Wednesday, May 1, 2024

On the Coffee Table: Sarah M. Broom

Title: The Yellow House
Author: Sarah M. Broom

via Amazon

The Yellow House is Sarah M. Broom's memoir regarding her connection with New Orleans East, the community where she grew up and where she has sought reconnection as an adult.  Her story revolves around the titular yellow house, the family home.  The book provides a history of a Black family in a largely neglected area of New Orleans, one whose suffering during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath is just the tip of the iceberg of its troubling history.

Sarah, known as Monique to her family, is the youngest of twelve children.  She and most of her siblings moved away from New Orleans after "the Water" with no intention of returning permanently.  Indeed, much of Brown's personal story is about building a life away from the city yet feeling the powerful draw back, even after the house itself is demolished.  The book made me think about how relationships with places define our lives, including my own.

A "hometown" has always been a complicated concept for me.  I spent 15 years of my childhood in Chevy Chase, Maryland so that's the one I usually claim but my own mother has expressed surprise that I feel that way.  Even though they've spent nearly half a century living there, neither of my parents is from the DC area.  They both grew up in the Midwest.  And then they lived a Peace Corps/foreign service nomadic experience for about a dozen years after college.  They haven't lived in my childhood home for 24 years and neither feels a long-term connection with our boring Maryland suburb.  Their current city apartment is home for them.

But not for me.

I don't know where they'd say I'm from.  If not Maryland, where?  I can't claim Japan, the nation of my birth.  I know I don't post many photos here and that's intentional.  But I can assure you I could hardly look more Northern European if I tried.  Japanese?  Not a chance.  I used to tell people I was from DC because it was easier to explain (and maybe sounded cooler?) than Maryland.  But I stopped doing that once my parents moved.  Now, I'm a proud Maryland native.

What's more, I wasn't exactly encouraged to stick around.  I realize as I write it that may seem resentful but that's not how I mean it.  My sister and I were encouraged, for instance, to try a different part of the country for college and we both did.  We were encouraged to travel and even live abroad.  Neither of us was expected to settle nearby.  Our parents both live far from their childhood turf and I think they more or less resigned themselves to the same for us.  I wonder how they feel about all of that now with my sister and me in opposite corners of the country - I in Vermont, she in California.  But given their own life choices, they're in no position to complain.

Of course, Broom's family ended up scattered, too, though for different reasons.

New Orleans and my parents' city of Washington, DC are both predominantly Black.  DC is no longer majority Black as it was during my childhood.  That is partly because of the ever-growing Hispanic/Latinx population, though gentrification has also played a role.  White Non-Hispanics are still the minority.  The two cities also share this: the vast majority of the millions who visit both annually would have no sense of these demographics.  For both, segregation's long legacy is preserved in entirely separate racial communities.  If one only visits the museums and monuments, it would be very easy to see Washington as a white city.  I've never been to New Orleans but from Broom's description, I get the sense the same is true for the French Quarter.  What representation there is of Black culture is often exoticized.

Why does this matter?  Portraying the United States as a white country is a deeply racist lie.  The story of our country is a story of race.  Everything that separates American culture from European cultures is attributable to people of color.  Black people, Hispanic/Latinx and Native Americans can all usually trace their "New World" lineage back several more generations than most white Americans can.  The othering of non-whites is not accidental.  Through segregationist policies, non-white culture is often remote if not invisible to white Americans - certainly in the South (and DC counts in this regard) but in the rest of the country, too.  The story of New Orleans East is a story of such invisibility.  The overwhelmingly Black community doesn't even turn up on most city maps.  

New Orleans East got plenty of worldwide exposure for tragic reasons during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.  Broom's family was far from the only one that didn't return and the city government didn't do much to encourage them beyond lip service.  Insurance payouts for Black homeowners were much lower on average than they were for whites and were generally far lower than the rebuilding cost.  

The subject of race is not the entirety of Broom's memoir but the subject is also impossible to ignore.

The Yellow House is excellent.  The form is episodic, befitting a family history.  I got more caught up in some chapters than others.  But taken as a whole, it's a solid read.


  1. Speaking of being in your "hometown," I'm back where I grew up writing this because of my father having surgeries... Sounds like it could be an interesting book. I was in the 9th Ward not long after Katrina. It was an eye-opener.

  2. This book sounds interesting. Ha! I'm a person coming from people without any roots. It's all to do when British colonised India and sent shiploads of people all over the world!

    1. You have intrigued me. I'm not at all sure where you live. The history you speak of is certainly true. I had a friend in Japan of Indian descent whose family lives in Mauritius - essentially an uninhabited island until the British got their hands on it.