Sarah Phillips Additional Summary

Andrea Lee


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Sarah Phillips presents the experiences of an African American woman growing up in a middle-class environment. It covers the period from the early 1960’s until the mid-1970’s. The setting and themes of the book are similar to those of the author’s own life.

Sarah Phillips is divided into twelve episodes. Each of these are a complete story in themselves but also develop the overall narrative. The story is told by a first-person narrator. It is recounted in the form of an autobiographical reminiscence.

The book begins with the narrator and protagonist, Sarah Phillips, living in France during a year abroad as a college student. Sarah is having an enjoyable time, reflecting with amusement on the French myths about America that come to the surface during her conversations with French people. When her French boyfriend, Henri, makes an insensitive racial joke, however, Sarah’s sense of serenity and fun is shattered. She begins to realize that although she had previously thought that Europeans did not possess American racial stereotypes, these stereotypes are difficult for her to escape. Sarah is reminded anew of her racial background and identity. She begins to reflect back on her childhood days.

Sarah had been born the daughter of a prominent African American minister. Sarah is reared in a middle-class residential section of Philadelphia. At the age of ten, she sits on a summer Sunday in a pew of the New African Baptist Church, where her father preaches. The world of the church, where Sarah is surrounded by her extended family, seems all-encompassing to the young girl. The long hours of prayer and singing begin to bore Sarah, however, and she idly fantasizes about playing outdoors in a treehouse. Sarah feels both protected and stifled by the rich atmosphere of the church.

Despite his profession, the Reverend Phillips does not maintain a strict religious grip on the household. Sarah and her older brother Matthew grow up in a loose and relaxed spiritual atmosphere. Even so, Sarah feels that she cannot live up to her father’s expectations of her as a good Christian. She is made particularly nervous by the rite of baptism. When her Aunt Bessie urges her to volunteer to be baptized, Sarah refuses. Sarah expects her parents to be angry, but their reaction is surprisingly mild. Her father’s reluctance to punish Sarah makes an impression on her and becomes a major ingredient of her bond to her father. By not imposing his own expectation on her character, the Reverend Phillips permits Sarah to become her own woman.

On the surface, Sarah’s childhood appears...

(The entire section is 1076 words.)