15th Anniversary

Southern Storytellers Exalt History’s Buried Tales

On the page and on-screen, Sarah M. Broom and Dee Rees bring untold stories to the fore

When Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House won the 2019 National Book Award for nonfiction, she thanked her family “for allowing me to call your names, because it is no small thing to recover the names.” For African Americans, slavery and segregation made records hard to keep; therefore these stories must be recovered. In her memoir, Broom does just that, recounting her family’s history in New Orleans, from post-Emancipation to Hurricane Katrina. She nestles their experiences in the cradle of American history, marking World War II, the establishment of the suburbs, the Space Race, and other milestones, peeling away over the course of the book how Blackness gets stripped by the bulldozer of American progress.

“But namelessness is a form of naming,” she writes, and restoring Black people’s place in history is the intersection where she and her wife, the writer and director Dee Rees, meet: Both women through their art bring into focus Black people who dare to name themselves in a country that would leave them nameless.

Rees’s 2011 debut feature film, Pariah, for instance, tells a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl struggling with how to come out as a lesbian and be herself among her family and community; last year, it received a Criterion release, making the Nashville native the first Black woman to have a film added to the esteemed collection. In Rees’s Oscar-nominated Mudbound, a sharecropping family in the Mississippi Delta struggles to make ends meet and combat injustice in the Jim Crow South. In the biopic Bessie, starring Queen Latifah, Rees unearths the trials and tribulations of blues legend Bessie Smith. The actress and comedian Mo’Nique, who earned an Emmy nomination for her role as Ma Rainey in the HBO film, describes Rees as a fearless artist. “When I read that script, I saw it,” Mo’Nique says. “That’s how brilliant a writer that young sister is. She made everyone humanly beautiful, even in their flaws.”

Broom and Rees—both descendants of those who were denied the written word on this continent for centuries—craft stories so meticulously, with such a sense of urgency, that they cannot be denied. And the upcoming slate for both promises more bold, Southern-inflected storytelling: Broom now has a three-book deal with Penguin Random House’s Hogarth imprint that will include a focus on the history of Black homeownership in New Orleans. Rees’s future projects include a fantastical movie musical, The Kyd’s Exquisite Follies, and the small-screen adaptation of Alexis Schaitkin’s suspense novel, Saint X. She also plans to remake the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess, which follows a vagabond and the prostitute who captures his heart as they try to carve out a life in 1930s Charleston.

In 2017, Rees won the Sundance Institute’s Vanguard Award, and in her acceptance speech, she spoke about documenting history—the raw material she and Broom constantly wrestle with. “Our history is perpetually being rewritten as we live it,” she said. “We won’t know what it is until we look back and chart our slow trajectory by the rhythmic unbroken line of now, now, now, now. Our voices are all that we have.”