The Yellow House Themes

The main themes in The Yellow House are race and discrimination, home and identity, and hiding and shame.

  • Race and discrimination: Broom shows how racial discrimination has played a role in both New Orleans's public policy and in the lives of her family members.
  • Home and identity: Broom explores how the Yellow House is inextricably linked to her family members' identities, even years after its destruction.
  • Hiding and shame: The memoir discusses the shame Broom once felt about her home, but over time she has come to accept and embrace her origins.

Themes

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Last Reviewed on January 7, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1219

Race and Discrimination

Race and discrimination impact Broom’s understanding of both herself and New Orleans. Broom discusses the various ways in which her family faces discrimination, from school segregation in 1950s Louisiana to the mysterious death of her mother’s first husband, Webb, while away at army training.

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Race and Discrimination

Race and discrimination impact Broom’s understanding of both herself and New Orleans. Broom discusses the various ways in which her family faces discrimination, from school segregation in 1950s Louisiana to the mysterious death of her mother’s first husband, Webb, while away at army training.

The first example of discrimination occurs when Broom’s mother considers the varying gradations of skin tones between herself and her siblings. “My mother, Ivory Mae,” Broom writes, “understood from a young age the value in her light skin and freckles and in the texture of her wavy hair, which she called good.” Ivory’s sister Elaine “was a few shades darker than Joseph and Ivory and [had] thicker hair that she herself describes as ‘a pain to comb.’ ” Ivory, understanding “light” to mean “good,” has internalized the racism that surrounds her, displaying hatred for those darker than herself. Broom describes a scene where a schoolmate known as “Black Andrew” winks at young Ivory, a gesture at which Ivory scoffs. Uncle Joe later explains, “I guess we saw it sort of like the white men saw it . . . As people being lower than us.”

As children, Joe, Elaine, and Ivory were forced to attend a school-sanctioned event known as John McDonogh Day that honored “a wealthy slave owner who in 1850 bequeathed half of his estate to New Orleans public schools, insisting that his money be used to ‘the establishment and support of free schools wherein the poor and the poor only . . . shall have admittance.’ ” The event required the schoolchildren to visit McDonogh’s gravesite. During the event, “The black children waited in the sun while the white children completed their procession to honor John McDonogh.” Many black children fainted during this event due to sun exposure.

Broom explains that during the build-up of New Orleans East, the mayor at the time, deLesseps “Chep” Morrison, endeavored to build over what he referred to as “slum cancer,” or “those working-class communities of wooden cottages and shotgun houses that were bulldozed to make way for ‘glass-and-class.’ ” A new city hall was “built on top of Louis Armstrong’s childhood neighborhood,” effectively erasing the area’s black history.

This erasure and neglect of New Orleans’s black citizens continues in various iterations. After Hurricane Betsy hits, “People in the deluged areas recalled hearing dynamite, an eruption in the middle of their scrambling.” These eruptions were the sounds of the city blowing up marshes “to dredge MR-GO,” the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. This tactic had been employed thirty-eight years prior as a way to “divert water away from more ‘valuable’ neighborhoods.” Black citizens were literally being drowned out by the city.

After Hurricane Katrina, the discrimination and neglect continues, forcing citizens of New Orleans East to form activist groups to protest “affordable housing shortages,” neglect of their school districts, and “FEMA’s Road Home Program,” which did not adequately assist citizens post-Katrina the way it promised.

Broom writes about race and discrimination to expose the corruption within New Orleans and to correct the assumption that the city is a place solely about fun, parties, and parades.

Home and Identity

Broom explores the deep connections between one’s home and one’s self. A house and a person’s identity, she argues, are inextricably linked; the home—its interior, exterior, and location—reflect the inhabitants within.

Following Hurricane Betsy—in which the not-yet-Yellow-House is severely damaged—Simon, Broom’s father, attempts to rebuild. Sarah explains that during this time, “no new children were born, as if the house itself were the baby being raised.” The house here becomes an extension of Ivory and Simon, something that is birthed rather than simply built. This personification of the house strengthens the ownership Ivory and Simon have over it. They create something they can truly call their own, in a place that wishes to deny their existence. Building a house is a powerful way for them to assert their presence—it allows them to create and to survive.

While their home asserted their presence, it also invoked a great deal of shame. The wedding of Broom’s stepsister Deborah was held in the backyard of the not-yet-Yellow-House. Ivory recalls people “wander[ing] inside, to the bathroom, and then others went in just to see what [they] had.” Broom writes, “[Mom] had grown to believe that the objects contained within a house spoke loudest about the person to whom the things belonged.” Connections can be made here between going into someone’s house and seeing into someone’s soul. Inviting a person into one’s home is often a deeply vulnerable experience, and this idea is strongly illustrated in Broom’s memoir.

In her adulthood, as she begins to write her memoir, Broom moves to an apartment located in the French Quarter, arguably the most famous part of New Orleans. She chooses the neighborhood out of “a yearning for centrality.” Living in the “outer ring” of New Orleans, a place so deeply neglected, rendered Broom voiceless. To make a home for herself in the French Quarter means asserting both her voice and her identity.

Hiding and Shame

Hiding and shame occur at the very beginning of Broom’s memoir, when Broom explains that New Orleans East is hidden from readers in most literature written about her city. While examining a detailed map of New Orleans given to her by Avis Car Rental, Sarah searches for the area in which she was raised. She observes that “New Orleans East is cut off, a point beyond, a blank space on someone’s mental map.” New Orleans East is also almost never mentioned in guidebooks or visited on guided tours of the city. The East is hidden from the general public.

Broom also hides behind her name. At the age of five, she is told by her mother to shed her birth name, Monique, in order to blend in with her white classmates. While in college, Broom reflects that “When [she’s] in New Orleans . . . [she] feels like Monique. At UNT, [she] was Sarah.” She continues, “In its formality, the name Sarah gave nothing away, whereas Monique raised questions and could show up as a presence in someone’s mind long before I did.” Hiding behind “Sarah” reflects the shame she has been made to feel about her origins—her race and her hometown.

Broom’s act of writing The Yellow House powerfully breaks herself and her family away from a legacy of hiding and shame. During regular phone conversations, Broom and her mother remember the crumbling Yellow House, the secrets it contained in the form of leaky ceilings, a lack of adequate heating, and discolored rugs. Ivory expresses concern over Sarah writing a book about the house, feeling as though sharing the details of its interior will shock those who knew the family as people who appeared clean and well-dressed. Ivory states, “If a book comes out, people are gonna say, Well this can’t be the people I knew . . . I was living a lie, you know?” Sarah shares her family’s story, and the story of New Orleans, to combat a life filled with shame, a life lived in the shadows. The Yellow House is a powerful statement that attests to its author’s refusal to hide and to a pride in family and home.

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