"New Orleans East is cut off, a dot beyond, a blank on someone's inner map." This is how author Sarah M. Broom describes her homeland.

This eastern New Orleans is fifty times larger than the world-famous French Quarter, but Broom's memoir, The Yellow House, opens up a world many locals don't even know.

For this she received the National Book Award in 2019.

The author interweaves her own memories with the history of her Afro-American family and with a historical and political survey of the city.

There's a before and an after after Hurricane Katrina of 2005, which Broom's family calls "the Water," meaning water in capital letters that took so much with it.

The house that gives the book its title becomes a crooked, makeshift refuge over the generations.

The mother, Ivory Mae, bought it in 1961 with money from her husband's life insurance, who died in an accident when she was pregnant with their third child.

For the author and her siblings, it is a difficult home that the family is ashamed of.

Friends don't invite them into their house, so they're a little left out in the neighborhood.

Looking back to before her own birth, Broom paints a picture of a family that can always wrestle a little stability out of inherited poverty - she succeeds at it herself, but not all of her eleven siblings and half-siblings make it.

Trapped by the tides

Katrina was a turning point for Broom and millions of other people.

The hurricane isn't called a "black ground zero" for nothing.

The catastrophe killed 1,836 people in August 2005, and hundreds of thousands lost their homes in the southern United States.

The storm caused $125 billion in damage.

To this day, his name stands for the neglect of the poor districts in the disaster relief and the subsequent population change.

Several investigations later came to the conclusion that the authorities were also responsible for the failure of the flood defenses.

Broom describes how her family saved themselves from Katrina – she herself is in New York and can only follow the catastrophe helplessly.

Her siblings and her mother are not together, they can only find out where the grandmother is days later.

The author dedicates a section to each family member.

Her brother Carl stays too long on the roof and is trapped by the floodwaters.

Only days later does he manage to escape in a boat.

The scenes of violence, when police officers beat people down instead of helping them, when gunmen looted shops and some police officers did the same, are all almost forgotten today, but not for families like Broom's.

Post-Katrina, New Orleans remained a predominantly black city - not always recognizable to the tourists who flock by the tens of thousands through the downtown areas each day.

And many people did not return from fleeing the storm.

In 2000, five years before Katrina, sixty-seven percent of the people of New Orleans were black; today the figure is around sixty percent.

Some of Broom's family, which was deeply rooted in the city, also stayed away permanently.

"We own what belongs to us"

At times, Broom tries to put as much distance as possible between himself and New Orleans.

She studies in California and Texas, works as a journalist in New York.

At dinner, she meets Samantha Power, who later becomes an ambassador to the United Nations.

Power recommends Broom to help train journalists in Africa – she is soon to help set up a radio station in Burundi.

The author is a stranger there, like other “expats”, and once someone even described her as “white”.

In unfamiliar surroundings, Broom reconnects with home and the pain after the hurricane.

Back in America, she takes a job in the press department of the mayor of New Orleans, but gives it up again after six months.

Later, Broom moves to the French Quarter of all places to see the city from a different perspective and find a language for rooting and uprooting.

The yellow house is long gone.

Like so many others, the city tore it down after the flood.

But brother Carl still tends the garden and occasionally mows the lawn, he "babysits the ruins," as she writes.

"I didn't have a home," notes Broom.

She never wanted to claim this house as hers, but now it is clear to her: "What belongs to us belongs to us, whether we want it or not."

The author describes all of this in sometimes factual, sometimes emotional language.

She succeeds in bringing the little-seen parts of the city of New Orleans to life, breaking the one-dimensional image as a spring party destination set against a historic backdrop.

Weaving her memories with historical research, she also tells a story about the multiple challenges that African American families face.

The poverty inherited over generations, being marginalized by racist urban planning and housing policies, and the hopelessness for people who end up in the clutches of the judicial system - the diverse dimensions of structural racism become concretely understandable.

Broom himself is an example of how education can at least lead to economic advancement.

Sarah M. Broom: "The Yellow House".

Life and Survival of a New Orleans Family.

Translated from the English by Tanja Handels.

Hanser Berlin Verlag, Berlin 2022. 432 p., hardcover, €26.

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