The Yellow House – Sarah M Broom
The Yellow House is a story of East New Orleans, a forgotten part of the city, missing from maps handed out to tourists, and the story of Broom’s family. East New Orleans was built up after the Second World War and was the home to many of the African Americans who worked at NASA during the Space Race. Not as scientists, but they did the vital maintenance and daily tasks that kept things running. A memoir told through the story of a house is not just an interesting device. Housing is a basic human need, and increasingly, it is one that more and more people are denied. Even when people (especially African Americans) own homes, the odds that this means permanent security could be stacked against them. When houses aren’t quite legal ( for example, built without the proper permits), owners can’t get insurance. Owners who can’t afford insurance, or live in an uninsurable area (flood plain), are completely out of luck. When disaster strikes, Hurricane Katrina in this case, it can take years to get a settlement, which happened to Broom’s family.
Broom was the youngest of 12 children of Ivory Mae. Broom doesn’t romanticize the house. They had rats and at time termite infestations. Parts of the house were so gerry-rigged, they were barely hanging on to the structure. Broom’s mother fell victim to unscrupulous contractors and repairs. Despite its problems, the house was the glue that kept some family members from drifting away, and off the streets. This house in East New Orleans was on a street that diminished over time and few houses remained near its end. But there was life on the street and in the area. It gave Broom an identity that set apart her from other New Orleanians.
This is also a story of the destruction caused by poorly planned development of the Mississippi Delta and Gulf Coast. New Orleans is a city of multiple disfunction. Broom learns this first hand when she returns to New Orleans to work for the now-disgraced mayor, Ray Nagin. I didn’t know that during his time in office, there were many residents who despised him. As Broom made her way around the city, she often had to park her city vehicle at a distance so that people wouldn’t identify her with City Hall. Broom also describes the poor quality of public education. Her mother scrimped together the tuition to send her daughter to parochial schools.
As I heard (via audiobook) Broom’s description of the city as seen by tourists and the tourist industry, I felt I could have been reading about places in the developing world (or as some still persist in saying “the Third World”). Locals stay in the background and are there to clean the hotel rooms, cook and serve meals, and play the music the city is famous for. The tourists drink themselves senseless and party. These residents of New Orleans became “throw aways” when Katrina descended and drove residents to their roofs, and the Superdome, and killed over 1,800. The apathy of response to Katrina may have been outdone by the government’s delayed response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. But as Elie Wiesel reminded us, it’s not about who suffered more. Both New Orleans and Puerto Rico are full of brown people, many of them poor. More concern seemed to center on restoring tourism centers, and many people have little or no hope of being made whole despite the time that has elapsed since these natural disasters.
Broom’s memoir won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2019 as it deserved. Highly recommended.