Sarah M. Broom’s grandmother, known as Lolo, was born in 1915 or 1916, in a village founded by freed slaves on a bend of the Mississippi River. In the 1880s, a single family had built “a self-sufficient community composed of four dirt streets, named in the order in which they appeared: First, Second, Third, Fourth”, Broom writes in The Yellow House, a memoir. By 1947, Lolo and her children were “firmly planted” in a house in New Orleans, on a street with “two bars and a small grocery store that seemed to hold down the block like paperweights”.
The simile foreshadows the destructive effects of future hurricanes and floods, but also captures the insecurity of African American homeownership, and civic and commercial life, in general. The mere feeling of being “firmly planted” – “that condition”, as Ralph Ellison put it, of “being at home in the world, which is called love, and which we term democracy” – has always faced heavy weather.
The first section of The Yellow House is gloriously written history, made intimate and vital by the voices of Broom’s older relatives. It describes a home, in the various senses, being optimistically built from the ground up. In lieu of real citizenship, appearances – fashion and cleanliness – were crucial. The children “were more kept than the other kids”, according to Ivory Mae, Broom’s mother, whose words appear in italics throughout the book. “We ain’t wore nothin’ but Stride Rite.” They were barred from entering their local park, but as teenagers Ivory and her brother Joseph would dance “wherever there was a floor”. “Yeah, we knew we looked good”, he says. “Sometimes I’d have my back to her and spin her round two, three times, maybe do a lil split or something.” In a powerful phrase that Broom lets fall mid-sentence, they were “enacting their ideal freedom”.
In the early 1960s, Ivory moved into the eponymous yellow house with her second husband, and two children each from their previous relationships. He was seventeen years her senior, a farm boy who had earned five Navy service stars in the Second World War, “on behalf of a country that listed his name on a roll-call docket as: Simon Broom (n)”. “He had a proud talk. Like the Kennedy brothers”, Ivory says. “When he spoke, I just felt like I needed to be listening.” The Yellow House was situated in what would become known as New Orleans East, a large tract of cypress swamp being drained and developed into housing by Texas oil tycoons (“Everything, they felt, could be drained”). Those were “dreaming days”, the Space Age – “men were blasting off”…