Sara Brooks was born in 1911 in a small, impoverished black community in west-central Alabama, not far from Selma. Her mother died when she was very young; she was raised by her grandmother, whom she thought of as her mother, and then by her stepmother, to whom she was devoted. Her father, Will Brooks, was a strong, self-sufficient man who farmed with dedication and intelligence, supplying nearly all the food for his extended family and making small amounts of cash from cotton and other crops. The Brooks family had no electricity, no running water, no indoor toilet -- none of the luxuries that we now take for granted as necessities. Yet Sara Brooks remembers those days with joy:
"It wasn't fine, but we had food to eat. And we wasn't well off -- you can never believe that! But we did come up with some things that some didn't come up with. On Sundays we always had a nice dinner. We never lived in a rented place -- we had our own home. And we had horses and we had mules. I reckon it's because my father -- well, a lot of people didn't work, just like they don't work now. But I bet we worked! We'd be workin, and peoples be downtown meetin the train. It's a little town, Orchard. Used to be a train come through, and people would be down there at the depot sittin around downtown. My father never let us go down there like that. We didn't go places, but we'd have plenty at home."
"Plenty" is neither exaggeration nor sentimentalization; as Sara Brooks describes it in this lovely, enchanting book, her early life was short on worldly goods but long on sustenance, happiness and love. Her story, recorded and edited by Thordis Simonsen, describes a world long since vanished in which, poverty and racial discrimination notwithstanding, a little girl found life to be plentiful in the goods that matter most. "Oh, we had a good time," she recalls. "We were poor, but it was a lotta love -- that was the best of all! We had love for each other and we got along fine. Was no fussin, no fightin in our home. No cussin or nothin like that in our home."
That is the way Sara Brooks talks, and Simonsen has chosen to let her speak unedited; it turns out to be a wise decision, for she speaks with such humor, energy and colloquial spark that to prettify her words would be to sap them of life. Hers is an authentic American voice, one from the early 20th-century Black Belt; to hear it now is both a joy and a revelation: a joy because she is so funny, self-mocking and high-spirited, a revelation because she reminds us of how great is the human capacity to find happiness in deprivation.
One reason young Sara Brooks was happy was that she had no idea she was deprived. This is partly because she was utterly isolated from cities and wealth, partly because none of her neighbors (the sole white family included) was better off than she, partly because her father insisted that his family respect rather than pity itself. Further, and this is much to the point, she never went hungry. There was always food on the table, often there was a great deal of it, and its nutritional value was high. Except for sugar, flour and rice, which they bought in town, all of it came from the farm: chicken, pork, butter beans, turnip greens, okra, corn, sugar cane -- the hard work and green thumb of Will Brooks turned that piece of land into a cornucopia.
Sara Brooks lived there until the end of the 11th grade, when she made the mistake of marrying a man who soon began beating her. She had three children by him, the last being born after she had left him; later she had two more, by men she did not marry -- a departure from her moral code that distresses her even now, though her pride in the two children is great. After working for a while in Mobile, she moved north to Cleveland at her brother's urging and has stayed there ever since. She worked as a domestic, and by careful planning and saving managed to fulfil the dream of a lifetime: She purchased her own house.
Though she does not represent it as such, hers is a story about immense courage, faith and spirit. Sara Brooks is a woman who, even in adversity, has found pleasure and satisfaction in life and who, it can be inferred, has given pleasure and satisfaction to others. Certainly that is what she gives in "You May Plow Here," an utterly charming little book.