A Triumphant Debut Novel on Black History and Coming of Age in the South

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By Veronica Chambers

THE LOVE SONGS OF W.E.B. DU BOIS
By Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

W.E.B. Du Bois has been a part of my intellectual life for as long as I can remember. At 16, I moved to Great Barrington, Mass., to attend Bard College at Simon’s Rock. Great Barrington was the birthplace of Du Bois, and as I learned when I was named a Du Bois scholar, the great man was so many things: an elder statesman of African American life, a distinguished historian, a sociologist, a civil-rights leader and an early model of what it might mean to be a public intellectual. He is, many would argue, the founding father of modern Black America. His writing, his ambitions, his failings and his accomplishments are the bass line of Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s sweeping, masterly debut novel, “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois.”

Jeffers’s book is an ambitious work set with the fine china of the oeuvre of Du Bois, a man whose life and work pulsated with questions about the inheritance of Black American history and what one does with that fraught and complex legacy. In Great Barrington, Du Bois was born into a community of free Black landowners whose heritage included African, Dutch and French ancestry. Ancestry looms large in “Love Songs,” and Jeffers has deftly crafted a tale of a family whose heritage includes free Blacks, enslaved peoples and Scottish and other white colonialists.

The title “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois” brings to mind, of course, the T. S. Eliot poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Jeffers is an award-winning poet, and she is never doing just one thing with her text; by pluralizing “song” in this play on Eliot — not just a love song, but love songs — she tips her hat to the double consciousness of Black Americans that Du Bois so famously wrote about and that Jeffers’s characters also see the world through.

Du Bois’s reflections on Black American life in the South are a through line in his work, and Jeffers uses passages of his writing as interludes, including this from “The Souls of Black Folk”:

“Out of the North the train thundered, and we woke to see the crimson soil of Georgia stretching away bare and monotonous right and left. Here and there lay straggling, unlovely villages, and lean men loafed leisurely at the depots; then again came the stretch of pines and clay. Yet we did not nod, nor weary of the scene; for this is historic ground.”

The historic ground of Georgia is where we meet the hero of “Love Songs,” Ailey Pearl Garfield. As a young Black woman in the late 20th century, Ailey feels that sense of double consciousness, not only as Du Bois imagined it in regard to race but also in terms of how one navigates gender in a Black body. Ailey divides her time between an urban place known only as “the City” and Chicasetta, a rural town where she is known and loved and free. The novel switches between the past and the present, with “Song” sections that tell the tales of Ailey’s ancestors and chapters that tell a present-day story through the eyes of Ailey and the women in her life.

Befitting a novel with Du Bois in the title, education is a theme of the book. Ailey attends a predominantly Black high school, then a predominantly white one. She then studies at Routledge, a historically Black college, where her family history runs deeper than she can imagine. Jeffers paints a nuanced and compelling portrait of H.B.C.U. life, in both the past and the present. One of Ailey’s guides and champions is her beloved great-uncle, Uncle Root, and he is one of the ways in which Ailey comes to connect with her rich ancestry.

Class and colorism are constant tensions in the novel, and Jeffers expertly renders a world of elite African Americans. Ailey’s grandmother Nana is so fair-skinned that she can, and sometimes does, pass for white. Ailey comes to see how her grandmother cloaks cruelty behind her Edith Wharton-style manners and mannerisms:

“On Christmas morning, Nana arrived at our house by taxi looking fresh and blameless, wearing the Chanel suit she’d bought in Paris on a family trip overseas, back when my father and uncle were teenagers. She handed me her purse and a platter of Creole cookies, then plucked at the tips of her gloves, like an actress in an old movie, and criticized my outfit.”

In Ailey’s upper-class world, the luminaries of Black American history aren’t merely figures in a history book. Jessie Redmon Fauset is a family friend. Uncle Root drinks “bug juice” with the great Zora Neale Hurston. Even W.E.B. Du Bois himself makes an appearance. “Love Songs” reminded me, at times, of a line from Beyoncé’s song “Black Parade”: “Ancestors on the wall. Let the ghosts chitchat.” Her grandmother wants her to be a doctor, but Ailey is destined to become a historian. In her world, and in this book, history is everything — an inheritance of secrets, lies, talents, betrayals, ambition, accomplishment and possibility.

“The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois” is quite simply the best book that I have read in a very, very long time. I will avoid the cliché of calling it “a great American novel.” Maybe the truest thing I could say is that this is an epic tale of adventure that brings to mind characters you never forget: Meg Murry in “A Wrinkle in Time,” Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Huckleberry Finn. Ailey’s quest is this: How does a young Black woman craft a life that is joyful and whole against the backdrop of the American South, where the land is a minefield of treasures and tragedy?

The book clocks in at around 800 pages, and there were moments when I worried it was simply too big. The novel includes a story line about addiction that I found both compelling and so heartbreaking that I physically had to put the book down a number of times. But every time I wondered if Jeffers had taken on too much, I would be introduced to a new character or a new moment, and the writing would be so good that I would be drawn back in. The historical archives of Black Americans are too often filled with broad outlines of what happened — accounts of injustice, enslavement and oppression — and not the details of how Black people lived and breathed, thought, wondered, wandered, dreamed and prayed. Just as Toni Morrison did in “Beloved,” Jeffers uses fiction to fill in the gaping blanks of those who have been rendered nameless and therefore storyless.

One of the many triumphs of “Love Songs” is how Jeffers transforms this large history into a story that feels specific and cinematic in the telling. An example:

“The Negro named Pop George would say that the moment he stopped praying for making do and started praying for mercy occurred not when the white man entered the cabin for the first time, but when the white man took his first bite of peach. It was summer and he was offered dinner, a savory stew of cured venison, garlic, onions and turnip roots. For dessert, there were large peaches, grown on the farm. Despite its juiciness, the stone was firmly tucked inside, so the white man used his tongue to slowly coax it from the flesh. He made an injudicious sound.

“These are the incongruities of memory. It is hard to hold on to the entirety of something, but pieces may be held up to light.”

It is that last line — the way she holds up the pieces of memory and history to the light — that illuminates the true bounty of Jeffers’s work. As the writer Saidiya Hartman, whose work has parallels to Jeffers’s, notes in her book “Venus in Two Acts”: “The loss of stories sharpens the hunger for them.” “Love Songs” is so satisfying because it generously feeds a hunger that you might not have even realized you had.

A wise friend once told me that the sign of a great novel is that the author creates a world and when she moves her hands away, the world is still in motion. The idea being that, in the very best novels, every important detail is so lovingly attended to that the novelist’s intention is as invisible and powerful as gravity. “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois” is such a world. Long after you’ve read the last line, the universe of Ailey Pearl Garfield continues to spin.

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