First of all, I just wanted to say how much I loved this book, Primary Lessons. I was completely hypnotized by this little girl-you, and especially by her insights into her color-coded world.
SARAH BRACEY WHITE
Thank you, Nin. I call that little girl my Sarah-child.
NA: Was it hard to get into the mind of yourself as a child? Or is she still very much with you?
SBW: I’ve nurtured my “five year old self” all my life. I liked who I was then — the love I felt and the freedom I experienced. I’ll always cherish that memory. I felt as if I were “channeling” my younger self while I was writing this book. A lot of my memories after returning to South Carolina in 1951 were frozen in the iceberg of my “separation trauma.” To write this memoir, I had to crack that ice for access. When trauma occurs, sometimes we develop amnesia as a way to move ahead without going mad. We don’t go back to explore that hidden pain and its cause until we’re strong enough to deal with it. In my sixties, I was finally able to go back to my early life and seek a resolution for things that were still affecting me. Cracking that ice was extremely painful.
NA: What year did you arrive in Sumter?
NA: So you would have been ten in 1957. Did integration have any effect on Sumter schools?
SBW: No, integration had no effect on me and my school after the Brown vs Board of Education ruling. Sumter’s schools were finally integrated in 1971 when integration laws were “complied with” by sending all girls to one school and all boys to another school. This protected the “flowers of southern womanhood” from African American boys.
NA: You bring back a southern childhood in that era so clearly with your details: the Olde English Furniture polish, Household Finance Company, your aunt and your mother’s arguments about which is better or more racist, the North or the South. Did you go back to South Carolina when you were writing this book?
SBW: My editor Baron Wormser made me add all those details. I thought they were too much. But he was right.
I stayed away from Sumter, SC from 1964 – after my father’s funeral – until 1986. Then, at age 40, I was overcome with the need to know more about my father’s family. I spent my vacation in Sumter visiting friends and researching my family tree. This book, however, is not about my family tree. That book is in the wings.
I now return to Sumter at least every two years to attend family reunions or my high school’s annual Legacykeeper’s Banquet.
NA: Do you have a southern accent?
SBW: I tried very hard to erase my southern accent. However, traces of it linger — evident mostly when I’m tired. . . when I talk to other southerners. . . or when I’m excited.
NA: You had such a fiery spirit, even at five years old when you arrived in Sumter. Do you credit your aunt for that inner strength? Or your father?
SBW: We’re each the product of the intersection of nature and nurture. I think my father must have had a fiery spirit because my mother certainly didn’t. And then, during my early years with Aunt Susie, I watched her speak up for herself and do the things that she thought were right. Children absorb what they “see,” rather than what adults “tell” them.
NA: Did you feel like you were your mother’s mother?
SBW: Yes, I always felt like I mothered my mother. Her mother died when she was seventeen and yes, she needed mothering. That was why I had such mixed emotions about her. She always told me to do as she said, not as she did. Because she had made so many irreparable mistakes. That’s why I wrote this book – to explore my mixed feelings about a woman who evidently loved me, though she did not display her affection. I discovered through writing this book that I loved her and was angry at her when she died — leaving me alone, after taking me away from Aunt Susie.
NA: In Sumter you start out as an outsider: an outsider to your sisters, your mother, the town, and the southern way of life. Did you retain this sense of being an outsider?
SBW: I’ve always been an observer – even as a child living in Philadelphia. Human beings fascinate me! I’m mesmerized by watching them and analyzing their behavior. I’ll always be the outsider. After I entered an interracial marriage, I became “the outsider” in another world.
NA: Your mother claimed that she took you back to Sumter so that you would “learn to protect yourself from mean-spirited white folks.” And your aunt thought Philadelphia was a much better environment for you. Who do you think was right?
SBW: I think my mother was right to take me back to Sumter, but for the wrong reasons. I needed the knowledge that I was not given away, that she too loved me. Had she not re-claimed me, as I grew up, I would have questioned why I was the one she gave away and I would have felt some sense of inadequacy. My education in South Carolina was a better, more rounded one than I could ever have received in Philadelphia. My mother’s friends were my first teachers and that personal tie made them push me to be my best. We become what people around us expect of us. It’s why my mother felt that “Colored” children were best educated in “Colored” schools.
NA: Your sisters missed a few days of school to pick cotton? Did you ever do that?
SBW: No, I never picked cotton. I’m still fascinated by cotton fields and their history for people of color. I have a romanticized feeling about cotton, without the memories of the backbreaking drudgery of having to pick it under the blazing sun.
NA: Your father is such a tragic story. An educated man, he dies working alongside migrant workers. It’s as if he dies a slave’s death, but I believe he inspired you. Do you think of him when you are writing or speaking in public?
SBW: Fathers influence their children by their presence in, or absence from, their lives. While I never knew my father, my mother never spoke harshly about him and I longed for his return — when I was a young child. After I researched his family tree, I grew to understand more about the circumstances of his life and the many tragedies he endured. People who knew him said my father was smart, very socially conscious, and a moving public speaker. He loved to teach, as did my mother. Jim Crow laws restrained him from expressing himself, or teaching. I vowed I’d never become a teacher, and yet I have. It’s in my genes. I’ve never been afraid to speak in public. I always think of my father when I am on stage. I stand on his shoulders and speak with the power of his memory.
NA: You decided as a young woman to choose a career over love and motherhood when you turned down Butch’s wedding proposal and when you decided that you would never have a child. You never deluded yourself with the idea that a woman could have it all?
SBW: When I was growing up, I never knew a woman who had it all. I learned early that life requires sacrifices. I was clear-eyed from childhood about what I wanted and that was to be master of my own life. Children and husbands always seemed to restrain women. I was 44 before I married and when I did, it was because I met a man who believed it was his purpose in life to make me happy. He pushed me to attain my dreams. He urged me to write “Primary Lessons” and is now urging me to get to work on completing the next book. I never had children, which has allowed me to nurture other people’s children — as did both my parents.
NA: I think your pen-pal is the only nice white person in the book. She is this disembodied voice who offers some thread of hope for better race relations. Did you ever meet her?
SBW: No, but I’ve tried to find her. In 2010, while I was an inaugural fellow at the Writing Center at SUNY Purchase, I worked on a YA novel about my relationship with my pen-pal Sharon Yarian. I searched the internet, wrote letters to newspapers in South Dakota, had several genealogists in SD search for her, but to no avail.
NA: What is a writing day like for you? Do you have a schedule? A ritual? A favorite reader or a writing group?
SBW: I’m most creative early in the morning. When I started writing fiction, I’d work from 7 – 11 am each day. My answering machine message used to say, “I’m sorry I can’t take your call, but the muses have me hard at work.” Then, when I began to explore my relationship with my mother (see next question), I realized that the morning hours didn’t work for that. I had a full time job, so I began to write from 8 – 11 pm when I was too tired to lie. Now, I garden in the mornings.
My husband Bob listened to the pieces about my mother and father as I wrote them. I shared them as revelations about my past – like diamonds plucked from a coal mine. I’ve also belonged to a writing group (the Westchester SIG) for more than 25 years (longer than I’ve been married). We meet monthly and share whatever we’re writing. When I began to share the stories about my life, they urged me to keep writing. You’ve struck gold, they told me.
NA: What inspired you to write your memoir? Was there a particular event or triggering thought or moment?
SBW: One June, in a casual phone conversation with my sister Williette, she mentioned that the day was Daddy’s birthday. That fact surprised me. I didn’t know my own father’s birthday! It suddenly dawned on me that I knew very little about my father. After the call ended, I began to write down all the things I remembered about my father. My first memory was of seeing him when I was 10 years old. I tucked away the few pages I scribbled. Then, decades later, my husband said to me one day, apropos of nothing — I thought, “You know your mother loved you.” He countered my argument that she didn’t with “tell me something nice your mother did for you.” For weeks after that, he repeated the question. I recalled many things. And began to think that maybe she did love me. The five-year-old inside me had been clinging to her pledge never to love her mean mother. After a while, I started writing about my relationship with my mother as a way to understand my long-held anger toward her. I’d been writing about her in fictional pieces for years. In every piece, my ambivalence toward her for taking me away from Aunt Susie showed up. I also couldn’t acknowledge my anger at her for dying and leaving me alone. The completion of Primary Lessons allowed me to sit back and say, my mother loved me and I loved her. Both of our lives were filled with circumstances beyond our control. She tried — as best she knew how — to love me, protect me and teach me to survive.
NA: When you were writing Primary Lessons, did you have an imaginary audience?
SBW: No. I never expected to have this book published. Writing it was a personal journey toward understanding myself.
On our family tree
my line ends abruptly.
Unable to seed the future,
I mine the past
into veins of familial misfortune
bear witness to stories,
behind sugar-starched, lace curtains.
My revelations inspire fear
in those who hide the truth
behind forced smiles.
Or seal their lips
with fermented libations.
They would have me write fiction,
cloak history in gossamer,
present images that
bear no resemblance
to those whose genes we share.
They whisper that I,
free of impressionable children,
have abandoned self-control
in favor of self-indulgence.
Perhaps they are right,
for I disdain high pedestals
that require vigilant balance.
Instead, I tread the fallow fields
and spread the stories
of lives lived when life
had to be raked from barren soil.
My written words
shall carry forward our history,
that it may be known
by the young who follow me.
Unlike those before us
who discovered truths
and tried to express them
in a time and place
where their voices could not rise
above a whisper,
this next generation will be armed
with knowledge of the past
And able to build a life
On the pedestals of truth.
I send this gift into the future
It will be my offering
from beyond the grave.
By Sarah Bracey White