You Can’t Go Home Again

The Yellow House BY Sarah M. Broom. New York: Grove Press. 304 pages. $26.

The cover of The Yellow House

The Mississippi River and its tributaries flood perennially. To protect the settlements along its banks, the Army Corps of Engineers created a system of levees and canals that forced the waters to an unnatural course. The Great Flood of 1927 uprooted nearly a million people from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico. It disrupted the Mississippi Delta’s sharecropping economy and, in one of the Great Migration’s largest waves, drove a generation of black strivers from rural life into cities. A wealth of literature immortalized the flood and its aftermath, and elders tallied their losses in oral accounts. They never forgot how government officials blew up a levee in Caernarvon, Louisiana, destroying smaller settlements to save New Orleans. Perhaps the blues recorded the matter most indelibly. Charley Patton, Kansas Joe McCoy, Memphis Minnie, and Sippie Wallace told us how a calculus of power determined who suffered most when calamity arrived. In September 1965, Hurricane Betsy carried heavy rains and high winds over New Orleans. Levees at the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet and the Lower Ninth Ward failed. Water spilled over both sides of the Industrial Canal, which had been built in the 1920s and connected the river to Lake Pontchartrain. More than 160,000 homes were submerged. President Lyndon B. Johnson granted federal funds to rebuild the city and shore up its levees. They held until late August 2005, when Katrina’s surge breached them in more than fifty places. Eighty percent of New Orleans was, again, under water.

In her debut memoir, The Yellow House, Sarah M. Broom tells the story of the shotgun house her mother, Ivory Mae, bought in New Orleans East and of the storms her family has weathered there. The neighborhood was a low-lying, mostly undeveloped expanse of forty thousand acres, cut off from the rest of the city by the Industrial Canal. In the early ’60s, retailers and developers flush from an oil boom flocked as families clustered in new neighborhoods, high on the promise of suburbia within the city limits. “The house was my beginnings,” says Ivory Mae, who was nineteen and a widowed mother of two when she bought the home for $3,200 in 1961. She was the first homeowner in her family; her mother had been born on a plantation.

Soon after Ivory Mae, husband Simon Broom, and their children moved in, Hurricane Betsy’s storm surge filled the home with waist-deep water. To survive, the Brooms waded and swam to higher ground. They rebuilt with fervor when the waters receded: Ivory Mae sewed curtains and nearly every item her children wore. Simon worked at NASA and implemented an assortment of home-development projects. The family regularly threw “raucous parties” for relatives and neighbors, “big booties squeezed into the den of the house; highballs aplenty; arms striving for the new ceiling.” Over the years, the family grew, and the home, “fancier looking than before,” acquired a new layer of yellow vinyl siding, as well as a second story at its rear. The girl children lived at the back, the boys upstairs in the home’s new “crown.”

The Yellow House trains its eye on this family home and its inhabitants and then pivots, zooms out, panning wide to reveal how a convergence of time, history, and city, state, and national neglect bear upon most black families in the United States. Broom’s writing—intricate and prismatic as a honeycomb—is by turns tender, exacting, sweeping, and biblical. Born in 1979, Broom is the “babiest” of twelve siblings. She doesn’t appear as a character through the first third of the text: “My beginning precedes me,” she insists. “The facts of the world before me inform, give shape and context to my own life.” Layering reportage, oral history, and archival research, the author reconstructs her lineage back to the early 1900s. Every character gets their due, but it is Ivory Mae whose dreams and language give this world its color. Often, her voice, rendered in italics, emerges in the larger narrative, conveying an internal dialogue, a duet, a book in conversation with itself. Here, Broom describes her mother’s early romance with Simon—complete with Ivory Mae’s interjections:

Projecting an ease that Ivory Mae loved, he seemed a man in possession of himself, if not things. Nineteen years her elder, he had massive hands, gray-stained from years of work, which meant, Ivory Mae reasoned, that he could fix whatever in his and her world was broken. Plus, his diction. He had a proud talk. Like the Kennedy brothers. When he spoke, I felt like I just needed to be listening.

The Yellow House is divided into four sections Broom calls “movements.” The first, “The World Before Me,” is elegiac and dense with the histories of the people and places who compose Broom’s origins and is at times weighed down by its detail. But Broom’s next section vaults forward in time and plumbs different themes. The word movement suggests the upheaval of displacement and the propulsion of real life while retaining its musical meaning. Traditionally, the four movements of a symphony vary in tempo and tone. The first movement, usually a sonata, delivers the entire work’s themes and provides exposition. The second is often infused with melancholy. A jauntier third movement delivers conflict, followed by a virtuosic resolution in the fourth. The Yellow House follows this symphonic pattern and also draws on the jazz that emerged from the black neighborhoods of New Orleans. What Ralph Ellison called “an art of individual assertion within and against the group,” it superimposed the rhythms and existential preoccupations of the blues onto European instruments to transmute the “chaos of living to form.”

The story told in The Yellow House is as embedded in the way it is told as it is in its plot and characters. In her prologue to Jazz, Toni Morrison writes, “I had written novels in which structure was designed to enhance meaning; here the structure would equal meaning.” The Yellow House’s complexity—its refusal to summarize, its reliance on exacting, painterly detail, patient contextualization, and infusions of tenderness and humor—is an insistence on a capacious black humanity.

Broom is an inquisitive five-year-old when she enters the story in “The Grieving House,” the book’s second movement. The house and its residents are still mourning Simon, who died suddenly when Sarah was six months old. Out of her own memories (“Absences,” she says, “hover, pointing fingers at our backs”) and the testimony of Ivory Mae, the author imagines her father’s final days. Years go by, and his home-improvement projects remain incomplete, “a door sanded but unpainted; holes cut for windows, the panes uninstalled.” The Yellow House becomes increasingly difficult to maintain, and the remaining Brooms retreat from the outside world, asking friends to drop them off far from home, sometimes avoiding friendships altogether. When Sarah leaves for college, Ivory Mae is left to contend with the home alone. For three full pages, Broom gives her, “its sovereign,” control of the narrative:

The roof of the house in the bedroom where I was sleeping, it was raining in there. It had caved in. We had to put a piece of plastic up, and they had a tub catching water. I had to push the bed over to the closet some when it rained. That went on for quite a while. . . .
If a book comes out, people are gonna say, Well this can’t be the people I knew.

You know what I’m saying?
I was living a lie, you know?

The levee breaches of Katrina split the Yellow House in two, blew out all of its windows. Chapter names in “Water,” the book’s third movement, are verbs: “Run,” “Survive,” “Settle,” “Bury.” Broom arranges her family’s stories of flight and survival into a collage of oral histories that resound like a chorus. Elder brother Carl breaks through the roof of a home he shares with his wife to ride out the storm; seven days pass before help arrives. Ivory Mae flees to Mississippi and then to Texas. When the city razes the Yellow House in the storm’s aftermath, Broom takes a job in Burundi to search for answers, correctly intuiting that what happened in New Orleans is what has happened to all of the Global South.

For the fourth movement, Broom returns home, to write the book we hold in our hands, to collect the spools of thread unraveled to tell this story. “Look like nothing was ever there,” Ivory Mae says after her home has been razed. The Yellow House, a masterwork of art and journalism, is about the grave mistakes of the twentieth century, washed ashore in the twenty-first. We may not survive the forthcoming floods. Broom’s memoir records how we might rebuild if we do.

Danielle A. Jackson is a Memphis-born writer living and working in Brooklyn.