Young ladies always speak in moderate tones. They never smoke or chew gum in public.”
And of course they learn to hold their heads high by walking with a book on their heads. Holding ones head high is not just about posture, Sarah learns. It is about valuing who you are.
The book is a charming read, cover to cover.
Sarah Bracey White has been a writer and active member of the arts community for years. A long-time arts consultant to the Town of Greenburgh, she’s a librarian, teacher, motivational speaker, editor and published author who brings art and writing to hospitals, nursing homes and prisons. Visit her website at www.sarahbraceywhite.com. “Primary Lessons” is available at The Village Bookstore in Pleasantville and through all online booksellers.
Janet Langsman is chief executive officer of ArtsWestchester. Her weekly blog is published with permission of ArtsWestchester and is also posted online.