National Book Award winner in Non Fiction, Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House depicts her life growing up in New Orleans East in a large family in the eponymous “yellow house.” The lyrically written book, whose descriptions and dialogue leap off the page, is one part memoir and one part history of New Orleans. The book’s prologue aptly titled “Map 1” provide the first visible clues of Broom’s endeavor —in all the stack of books and maps of New Orleans amassed by the author on New Orleans, East is spare and near non-existent in comparison. The book is a revelation as it reflects on the meaning of “home” and the gap between appearance and reality. Broom’s family was loving and woman-headed, and by all indications a functioning, determined family. The house that they resided in, on the other hand, was ramshackle and dilapidated beyond repair. The same applied to New Orleans with irrefutable implications as the city of New Orleans mythologizes its history at the expense of those who regularly maintain that illusion—the Black community. Thus, the appearances of New Orleans East and also the downtown French Quarter are facades, as neither region of the city is what it appears to be.
The book is broken into four sections that punctuate Broom’s family history: the first part frames the family’s existence before she is born; a moving section depicting her childhood after the death of her father; a third part recounts the tumult of Hurricane Katrina; and the last section bookends her investigation into the status of the family property following Katrina. In the first section we are introduced to Broom’s ancestors who impacted her life in one way or another. Broom’s mother purchased the Yellow House in New Orleans East in 1961 with insurance money from the death of her first husband. For Ivory Mae Hobley, Sarah’s mom, purchasing the house represented a step toward stability for her burgeoning family of three. Later, her mother remarried to Sarah’s father Simon Broom. Sarah is the last of the Broom children as the twelfth child born only six months before the death of her father. Her father worked full-time at his job as a NASA maintenance person, and then took on the herculean task of completing a second floor and extra wing of the house to accommodate the Broom family of 14. Needless to say, the house is never completed and thus remains in a perpetual state of disrepair with open visible beams and holes cut for window panes that were never installed. Wind, rain, and rodents invade the house.
In one of my favorite chapters entitled “Interiors,” the author laments the secret shame she experiences as a young girl who never invites one single friend to her home:
“Shame is a slow creeping. The most powerful things are quietest, if you think about it. Like water.”
The chapter powerfully captures the dysfunctional way in which the local governance of New Orleans sweeps the problems manifest in New Orleans East under the rug. Thus, the physical Yellow House becomes a metaphor for all that also ails New Orleans. Billboards crop up regularly reading “Thou Shalt Not Kill” while violent crime soars, and no real solutions are offered to the high rates of unemployment and underemployment faced by residents of New Orleans East. As if billboards are a solution for systemic racism. Police brutality runs rampant. Drugs plague Broom’s neighborhood and one of her brothers struggles with addiction. Foreshadowing the arrival of Hurricane Katrina, references to “water” seep into the narrative and one’s consciousness.
When Katrina decimates New Orleans in 2005, Broom has already graduated from North Texas University and garnered a job at O, The Oprah Magazine in New York. All of her family but two siblings migrate from the state of Louisiana. Some years later, the author secures her second job in New Orleans (after a six-month stint in then-mayor Ray Nagin’s office as the communications director.) It is only in 2011 that Broom returns to a job with a nonprofit.
The disheartening reality is that New Orleans is not the romanticized city that is dotted with “French Colonials” which are themselves melded hybrid architecture. When Broom advances her research she frequently runs across such pithy accounts of the French Quarter in ubiquitous tourism literature as “once seen, can never be forgotten because there is no other street quite like it in America, replete as it is with picturesque characters real and imaginary, ancient buildings with an aura of romance still clinging to them.” But it is the mythologizing of the French Quarter with which Broom takes umbrage. This region of the city was closed off to Black people for many years and even now only welcomes them primarily to be the workforce for the thriving tourism industry. Broom interrogates: how can such a “picturesque” city operate on the labor of Black Americans?
I enjoyed this book immensely and appreciated how Broom’s lyrical writing painted a vivid picture of a loving family but one that lived behind the walls of one dreadfully decrepit house. This metaphor cannot be missed as it emplots meaning on the grossly stratified city of downtown New Orleans and the Eastside community. Sadly, there are countless communities across the nation that reflect the problems revealed in this book. Yet it is made all the worse by the façade of a quaint romanticized image of a city where “much of what is great and praised about the city comes at the expense of its native Black people, who are, more often than not, underemployed, underpaid, sometimes suffocated by the mythology that hides the city’s dysfunction and hopelessness.” This book is recommended for those interested in memoirs, the history of African Americans, and the actual history of New Orleans.
The Yellow House
Sarah M. Broom
384 pages. 2019.