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Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Changing the Narrative and Mapping Our Stories

I just finished The Yellow House early this morning and so many thoughts are swirling in my head that I have to come back to my blog to process these feelings. Sorry I've been absent from the blog, but I have been reading and sharing my favorite books on another platform. Yes, I've been cheating on this blog at Instagram. Follow me and see almost everything I'm reading there @hatrireads. I'll edit these thoughts on this amazing book for that platform as well.

So, The Yellow House by Sarah M. Bloom is definitely hard to describe - more than a memoir, more than a Katrina story, more than a story about place. It's all those things and more. Sarah, also known to her family as Monique or Mo, Broom uses the metaphor of a map to describe her place. Most significant to her story is the fact that New Orleans East is left off most maps of New Orleans. Just as the Yellow House that she grew up in has been wiped off her street, the short end of Wilson Street in New Orleans East.  She starts and ends this book with the image of her brother Carl, also called Rabbit, sitting alone on the lot of the house that used to hold her life. And her father. Underlying the story of the house is the story of her father, Simon Broom, who died six months after she was born. When the house is demolished, without the family's consent, in the aftermath of Katrina, she felt like she'd lost her father all over again. 


The book is the history of that house, the history of her family, the history of New Orleans, and the story of America, according to Broom. I had the delight of hearing her speak at her book launch in New Orleans a few weeks ago. She read to a standing room crowd of 200 outside Garden District Bookshop. After the reading, she was interviewed by Marcus Carlos Ruffin, author of another new favorite of mine, We Cast a Shadow, and also product of New Orleans East. When asked about the place they were both born, Broom said, "New Orleans East is off the map, literally." She said she sees being a writer as similar to being a cartographer, "drawing a map of the place and the people I love." She added, "My life's work is to revise existing maps. Fill in the blank spaces. It's sad that more people aren't writing about these communities."

In this her first book, Broom uses language and description in a masterful way. She writes: "I had no home. Mine had fallen all the way down. I understood that the place I never wanted to claim had, in fact, been containing me. We own what belongs to us whether we claim it or not." Earlier in the book, she writes about finally getting eyeglasses when she was 10 years old and she compares that to the "ways we can choose not to see things." She wants to "keep her glasses on and look directly at the world. I want to be real about what the world looks like and report on it." 


Trained as a journalist, Broom was called the "human tape recorder" by her family as a child.  She has been taking notes, interviewing her family and researching her town ever since. This book was created over the last 20 years of her life and she has drawn on a variety of sources to tell this story. Her family is probably the biggest source for this and she relied on her siblings and her mother to tell her their history. As the baby of her mother's 13 children, Broom has to use the voices of the others that came before her to tell their history.  Her mother, Ivory Mae is central to the story. Her determination to own her own home,  to raise her children to be respectful, to be loving and gentle shines through every page. Most of Broom's family was at the reading I attended and at the end I got her mother to sign my book, which is really her story. 


Part of the reason Broom wrote the book was to put Katrina (or the Water as she called it) in context. "It's not the only thing," she says about Katrina. She calls it "one of many official negligences...Katrina can't define us all." She said that if she only told about the Katrina part then she would not be telling her whole story. Her story and her family's story encompasses more than that one event. She wants to tell about the "little moments that make up a life."  She added,  "The story I love is all the areas no one is talking about."


I've been thinking a lot about the stories that haven't been told since the New York Times released its 1619 Project, observing the 400th anniversary of slavery. The print publication also includes lesson plans and more educational materials to deepen understanding of this central part of American history as well as share untold stories. I highly recommend the accompanying podcast. Host Nikole Hannah-Jones tells the ways her story and the story of all black Americans has been ignored even though it is central to our shared history as a nation. 

I also want to the opening of an exhibit here in New Orleans at Newcomb Art Gallery last week. The American Dream Denied: The New Orleans Residents of Gordon Plaza Seek Relocation is a mixed media exhibition organized by the Critical Visualization and Media Lab at Tulane University.  Gordon Plaza is a housing development built in the lat 1970s on top of the former Agriculture Street Landfill in the Upper Ninth Ward. The "beautiful subdivision" was created to provide affordable houses so African Americans could realize the so-called American Dream. These toxic homes were deemed a Superfund site but residents were not given the opportunity to sell their homes back. Through the People's Assembly of New Orleans and other groups, the remaining 52 residents are telling their story and asking for a fair and fully-funded relocation. The exhibit amplifies these unheard stories. We need to hear these stories and put these places and people back on the map of our minds.

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