Toward the middle of Sarah M. Broom’s debut memoir, “The Yellow House,” she writes, “We own what belongs to us whether we claim it or not.”
This is in a chapter titled “Erase,” in which Broom’s mother describes the city of New Orleans’ demolition of their small, perpetually falling apart, resilient, intergenerational family home post-Katrina in this way: “Carl said those people then came and tore our house down. That land clean as a whistle now. Look like nothing was ever there.”
These passages stopped me cold. Not for their beauty or wisdom, although they certainly reflect these qualities. But there were so many other equally beautiful and wise passages throughout Broom’s moving 376-page narrative of personal, familial and place-based history. No, what stopped me was the knowledge that in delving deep into the complicated, sometimes exhausting specifics of the life and times of a single house, occupied by a single family over half a century, Broom has effectively told the story of black America in one fell swoop.
Of our ongoing quest to find home and place in the most tenuous of circumstances, even if it means building a foundation in a swamp, or trying to keep a decrepit house standing and too many children fed on meager working-class wages.
Reminiscent of Jesmyn Ward’s “Men We Reaped” and Kiese Laymon’s “Heavy,” Broom’s “The Yellow House” is only seemingly a personal memoir. At its core, it is a mythic rendering of the cost and brilliant tenacity of the American black family’s struggle to confront, wrestle with and resist destruction in “the mouth of this dragon we call america,” as writer Audre Lorde says.
Although black America may have little materially to claim from our more than 400 years here, we — like the Broom family — still have what belongs to us, even if we cannot claim it. This tension is at the center of Broom’s expansive exploration of legacy: Who gets to define home? On whose terms? And to what ends? And what do you do when, like Broom, you have a very complicated relationship to home? What do you do when home means crushing poverty, feeling trapped, stories that started way before you were born but seem to overdetermine your destiny?
What do you do when your hometown is destroyed by a hurricane that scatters most of your family across the country, probably permanently?
But “The Yellow House” is not just about the journey and ultimate loss of a physical family house. It fully embraces the idea of home as transcendent, as well. As Broom writes in her mother’s voice: “And then you see the lives of the children and they become the living people of the house, the house lives in them. They become the house instead of the house becoming them. When I look at you all, I don’t really see the house, but I see what happened from the house. And so in that way, the house can’t die.”
Shannon Gibney is a writer in Minneapolis. Her latest book was “Dream Country,” published last fall.
The Yellow House
By: Sarah M. Broom.
Publisher: Grove Press, 376 pages, $26.