The Yellow House By Sarah M. Broom
Reviewed by Bridgett M. Davis
For several months I’ve been on book tour for a memoir I wrote about my mother, and much of it centers on the red brick fourbedroom Colonial house she bought, which was the symbol of our middle-class life. Audience members often say to me about the inspired descriptions of my family home: “Wow, it makes me wish I’d grown up in that house.”
Sarah M. Broom’s evocative and startling memoir The Yellow House is also about a family home that her mother bought in the same year my mom bought ours, 1961, but that’s where the similarities might seem to end. Broom describes the modest wooden shotgun house with the screenedin porch that her mother Ivory Mae bought at age nineteen, with $3200 cash, as an ever-challenging physical space in which to live and grow up. The falling-down, fragile house was tended to and patched up constantly by her father, Simon Broom; but by the time of his death when Sarah was six months old, the house remained decidedly unfinished. Where there should be walls was just framing; a naked ceiling exposed unfinished beams. The house suffered mightily from electrical problems, with the lights in the “add-on” her father had built shorting out; a sister ’s “amateur carpenter” boyfriend laid linoleum on the kitchen floor that started curling, which led to holes in the floor, which likely led to the rats that took up residence; the plumbing never worked right, so they kept buckets under the kitchen sink to catch the dishwater. The one bathroom with a lock on its door also had an ever-broken faucet, prompting the brood to boil water on the stove and fill the tub for the baths they loved. Some nights, Sarah and her siblings returned home to find termites or flying cockroaches gathered in their rooms.
“This is how your disappointment in a space builds, becomes personal,” writes Broom. “You kitchen do not warm me. You living room, do not comfort me. You bedroom, do not keep me.”
And yet, Broom tells us this unwieldy house with its yellow siding was her mother’s first and only house, and that “within its walls, my mother made its world. Twelve children passed through its doors.” As she worked hard to make her home tenable, sewing curtains to cover door-less cabinets and putting up pretty Christmas decorations and scrubbing everything clean and trying to repair things herself, Ivory Mae wrestled to tame the Yellow House like it was her thirteenth unruly child. “To describe the house fully in its coming apart feels maddening,” Broom tells us. “Like trying to pinpoint the one thing that ruins a person’s personality.”
Over time, battling against the brutal elements of nature, poor construction, time and heavy usage, Broom’s mom became ashamed of the house she’d so diligently nurtured, that once held her dreams in its potential; she began to see it through others’ eyes. She voiced that shame by saying You know this house not all that comfortable for other people. It was uncomfortable for Sarah and her siblings, too. “The evidence stared back at us,” writes Broom. “We became more private then. In a way, you could say we became the Yellow House. Here is a riddle: What was worse? The house or hiding the house? Shame is a slow creeping at first, a violent implosion later.”
What elevates this memoir from an account of growing up in and getting away from a crumbling house in a depressed neighborhood of a mythologized city is Broom’s language. Her descriptions are tactile and redolent, her observations stunningly astute. The writing itself conveys a dignity that permeates Sarah and her family members’ lives despite the tenuousness, and the poverty that hovered, threatening to engulf. You come to know and understand the inhabitants of the Yellow House, even as you come to know the ways in which the house shaped and defined them, and the ways it didn’t:
“There was the house we lived in and the house we thought we should live in,” she tells us. There was the house we thought we should live in and the house other people thought we should live in. These houses were colliding. And the actual house? My memories of the house’s disintegration have collided, the strains impossible to separate, its disintegration a straight line always lengthening, ad infinitum.
You understand exactly what her mother Ivory Mae means when she said, “This house doesn’t reflect who we are.”
But it did reflect a New Orleans steeped in exploitation, neglect, and racial bias. The family home was bearing witness to that truth. Its location in the city is a case in point: Far removed from both the much-featured Ninth Ward and the touristy French Quarter, the Yellow House was located in New Orleans East, a section of the city that’s seven miles from the French Quarter and fifty times its size. New Orleans East, as a development, was supposed to be an ideal community, rising, like a space-age city within a city, from its cypress swamp wetlands, what Bloom describes as “a rural village right in the middle of building up.” A place whose potential her mother allowed her dreams to get tied up in. Broom places us there beside her in the East, as it was called—“that abandoned suburban experiment”—most vividly in her description of the harrowing Chef Menteur Highway, a treacherous four-lane road that she and her siblings had to cross, the very one which a car dragged her sister Karen down when she was eight years old.
The section of the memoir that describes the impact of Hurricane Katrina, what Broom calls “the Water,” on Broom’s family members is the most haunting. To read her brothers’ firsthand chronicles of harrowing escape, now, fourteen years after, is in some ways more profound for its distance and simplicity of fact: Her brother Carl rode out the Water for seven days atop a roof after axing himself out of an attic; her brother Michael joined fourteen other people in a two-bedroom apartment in the Lafitte Projects, walking or swimming the streets daily to forage for food; once finally rescued, all fifteen of them were flown to San Antonio. The rest of the family didn’t know Carl or Michael’s whereabouts for eleven days. Before Katrina, Broom had six siblings living in or near New Orleans, as well as her mother and seventeen nieces and nephews. After the storm, only two brothers remained in Louisiana. Her extended family became part of that third of the city’s population (over 92,000 people) that didn’t return to the city after the Water. The Yellow House itself did not survive post- Katrina, torn down less than a year later by the city for “imminent danger of collapse.” (After waiting eleven years, her mother finally received a grant for the property, and the lot where the house once stood was auctioned off).
In the intervening years, Sarah grappled with how a phantom Yellow House, how New Orleans itself, had penetrated her psyche, and invaded her dreams. “Absences allow us one power over them: They do not speak a word,” she writes. “We say of them what we want. Still, they hover, pointing fingers at our backs….”
For years, Broom travelled to faraway places. Apart from living at various points in California and Texas and New York, we learn that she spent her 31st birthday riding a camel in Cairo, that she visited the Khmer Rouge site in Cambodia, and travelled to Berlin and Istanbul. She moved to Burundi for several months at the suggestion of Samantha Powers (who later became US ambassador to the UN), a move she now admits was an “urge to distance myself from the fate of my family, which of course was my fate, too.”
She also continued to feel the pull of home, moving back more than once, even living briefly in the French Quarter, in an apartment featuring an iron balcony railing with designs hammered out by slaves.
Toni Morrison once said, “Black women seem able to combine the nest and the adventure … They are both safe harbor and ship; they are both inn and trail. We, black women, do both.”
Morrison could be describing Sarah Broom, moving often to places far from New Orleans (“What adventure you on now?,” her siblings would ask when they called her), she who felt without a home. Yet Broom kept creating “beauty out of ordinary spaces,” perfected mini yellow houses, wherever she went. Her memoir is ultimately a story of nest and adventure, of home and away, of where you come from and what you’re headed to, and how it makes you who you are. The depth and nuance of this story is a tribute to Broom’s patience in waiting to tell it, in letting it nest so to speak, for more than a decade after the Water. This is a story that has marinated, steeped itself in time and distance and maturing black womanhood to emerge as an arresting narrative on its way to becoming a classic.
“When you are the babiest in a family with eleven older points-of-view, eleven rallying cries, eleven demanding and pay-attention-to-me voices, all variations of the communal story, developing your own becomes a matter of survival,” Broom tells us. “There can be, in this scenario, no neutral ground.”
This memoir is the story of Sarah M. Broom’s surviving, and thriving, which is to say the full emergence of her voice. You will want to hear everything she has to say.
Bridgett M. Davis is the author, most recently, of the memoir The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers (Little, Brown and Company; 2019). She is Professor of Journalism and the Writing Professions at Baruch College, CUNY, where she teaches creative, film and narrative writing and is Director of the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence Program.