Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The first chapter of Sarah Phillips ends with a dream, followed by a decision. After a quarrel with her lover and a reconciliation marked by perfunctory sex, Sarah dreams of grappling with an old black woman like those in her father’s church; she then wakens to a new awareness of the persistence of her past. The dream may have had an effect on Sarah, reinforcing her desire to go home, but it is more important as a symbol of the conflicts that make up the pattern and the meaning of the novel.

Several of these conflicts involve the rejection of one group by another. The New African Baptist Church itself is evidence of the schism between prosperous blacks and their poor brothers and sisters. Once the center of the community that surrounds it, New African is now an island of well-being in the middle of a slum. On Sundays, well-to-do, conservative church members drive back to their old area for services, then return to the suburbs to which they fled as soon as integration made it possible. Sarah’s feelings of dissociation from poor blacks are reflected in her behavior at Miss Prescott’s School for Girls when she ignores the greetings of the black cook, even though she finally admits that she might be able to learn something from him.

The same kind of social division is evident when Matthew brings his girlfriend to dinner. Although his parents are officially and sincerely committed to brotherhood, they reject the girl. Reverend...

(The entire section is 538 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The novel’s primary theme is the tension of growing up both African American and middle-class. Rebelling against the conventional stereotype of African Americans as constrained within a cycle of bleak poverty and crime, Lee presents a stable, loving, and prosperous family. Sarah defies traditional images of African American women by her assertiveness and intelligence. Sarah is not one of life’s victims; she is a member of what the African American thinker W. E. B. DuBois termed the “Talented Tenth” of African Americans.

Yet Sarah is also made constantly aware of the other ninety percent, those African Americans who do not get to go to prestigious boarding schools and colleges. Sarah realizes that her privileged life is possible only because of the struggles of the Civil Rights movement, largely accomplished by men and women of her father’s generation. Sarah also realizes that for many African Americans who still have to endure poverty and discrimination, these struggles have yet to bear fruit.

The novel’s focus is not, though, exclusively social. Sarah goes through private experiences common to the maturation process of any young woman. She loves her parents but feels that they do not understand her. She has close friendships but feels that there are many aspects of her character that her friends can simply never get to know. The novel is animated throughout by the tension between Sarah as an individual and Sarah as a type, a representative of the new generation of prosperous, educated African Americans that came to maturity in the 1970’s.