The complex and pervasive realities of systemic racism are laid bare in the stunning memoir, The Yellow House. Sarah M. Broom candidly recounts the story of her upbringing and her subsequent journey of self-discovery. She provides a richly layered history of her expansive family through exacting research as well as vivid character descriptions; often using family members’ own words to lend texture to her reporting. Alongside the story of her family, Broom delves deeply into the geographical and political landscape of the city in which she was born and raised, New Orleans. The thoughtful earnestness which Broom employs in mapping out the city of New Orleans for the reader poses a stark contrast with the haphazard way in which the city itself was planned and developed. These errors in construction and development, along with a severe lack of foresight, would have unfortunate consequences. Broom writes detailed descriptions of the events leading up to, and during Hurricane Katrina. And by using realistic language, the true-to-life voices of her family members and friends who witnessed it all, Broom paints a picture of a living, breathing, monster of a storm. In its aftermath, Katrina would not only reveal the flaws in the design of a city resting just below sea level, it would also spotlight the racial disparities plaguing our country. New Orleans,even now, struggles to find solid footing. A glacial recovery effort, corruption, and spikes in crime afflict this city which relies heavily on tourism to maintain viability. Broom does not ignore these facts in her depiction. She bristles at the slow-moving bureaucracy and the stunted economy, which has prevented many native New Orleanians from returning home post-Katrina. The population affected most dramatically were working-class and poor African-Americans, including members of Broom’s own family. Although her family survived the storm, they did experience the loss of their family home; a yellow house situated on a small street in an area referred to as “New Orleans East.” And it’s this house that Broom returns to again and again as she reviews her life.
In houses that have a history (houses that have been lived in) there is sometimes a sense that the house itself is a living entity. It contains within its solid walls so much lived experience; birthday parties, homework at the dining room table, meals prepared in the kitchen, family game nights, the kids’ heights measured and marked on door frames, celebrations and arguments. All of this life is what makes a house a home. Broom bravely allows us into her family’s home, and what we see isn’t always pretty. Before its eventual demise in the hurricane, the yellow house was structurally falling apart. Broom’s feelings about her family home are complicated and fraught, and she spends much of the book gently unpacking these emotions. It was the home where her family loved and celebrated. The home where she made lifelong friendships, and humorously terrorized her older siblings. Yet it was also a place that gave her no small measure of discomfort as well as shame. The Yellow House is an amazing document of the triumphs and the struggles of an American family. It touches upon the pride that comes with home ownership and how we present ourselves to the world. Broom highlights the vulnerability of communities to forces outside of their control; creating an ever-growing list of societal woes. Problems that require immediate attention worsen over time and become harder to solve. My hope is that this book will initiate focused discussions and constructive actions. Please, add The Yellow House to your must-read list.