‘The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois’ elevates Black struggle and triumph
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ novel “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois” lifts up stories of a Black family, scarred by slavery, pursuing transcendence.
“The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois” is a book that grabs the reader, holds them tight, and doesn’t let go even when it ends. It’s equal parts haunting and uplifting, ugly and beautiful, quiet and powerful. The book is a work of historical fiction, but so painstakingly informed by research and elegantly written that the reader is left desperately wanting to spend more time with the fictional characters.
Originally published in August 2021, the book arrived in paperback May 10, giving more readers an opportunity to experience Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ debut novel. The book is long – nearly 800 pages. The length itself is a call for readers to not just get through it, but rather to read slowly and pause often to catch their breath. As readers might expect from the title, the influence of W.E.B. Du Bois, a leading Black intellectual and sociologist who lived from 1868 to 1963, is present throughout. Not only do quotes from his writing appear to mark each new chapter, but also the characters engage in ongoing debates over the merits of Du Bois’ work.
Jeffers does not shy away from the pain experienced – and still being experienced – by Black Americans. She gives an intimate view of one character’s life, Ailey Pearl Garfield, while simultaneously showing just how much trauma can befall one family as she traces Ailey’s lineage back to pre-slavery Africa. She expertly weaves together family members’ stories in a dizzying tale of love and loss. The family’s heritage is as diverse as the stories within the novel: Native American, European penal colonist, plantation owner, enslaved African. Through both love and abuse, the bloodline that runs throughout the novel illustrates that we cannot choose our ancestors or change their behavior; families are complicated, and strong familial bonds are built on so much more than skin tone. It’s a complicated theme throughout the book, and one that asks the reader to confront colorism just as the characters confront their own racial identities and perceptions of others.
The raw depiction of the character’s lives – most often set in the fictitious rural town of Chicasetta, Georgia, or “the city” – leaves little room to doubt the resilience of those who have faced generations of racism. Jeffers does not go easy on the reader when it comes to violence heaped upon people of color, especially women; with her writing, she grabs the reader’s chin and doesn’t allow them to turn away from the oppression and dehumanization of Black women. The reader learns early on that Ailey was sexually abused by her grandfather as a child. This secret gnaws at her, causing her to question who she is and her place in the world. As the novel continues, we learn that she’s not alone in carrying a dark secret. The damage of her grandfather’s abuse reached further than she knew, and it ultimately destroyed the life of a person she held dear. But as the abuse comes out of the shadows and into the light, its power over her and her family is released. In one particularly poignant moment in the book, Ailey and her classmates at a historically Black college are brought to a part of campus where enslaved people were once sold. As the professor calls her students to feel the pain of those who had stood there before, Ailey confronts her own history:
“I began to weep. I thought of the little slave girls, and of the little girl I had been. The secrets I kept about what had happened to me, so no one would think I was dirty. I thought of the pain of my ancestors who’d been slaves, perhaps even sold in this very place. I thought of it all, and I put my hands over my face to hide my shame … my weeping would not stop.”
The generational trauma experienced by the characters highlights how difficult it can be to overcome the physical and emotional pain it leaves in its wake. Each character copes however they can: through substance abuse, isolated shame, and violence toward others. But Jeffers shows that even in the midst of trauma there is the promise of a new day and a new generation. Toward the end of the novel, Ailey is caring for the gravesites of lost relatives alongside her beloved Uncle Root, a light-skinned Black man who survived a lynching after attempting to pass for white. Ailey notices that the oldest graves in the cemetery were left unmarked, with “only a hope that someone else would take up the charge of remembering to pluck the weeds.” This book is many things, but it is mainly a call to honor those who have come before, and to pluck out the weeds of injustice and oppression that invade the sacredness of family, community, and healing.
This book is not an easy read. But it is an important one. As difficult as it is to encounter the horrors of slavery and ongoing abuse, it is necessary. Just as Ailey digs into the pain of the past so she can build a beautifully redeemed life for herself, so too can the reader move forward with a deeper understanding of America’s history. The compassion instilled by “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois” encourages the reader to keep learning, and to not lose heart in the midst of struggle.