I recently finished reading “The Yellow House” by Sarah M. Broom. I’ve finally collected and arranged my thoughts about this beautiful book. To understand why I enjoyed it the way I did, you should know some things about where I was raised. I grew up in a small town north of Philadelphia, where we knew every family on our block and most families in our community. The block, where my mother still lives, is the first of a street that runs from our town, across a major thoroughfare, and bends as it continues southeast for about 2 1/4 miles, ending in another town.
There is a yellow house on my block. I always remember it fondly, partly because I remember baking Christmas cookies in the basement with Miss Effie, the matriarch of the home. Also, the house seemed to always be full of children, something I dreamed of as an only child. There were six siblings and two cousins that I can remember. I didn’t know which parents went with which children until I was older. As a child I wasn’t interested. I only imagined that the children always had fun and never felt lonely.
I thought of that yellow house when I first heard of a book called “The Yellow House.” I read the reviews on the back and the summary on the jacket. I had to read this book about a large family in a yellow house on the short side of a long street street. I thought I would be reminded of my neighbors. Instead, I was reminded of a white house, built in 1954. With help from some of his wife’s brothers, a man with a wife, a nine year old son, and a 4 year old daughter built his home, one of the first on the block.
His wife’s brother, Joshua Braxton, lived down the block on the intersecting street in a home that faced my street. His sister, Margaret Henry, lived in a large house on a corner about a block away. Another sister, Louise Newman, lived in a rowhouse one block over from Margaret. A few miles away, near the asbestos mounds, lived another of his wife’s brothers, Theodore Braxton. Along with several siblings, the man had moved up north seeking a different life. After living in a tiny apartment on North Street, the man was finally able to build a home of his own, a white house on Highland Avenue. His daughter grew up and had one child, me. The beautiful architecture, a full scholarship, and the promise of freedom for the first time in my life drew me away from the white house to New Orleans.
I couldn’t put “The Yellow House” down. I once lived on St. Andrew Street, not very far from the Irish Channel neighborhood where Ivory Mae, the story’s hero, grew up. I know the areas where the pink camelback house, the Royal Street apartment, and uncle Joseph Soule’s home are. I know people who work at Lafon Nursing Home and who graduated from St. Mary’s School. My husband, like the author’s brother, worked in French Quarter restaurants for years. In fact, I’m familiar with almost every part of New Orleans that was mentioned. The only place I had never heard of is the short end of Wilson Street, the location of the yellow house.
Being somewhat hidden, bordered by train tracks and a major highway, encroached upon by industrial real estate, neglect, and the Water, the author’s childhood home constantly fought to merely exist. It’s the wayward family members that everyone believes can be better, but they can be nothing more than what they are. Ms. Broom’s observations about the obscurity of her tiny section of the street, and in a larger sense, the precarious history and future of New Orleans East, rang true to me. It is the history of many New Orleans neighborhoods – the life of New Orleans people.
An ignored community, a family sacrificing to shelter a child from the ills of subpar public schools, poverty, colorism, a dedicated single mother who does everything possible for her family – clinging stubbornly to what she knows. I understand leaving New Orleans only to find yourself wanting, no needing to be there. I’ve heard what happens when one sibling succumbs to drug use, stealing from mama’s house and enraging or frightening mama’s other children. I’ve known praying women – ladies who recite the rosary or chant a psalm or shake and shout, “Hallelujah!”
I’ve seen Black Indians posing for pictures in exchange for tips in the French Quarter. I’ve seen the housekeepers, dishwashers and other service workers at unsheltered bus stops, waiting to be driven to other neighborhoods where they can support themselves with their French Quarter wages.
I’ve seen some musicians plying their trade on sidewalks, earning their wages in buckets and up-turned hats. Others play in hotel ballrooms, fancy night clubs, classy restaurants, funky little bars, ancient saloons, run-down structures with actual holes in the walls and any place in between. Often, they’re riding buses or streetcars with the housekeepers and dishwashers, leaving the neighborhoods that pay them, returning to neighborhoods where they can afford shelter.
In the yellow house, built in an unlikely location, loved by many who lived there, maintained, dressed up, and repaired with limited resources and abundant creativity, I see New Orleans. It’s the home of those who were eager to leave and those who desire to stay forever. It’s the place of those who bless the location and curse the situation. It’s the home that is loved, hated, appreciated, disrespected, protected, invaded, tended, and ignored. A source of pride and shame, a physical and emotional shelter that can’t always protect it’s inhabitants, I have known the author’s yellow house. It’s the city that I love, the wayward place that everyone believed could be better, but might be nothing more than what it is.