Archives have always been contested spaces. Who and what gets recorded often has more to do with those in power than it does those without it. Historians have wrestled with this fact for decades, trying to address the assumed neutrality of the political and cultural institutions responsible for recording our past. In the last 40 years, a wave of cultural and social historians, mostly writing about the black Atlantic, have done so by finding new archives to mine, uncovering those voices left in the margins. In his sweeping history, Silencing the Past, Michel-Rolph Trouillot put forth a powerful indictment of what historians of the Atlantic world have chosen to ignore (the Haitian Revolution, slave revolts) or commemorate (Christopher Columbus, the American Revolution) and offered a counterhistory. In Reconstructing Womanhood, her study of African American women novelists, Hazel Carby rewrote 19th and 20th century literary history, forcing readers to focus on the fiction of black women intellectuals. And in her classic essay “Venus in Two Acts,” Saidiya Hartman exhumed ignored slave archives and used what she termed “critical fabulation” (the process of closing gaps in the archives) to retell the story of a black woman’s murder aboard a slave ship. “How can narrative embody life in words and at the same time respect what we cannot know?” Hartman asked. “How does one listen for the groans and cries, the undecipherable songs, the crackle of fire in the cane fields, the laments for the dead, and the shouts of victory, and then assign words to all of it?”
Though many of these historians focused on slavery, their insights and methodologies have informed a new generation of writers as they examine the wider history of being black in America. Sarah M. Broom, a contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine, deploys these archival techniques in The Yellow House, a memoir that reconstructs not only her family’s history in New Orleans but also that larger arc of the black experience in the United States. Her sources range from maps and pamphlets to interviews and journal entries. But perhaps most compellingly, one of her primary texts is the titular house in which she and her siblings grew up.
The Yellow House has garnered well-deserved praise; it won a National Book Award and appeared on several “best of the year” lists. More than just a narrative about a family, it is a masterpiece of personal and social history, examining the devastating consequences of decades of government neglect and revealing the very weak foundations on which the American dream rests. Using oral history, forgotten pieces of journalism, photographs, deeds, and other artifacts, The Yellow House helps to fill in those painful “silent leaps,” as Broom puts it, that fragment the history of her family and her home of New Orleans East.
By giving her family members space to tell their stories, Broom does far more than help knit this history back together. Like Hartman, she also poses a set of vexing questions: How do you reconstruct the history of a place and a people whose importance has been deemed negligible (at best) by those in power? How do you use the archives to write the narrative of a life (or in this case, lives) without replicating the initial violence?
The story of The Yellow House begins with a map of New Orleans East. It’s a special one: What it lacks in visual elements (there are none), it makes up for in the detailed and considered way Broom describes the location of her childhood home. She begins by asking readers to envision an aerial photograph, in which Carl, one of her 11 siblings, tends a lot where a house once stood. “I can see him there now, in my mind’s eye, silent and holding a beer,” she writes. “Babysitting ruins.” From there, she pulls her focus back and considers the neighborhood, once a prosperous working-class community. These days, however, when visitors get off the highway, they pass “run-down apartment complexes” and “the foundation that once held a tire shop that used to be a laundromat,” among other relics. She then asks us to imagine how common this story is in all of New Orleans, in Louisiana, in the South, and in the United States. As Broom zooms out, it becomes apparent that her tale won’t be about just one house; it will also tackle the burden of myths and interrogate who owns particular narratives, both local and regional.
Broom starts with the story of how her family ended up in New Orleans East. Her grandmother Amelia, whom everyone called Lolo, moved from St. Rose, Louisiana, to New Orleans to live with her aunt after her mother disappeared. There Lolo gave birth to Broom’s mother, Ivory Mae, who grew up to marry her childhood sweetheart, Edward Webb. Their marriage ended abruptly when he died during Army basic training. The circumstances were tragic and murky, as was often the case for black families who lost a loved one in the armed services, but Ivory Mae found a way to carry on and eventually remarried, this time to Simon Broom, a man twice her age. In 1961, Ivory Mae purchased a home in New Orleans East, a neighborhood of 40,000 acres of wetland developed by real estate barons.
Bounded on one side by the Industrial Canal, New Orleans East was always at high risk of flooding. In the 1960s it thrived nevertheless: Soon a NASA plant (a symbol of the expansive space age) arrived, as well as companies like Folgers Coffee. The danger of the wetlands only added to the myth. Like the city it was a part of, New Orleans East would defy its natural limitations. Although built on a “cypress swamp, its ground too soft to support trees or the weight of three humans,” Broom writes, it was promoted as “a ‘Model City…taking form within an old and glamorous one’ that if successful would have made New Orleans ‘the brightest spot in the South, the envy of every land-shy community in America.’”
The new home, a narrow shotgun building originally painted light green, held a special place in Ivory Mae’s heart, even if it “was sinking in the back,” Broom writes. “The structure needed work,” Ivory Mae recalled to her daughter, and the “land was almost wild, with grass between the houses.” But the house represented “beginnings,” and with Simon, she “made it new,” eventually filling it with 12 children, who she fervently hoped would inherit it one day. “I feel like everybody grown up should have a legacy, like a house or something,” Ivory Mae explained, “to leave for the next generation.”
This legacy, however, was sorely beset by one ecological and economic crisis after another. In 1965, less than a year after Ivory Mae and Simon moved in, Hurricane Betsy hit, sowing the seeds for increased divestment in New Orleans. Broom documents how the state’s response to the hurricane reinforced the locals’ distrust of the authorities, who in the wake of the storm left the city’s poorest residents to become “sacrificial lambs.”
Bringing that story into the present, Broom considers what happened to these sacrificial lambs, including her mother, father, and siblings. Simon died in 1980 at the age of 56, when Broom was less than a year old. By the time she came of age, most of her siblings had left the Yellow House and New Orleans East for marriage, work, or other reasons. Meanwhile, the house slowly turned from a potential legacy into a burden. The ceiling had unfinished beams, the wood beneath the yellow siding decayed, and the faucets in the bathroom broke. Ivory Mae was dedicated to maintaining a good home; she bought nice furniture and made repairs where she could. But the demands of motherhood, coupled with limited resources—most of which were put toward Broom’s education—made it impossible to keep up. Soon the house became “Ivory Mae’s thirteenth and most unruly child.”
Broom’s mother faced all sorts of other challenges as well. Ivory Mae’s mom developed Alzheimer’s; one of her sons battled a drug addiction and turned the Yellow House into a site for his pilfering. Another son, now divorced, returns to the Yellow House and becomes something like its caretaker. The children, now scattered across the South, initiate home repair plans and try to pay for them, without much success in either case. Broom, whose teenage years feel like dramatic passages in a musical score, finds refuge in her mind and in writing, and she, too, eventually escapes, moving to Texas to study anthropology and journalism. She returns to the Yellow House only occasionally, and during those brief stints she finds that many of the neighboring homes have now been abandoned, with the locals moving to Gentilly, a middle-class neighborhood across the canal, and entire lots turning into junkyards. The promise of the Yellow House already appeared broken, and yet for Broom and the rest of her family, the worst was still to come.
Broom’s strengths as a writer are most obvious when she uses the story of the Yellow House not only to examine her family but also to analyze the history of black Americans in New Orleans. Her method reflects Trouillot’s observations about the role of structures in history making. “A castle, a fort, a battlefield, church, all these things bigger than we that we infuse with the reality of past lives, seem to speak of an immensity of which we know little except that we are part of it,” he writes. “Too solid to be unmarked, too conspicuous to be candid, they embody the ambiguities of history.” Broom’s childhood home is far easier to enter: It is made of less solid materials and is still a living site, a vessel for her family’s hopes and dreams—of pride of ownership, of building community, and of proof that meritocracy existed. And along with the archives and historical sources that Broom turns to, it is the house that allows her to tell the story of the emotional as well as social and economic consequences of these hopes going unfulfilled—not just for her family but for the city as a whole. “Unrealized dreams could pummel you if you weren’t careful,” she observes of their multiple attempts to repair and maintain the Yellow House. But it is with the arrival of Hurricane Katrina that the full scope of the pummeling becomes clear. And it is during the storm and its aftermath that the different threads of her story come together and the larger story of New Orleans, the South, and the United States comes into focus.
Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans with a fury. It was one of the deadliest and costliest storms in US history. It killed more than 1,800 people and damaged more than 70 percent of the homes in New Orleans, costing the federal government billions of dollars. It’s been 15 years since Katrina, and we are still trying to understand its impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The storm’s destructiveness, as Broom meticulously shows, was not a single tragic event but rather a series of reverberations felt most acutely during the city’s crawl toward recovery.
Broom and her family returned to the Yellow House in October of 2005, a little more than a month after the storm. It was a pilgrimage of sorts, to see how their home had become something else entirely. What they found was horrifying. “The house looked as though a force, furious and mighty, crouching underneath, had lifted it from its foundation and thrown it slightly left,” Broom recalls. “The front door sat wide open; a skinny tree angled its way inside.” Family members stood near the lot, some with face masks on, and stared at the home that had raised them all, in one way or another. “We did not enter,” she writes, “even though the house we knew beckoned.”
Ivory Mae remained in the car, unable to bear witness. Soon the city declared the site a “red danger,” a designation for properties it planned to demolish. Ivory Mae applied to Road Home, a $10 billion rebuilding program that gave cash grants to homeowners looking to repair or sell property damaged by Katrina, but her application languished in a maze of bureaucratic negligence and wasn’t finalized until 2016—more than a decade after the hurricane. By that point, Ivory Mae had moved into her mother’s home in St. Rose. Eventually the application was approved, and Ivory Mae signed away the land that the Yellow House sat on for a small grant. The lot, which she’d owned for more than 50 years and which Carl now tended, would be “auctioned off to become something else.”
Broom’s intimate relationship with New Orleans only amplifies her sense of the importance of her role as a documentarian. For her, what happened to the city in the wake of Katrina was personal; what she finds is that nearly all of the dysfunction that plagued New Orleans after the storm had existed long before. A majority of the residents who had been displaced—whose services had yet to be restored and who remained outsiders in their own city—were black. And when it came to the recovery, “black people were more likely than whites to receive Road Home grants based on premarket values lower than the actual cost to repair their houses.” The question of whom New Orleans belongs to is one that undergirds much of the second half of The Yellow House, as Broom ventures to make her own claim to the city.
The power of her book comes from just how successfully she navigates what it means to assert that claim and own a narrative at once unique to her family and yet common to many others in New Orleans. Sometimes her narrative deviates from its main story to the author’s existential questions and self-development in ways that can feel jarring. But that, too, is part of the point. One cannot write a memoir without a thorough, if sometimes awkward, self-interrogation. And throughout, Broom makes sure that we keep our eye on the book’s true protagonist: the yellow house. The book ends much as it begins, with her brother Carl keeping watch over the lot where the house once stood, mowing the lawn and sitting at a now ruined dining table. “Cutting grass could seem so simple an act,” she writes. But it is one freighted with a complex history. Joining her brother, Broom also mows the lawn—a tender gesture that ultimately marks the boundary of what was lost as much as what was saved.