The Yellow Houseby Sarah M. Broom
A brilliant, haunting and unforgettable memoir from a stunning new talent about the inexorable pull of home and family, set in a shotgun house in New Orleans East.
Winner of the 2019 National Book Award in Nonfiction
Named one of the 10 Best Books of the Year by the New York Times
In 1961, Sarah M. Broom’s mother Ivory Mae bought a shotgun house in the then-promising neighborhood of New Orleans East and built her world inside of it. It was the height of the Space Race and the neighborhood was home to a major NASA plant—the postwar optimism seemed assured. Widowed, Ivory Mae remarried Sarah’s father Simon Broom; their combined family would eventually number twelve children. But after Simon died, six months after Sarah’s birth, the Yellow House would become Ivory Mae’s thirteenth and most unruly child.
A book of great ambition, Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House tells a hundred years of her family and their relationship to home in a neglected area of one of America’s most mythologized cities. This is the story of a mother’s struggle against a house’s entropy, and that of a prodigal daughter who left home only to reckon with the pull that home exerts, even after the Yellow House was wiped off the map after Hurricane Katrina. The Yellow House expands the map of New Orleans to include the stories of its lesser known natives, guided deftly by one of its native daughters, to demonstrate how enduring drives of clan, pride, and familial love resist and defy erasure. Located in the gap between the “Big Easy” of tourist guides and the New Orleans in which Broom was raised, The Yellow House is a brilliant memoir of place, class, race, the seeping rot of inequality, and the internalized shame that often follows. It is a transformative, deeply moving story from an unparalleled new voice of startling clarity, authority, and power.
Winner of the 2019 National Book Award in Nonfiction
A New York Times Bestseller
Named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review
Named one of the 10 Best Books of 2019 by the New York Times Book Review, the Seattle Times, the Chicago Public Library, the Chicago Tribune, and Slate
Named a Best Book of 2019 by the Washington Post, NPR’s Book Concierge, NPR’s Fresh Air, the Guardian, BookPage, the New York Public Library, and Shelf Awareness
Named a Best Memoir of the Decade by LitHub
“Sarah Broom’s sweeping memoir is epic in scope—a love letter to the family of twelve of which she is the ‘babiest,’ an intimate and uncompromising vision of the New Orleans that shaped her, an homage to deep roots and to blackness—all of this shot through with reverence, longing and abiding love.”—Ayana Mathis, author of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
“A great, multigenerational family story . . . Broom is an engaging guide; she has some of David Simon’s effortless reporting style, and her meditations on eroding places recall Jeannette Walls. The house didn’t survive Katrina, but its destruction strengthened Broom’s appreciation of home. Broom’s memoir serves as a touching tribute to family and a unique exploration of the American experience.”—Publishers Weekly
“A heartfelt but unflinching recovery project . . . Broom’s lyrical style celebrates her family bonds, but a righteous fury runs throughout the narrative at New Orleans’ injustices, from the foundation on up. A tribute to the multitude of stories one small home can contain, even one bursting with loss.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Every few years, a book comes along that teaches readers of memoir how to read and writers of memoir how to write. Calling Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House a memoir feels wrong. Somehow, Broom created a book that feels bigger, finer, more daring than the form itself. The Yellow House literally taught me how to read and write. I will never write or read about family, longing, blackness, femininity, joy and state-sanctioned terror the same way after sitting with this book. Broom narratively glides through choppy air almost in slow-motion, and when I least expect it, she digs into the ground of New Orleans conjuring the most humanely massive intervention I’ve read in 21st century memoir writing.”—Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy
“Gorgeously written, intimate and wise, Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House is an astonishing memoir of family, love, and survival. It’s also a history of New Orleans unlike any we’ve seen before, one that should be required reading.”—Jami Attenberg, author of All Grown Up
“Sarah Broom’s book is an extraordinary example of how language can make things. Her words, sentences, thoughts as she creates East New Orleans—where she was born—move faster than you will ever keep up—but you damn sure don’t want to let go.”—John Edgar Wideman, author of Brothers and Keepers
“The Yellow House is a masterpiece of history, politics, sociology and memory. Actually, it’s just a masterpiece, period. Sarah Broom’s carefully researched portrait of a family and a place possesses the emotional vastness of a multi-generational novel, and shies away from nothing. Her pages are artfully controlled, meditative logic proofs of heartbreak, humor, devastation, celebration and rage. Broom shows what literary nonfiction—and what books—can yet do and be. I already consider her to be one of America’s most important and influential writers.”—Heidi Julavits, author of The Folded Clock
“From a singular writer, a crucial memoir of life on the margins—one that, through ruthless observation and deepest intelligence, might help reintegrate what happens in those margins into the central narratives of American life. Alternating gracefully between immediacy and critical distance, she leaves us with deep insight not just into her own family, her own community, but into governance, justice, and inequality in the round. Timeless in its telling, The Yellow House could become a modern classic.”—Whiting Nonfiction Grant Jury
“[An] extraordinary, engrossing debut… kinetic and omnivorous… [Broom] pushes past the baseline expectations of memoir as a genre to create an entertaining and inventive amalgamation of literary forms. Part oral history, part urban history, part celebration of a bygone way of life, The Yellow House is a full indictment of the greed, discrimination, indifference and poor city planning that led her family’s home to be wiped off the map. It is an instantly essential text, examining the past, present and possible future of the city of New Orleans, and of America writ large.”—New York Times Book Review
“[A] forceful, rolling and many-chambered new memoir… [Broom’s] memoir isn’t just a Katrina story — it has a lot more on its mind. But the storm and the way it scattered her large family across America give this book both its grease and its gravitas… This book is dense with characters and stories. It’s a big, simmering pot that comes to a boil at the right times… This is a major book that I suspect will come to be considered among the essential memoirs of this vexing decade. There are a lot of complicated emotions coursing through its veins. It throws the image of an exceptional American city into dark relief.”—New York Times
“The memoir from Louisiana native Broom tells the story of her mother’s beloved shotgun house in east New Orleans and the family she raised there. The house was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and Broom writes about the racial and economic inequality that has haunted New Orleans for decades. Author Heidi Julavits called the book “a masterpiece of history, politics, sociology and memory.”—Los Angeles Times, “7 Highly Anticipated Books to Get You Through the Dog Days of August”
“Broom’s book is a memoir — but also so much more. The New Orleans native has written a hybrid of the most exquisite kind, part family history, part archaeological dig, part self-exegesis. It all comes back to the house of the title, a ‘New Orleans East’ shotgun dwelling that has given hope, heartbreak, shelter and transformation to decades of Broom’s family. And Broom has used it to inspire something new.”—Washington Post, “The 10 Books to Read in August”
“I’m most excited about reading The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom. I tend to love books that capture a sense of place, and I’ve always been fascinated with New Orleans. Like Jamaica, New Orleans is a destination people seek out to have a good time, but few people see the reality behind the touristy facade. Very rarely do I see a story of the people who have been in New Orleans for generations—this memoir promises an intimate, beautiful portrait of a black family and the place they call home.”—Nicole Dennis-Benn, Vanity Fair
“A remarkable journey… Her tale is one of loss, love, and resilience.”—Robin Roberts, “Good Morning America”
“Sarah M. Broom’s gorgeous debut, The Yellow House, reads as elegy and prayer. The titular house is the fulcrum for Broom’s memoir about her large and complex family. Perhaps more important, it stands in for the countless ways America has failed and continues to fail African Americans… Sarah M. Broom is a writer of great intellect and breadth. She embraces momentous subjects. The Yellow House is about the relentless divestment of wealth from the African American family no matter how hard its members work; and our government’s failure to protect its poor from predictable environmental catastrophe and subsequent trauma; and our gross neglect of poor neighborhoods; and sham promises that never materialize or are broken too easily, and the papering over of deep systemic problems by politicians and we the people. The Yellow House is also about the persistence of love and grit… There’s a young woman whose winding journey takes her away from and back to her family, as she circumnavigates the world in order to connect with herself — which means coming to the sober reckoning that some holes can never be filled.”—NPR
“One of the year’s best memoirs, The Yellow House finds an epic, fascinating, empathetic history of New Orleans within the life of one woman, her family, and the home they grew up in… The book is at once intimate and sprawling, spinning at times dozens of stories in what amounts to a vital reframing of a misrepresented community, and an urgent meditation on the American dream.”—David Canfield, Entertainment Weekly
“The title of Sarah M. Broom’s debut memoir refers to the east New Orleans home her mother bought in 1961. There, Broom was raised alongside her 11 siblings in a part of the city that became riddled with crime and poverty. In The Yellow House, Broom traces back a hundred years worth of her family history and the hardships they faced. She pays particular attention to Hurricane Katrina, which completely destroyed the family’s house. In its aftermath, Broom examines what it really means to rebuild roots and how to define a home.” —Time, “Here Are the 11 New Books You Should Read in August”
“Broom’s memoir of poverty, striving, and justice in pre- and post-Katrina-stricken New Orleans concerns rising tides, the literal ones that took her childhood home, and the structural ones, too, that, instead of lifting all, are threatening to drown. Broom has a reporter’s eye but an essayist’s heart, blending urban history of her segregated home city and her family’s attempt to survive in it.”—Vogue
“NOLA Darling. Sarah M. Broom’s obsession with her childhood home in New Orleans is the focal point of her intimate nonfiction debut… This brave work delves into such issues as poor housing, subpar health care, family bonds, personal erasure and survival.”—Essence
“In her tough yet tenderly wrought book The Yellow House, [Broom] explores… the long-term effects of erasure and the price of staking a claim on unpredictable territory… The label ‘memoir’ doesn’t quite contain—or honor—the entirety of what Broom has accomplished. The Yellow House is both personal and sharply political; it’s an attempt to redraw not just the map of New Orleans but also the city’s narrative — to reset it on its foundation… Meticulously observed and expansively researched, Broom’s inquiry is an excavation… She plunges into the family’s deep, uncertain history; stories pieced together about her maternal grandmother Ameilia (‘Lolo’), her Auntie Elaine and her mother, Ivory Mae, are touchstones, pins in the new map… These elder voices, thick with the rhythm and texture of time and place, are a chorus of narrators, the forebears who navigated a stratified, racially segregated map. They weigh in, testify, spin tangents. It’s the book’s music… In New Orleans, there is a parade call-and-response refrain—a funky roll call, if you will—that asks revelers to shout out their provenance—the New Orleans neighborhood from which they hail. Where you from? The Yellow House is Broom’s luminous, literary answer to that appeal… Broom’s work is a shoring-up, a strengthening. It’s the result of tenacious naming and claiming, revisiting all the histories — formal and informal, polished and rough. She worked with great care, and with a resolute honesty leavened with grace. Readers may hear echoes of James Baldwin in the relentlessness of her inquiry, and in the sinewy cadences of her sentences… Pared down to its studs, The Yellow House is a love story. It is a declaration of unconditional devotion and commitment to place. Broom also pays homage to the relationships we protect, the ones we yearn for and circle back to; the ones that hold us and don’t give up on us, that are our living and breathing foundation.”—Los Angeles Times
Excerpted from THE YELLOW HOUSE © 2019 by Sarah M. Broom. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
From high up, fifteen thousand feet above, where the aerial photographs are taken, 4121 Wilson Avenue, the address I know best, is a minuscule point, a scab of green. In satellite images shot from higher still, my former street dissolves into the toe of Louisiana’s boot. From this vantage point, our address, now mite size, would appear to sit in the Gulf of Mexico. Distance lends perspective, but it can also shade, misinterpret. From these great heights, my brother Carl would not be seen.
Carl, who is also my brother Rabbit, sits his days and nights away at 4121 Wilson Avenue at least five times a week after working his maintenance job at NASA or when he is not fishing or near to the water where he loves to be. Four thousand fifteen days past the Water, beyond all news cycles known to man, still sits a skinny man in shorts, white socks pulled up to his kneecaps, one gold picture frame around his front tooth.
Sometimes you can find Carl alone on our lot, poised on an ice chest, searching the view, as if for a sign, as if for a wonder. Or else, seated at a pecan-colored dining table with intricately carved legs, holding court. The table where Carl sometimes sits is on the spot where our living room used to be but where instead of floor there is green grass trying to grow.
See Carl gesturing with a long arm, if he feels like it, wearing dark shades even if it is night. See Rabbit with his legs crossed at the ankle, a long-legged man, knotted up.
I can see him there now, in my mind’s eye, silent and holding a beer. Babysitting ruins. But that is not his language or sentiment; he would never betray the Yellow House like that.
Carl often finds company on Wilson Avenue where he keeps watch. Friends will arrive and pop their trunks, revealing coolers containing spirits on ice. “Help yourself, baby,” they will say. If someone has to pee, they do it in what used to be our den. Or they use the bright-blue porta potty sitting at the back of the yard, where the shed once was. Now, this plastic, vertical bathroom is the only structure on the lot. Written on its front in white block letters on black background: CITY OF NEW ORLEANS.
I have stacked twelve or thirteen history-telling books about New Orleans. Beautiful Crescent; New Orleans, Yesterday and Today; New Orleans as It Was; New Orleans: The Place and the People; Fabulous New Orleans; New Orleans: A Guide to America’s Most Interesting City. So on and so forth. I have thumbed through each of these, past voluminous sections about the French Quarter, the Garden District, and St. Charles Avenue, in search of the area of the city where I grew up, New Orleans East. Mentions are rare and spare, afterthoughts. There are no guided tours to this part of the city, except for the disaster bus tours that became an industry after Hurricane Katrina, carting visitors around, pointing out the great destruction of neighborhoods that were never known or set foot in before the Water, except by their residents.
Imagine that the streets are dead quiet, and you lived on those dead quiet streets, and there is nothing left of anything you once owned. Those rare survivors who are still present on the scene, working in those skeletal byways, are dressed in blue disposable jumpsuits and wearing face masks to avoid being burned by the black mold that is everywhere in their homes, climbing up the walls, forming slippery abstract figures underfoot. While this is going on and you are wondering whether you will find remains of anything that you ever loved, tourists are passing by in an air-conditioned bus snapping images of your personal destruction. There is something affirming, I can see, in the acknowledgment by the tourists of the horrendous destructive act, but it still might feel like invasion. And anyway, I do not believe the tour buses ever made it to the street where I grew up.
In one of these piled books that describes the suburbs, New Orleans
East is not included, but Jefferson Parish, which lies outside city bounds, and several cemeteries are. Cemeteries, as far as I know, cannot be counted as actual neighborhoods even though local lore describes aboveground tombs as houses of the dead.
On a detailed city map once given to me by Avis Rent a Car, the French Quarter has been shaded in light turquoise, magnified in a box at the bottom of the page. New Orleans East is cut off, a point beyond, a blank space on someone’s mental map. This is perhaps a practical matter. New Orleans East is fifty times the size of the French Quarter, one-fourth of the city’s developed surface. Properly mapped, it might swallow the page whole.
What the Avis map does not tell you is that to travel the seven miles from the French Quarter to the Yellow House in which I grew up, you would take Interstate 10 heading east. When this portion of the interstate opened in 1968, hundreds of great oaks along Claiborne Avenue, the black shopping district for my mother and grandmother, had been chopped down, their roots evicted. One hundred fifty-five houses were demolished to make way.
Driving the interstate, you will know that you are on track when you see signs indicating Vieux Carré final exit, but do not get off. Stay on.
After another four miles, you will arrive at the bridge we call the High Rise for the dramatic arc it makes over the Industrial Canal that connects the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain but exiles eastern New Orleans from the rest of the city. Being at the top of the High Rise feels like resting on the verge of discovery, but the descent is cruel and steep.
Exit suddenly at Chef Menteur, a four-lane highway built on an ancient high ridge once traversed by Native American tribes but that now carries cars all the way to Florida or Texas. Chef Menteur bifurcates the short, industrialized end of Wilson Avenue, where I grew up, from the longer residential end of mostly brick houses and of my former elementary school, originally named Jefferson Davis after the Confederate president before becoming Ernest Morial after the first black mayor of New Orleans. It is nameless now—a field of green grass bounded by a chain-link fence.
Even as I write this, I am troubled again by what it meant for us—me and my eleven siblings—to have to cross Chef Menteur Highway, which was then and is now a sea of prostitution with cars pulling over, sometimes partway onto the sidewalk, creeping alongside you even if you were only a child on an errand; these were mostly men in cars, making deals.
Cars could drag you down Chef Menteur without realizing it, as one dragged my sister Karen when she was eight years old. Drivers in speeding cars self-destructed on this highway. Alvin, my childhood friend, would die in this way. Someone could grab and abduct you while you stood there on Chef Menteur’s neutral ground, as we call medians. Or see you standing there when you did not want to be seen, as I would not, many years into young womanhood, when I avoided showing people the place where I lived. When I think of Chef Menteur Highway and of being cut off—from the other side of the street, from the city center, plain cut off—I think of all of this.
Chef Menteur was named after either a Choctaw Indian chief or a governor who lied too much. The name, translated from French, means “chief liar.” This is the poetry of New Orleans names. That city hall sits on a street named lost. Perdido.
Once you have exited onto Chef Menteur, drive one mile in the far-right lane. Along the way you will pass a Chevron gas station, an auto parts store, and blank billboards advertising nothing at all. You will find yourself in what has been described in articles and books appearing in the eighties and nineties as the “true land of no return,” afflicted with “overgrown yards, outdated billboards,” where “weary 1960s-era commercial architecture commingle with cyclone-fenced lots . . . and mundane 1970s residential architecture.” Where “a general malaise hangs over.”
You will pass run-down apartment complexes on your left and on your right, in areas that used to be called the Grove, the Goose, and the Gap, where growing up, my brothers made allegiances and enemies and where a bullet grazed my brother Darryl’s face in the middle of a school dance. You will pass an emptied-out building that used to be a bank where Mom and I visited the drive-through and where the teller passed lollipops with the deposit slip. You will go by Causey’s Country Kitchen, the soul food restaurant where, after the Water, a luxury bus from the parking lot lodged itself into the lunch counter.
Closer to our street, you will see Natal’s Supermarket, which is really only a corner store, where Mom sent me as a kid to buy “liver cheese” for one dollar a pound. Years later, a graduate student at Berkeley, I would discover that the liver cheese we paid practically nothing for was dressed up, called pâté, and cost nine dollars a pound.
At the light where Wilson Avenue intersects Chef, turn right at the foundation that once held a tire shop that used to be a laundromat where my older siblings survived Hurricane Betsy in 1965.
After you make that right turn onto the short end of Wilson Avenue, look left and you will see an empty lot where the gas station used to be and where Mr. Spanata from Italy built his family’s compound. Gone now. Next door to that is the cottage where Ms. Schmidt from uptown lived before my siblings Michael and Karen and Byron rented it, at different times, but where no one lives now.
Next door to that (all the houses on the short end except for one were on the left side of the street) is a concrete slab representing the house where the Davis family lived before getting fed up with the short end of Wilson and moving elsewhere.
Then you will come upon Ms. Octavia’s cream-colored shotgun house that now belongs to her granddaughter Rachelle—the only remaining legal inhabitant of the street—before finally arriving at what used to be our Yellow House.
My mother, Ivory Mae, bought this house in 1961 when she was nineteen years old. It was her first and only house. Within its walls, my mother made her world. Twelve children passed through its doors: descendants of Ivory Mae Broom and her first husband, Edward Webb; of Ivory Mae Broom and Simon Broom; and of Simon Broom and his first wife, Carrie Broom. We are Simon Jr., Deborah, Valeria, Eddie, Michael, Darryl, Carl, Karen, Troy, Byron, Lynette, and Sarah. We span the generations, born to every decade, beginning in the forties. I arrived ten hours before the eighties.
When you are babiest in a family with eleven older points of view, eleven disparate rallying cries, eleven demanding and pay-attention-to-me voices—all variations of the communal story—developing your own becomes a matter of survival. There can be, in this scenario, no neutral ground.
Yet feelings of transgression linger, the conviction that by writing down the history of the people who have come before me—who, in a way, com- pose me—I have upended the natural order of things.
When I call my eldest brother, Simon, at his home in North Carolina to explain all the things I want to know and why, he expresses worry that by writing this all down here, I will disrupt, unravel, and tear down every- thing the Broom family has ever built. He would like, now, to live in the future and forget about the past. “There is a lot we have subconsciously agreed that we don’t want to know,” he tells me. When he asks about my project, I am imprecise, lofty, saying I am writing about “architecture and belonging and space.”
“It is a problem when you are talking too much,” he says. I take his sentence down in my notebook at the moment he says it, just as he says it. I have not added a single word. Nor have I taken anything away.
In New Orleans, we tell direction by where we are in relation to the Mississippi River, in relation to water. Our house was bounded by water. The Mississippi snaked three miles to the back of us. Less than a mile away, west and south, were the Industrial Canal and its interlinking Intracoastal Waterway. Lake Pontchartrain sat two miles north. To the far east lay the Rigolets, a strait connecting Lake Pontchartrain to Lake Borgne, a brackish lagoon that opens into the Gulf of Mexico. We were surrounded by boats, barges, and trains; ingresses and egresses—a stone’s throw from the Old Road, which is what we called Old Gentilly Road. My father, Simon Broom, took the Old Road to his job at NASA. Later, my brother Carl took the Old Road to his job at NASA. Same road, same maintenance job, different men. But the road is impassable now because at a certain point, illegal tire and trash dumps block the way. The train tracks perched above the Old Road were laid in the 1870s for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, trains that passed almost nightly in my growing up. Their clack- ing and roar were the sounds outside my window as I tried to sleep. The Old Road could, if clear, lead you to the Michoud neighborhood, where Vietnamese immigrants settled after the Vietnam War; or to Resthaven cemetery, where my best childhood friend, Alvin, is buried; or to NASA’s manufacturing plant, where rocket boosters were built for the Apollo space mission but where Hollywood fantasies are conjured now, its unused acres frequently leased as movie sets.
By bringing you here, to the Yellow House, I have gone against my learnings. You know this house not all that comfortable for other people, my mother was always saying.
Before it was the Yellow House, the only house I knew, it was a green house, the house my eleven siblings knew. The facts of the world before me inform, give shape and context to my own life. The Yellow House was witness to our lives. When it fell down, something in me burst. My mother is always saying, Begin as you want to end. But my beginning precedes me. Absences allow us one power over them: They do not speak a word. We say of them what we want. Still, they hover, pointing fingers at our backs. No place to go now but into deep ground.