PRINT December 2019


Imani Perry

I held Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House (Grove Press) tenderly in my hands even before I knew the subject matter. After I read the first section—a narrative map that leads to the yellow house, her family’s home—I wept. You might not know how rare it is to see Black living laid out on paper, but it is. When it is done, and done beautifully, you have a masterpiece. Think Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Edward P. Jones’s The Known World.

See what you have been trained not to see, and you will understand much more about life and the world. The yellow house sat in New Orleans East, which held and holds people who served the spectacular bacchanal of the French Quarter. East was and is on the unsteady ground granted to the children of the ones who were sold for so much, and earned so little, and gave so much, and yielded so much, and were Black.

Broom tells a completely new story about America’s most-storied city: the dangers of a too-fast highway; the vulnerability of a home on receding land; the search for a high to serve as a balm; the roaming amid street-life wildness, religious ecstasy, friendship, romance, and heartbreak. As she repeats her mother’s words—You know this house not all that comfortable for other people—you are reminded that you are a guest in these lives. Demanding such ethics from her readers, Broom is a steward as well as a writer. Her prose is like a song.

Hurricane Katrina is believed to have been an inevitable tragedy, but the yellow house’s bones and beams reveal the truth: The tragedy was not inevitable. It was constructed. Broom’s book affirms that there is always something that we can build, even without property, rights, or claims. Perhaps this is the true magic of New Orleans: These people are neither ruins nor ruined. Injustice is and does, but people make, and make do.

Imani Perry is the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. Her most recent book is Breathe: A Letter to My Sons (Beacon Press, 2019).