The Love Songs of W.E.B. Dubois
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, author of five poetry collections and recipient of the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for Poetry, transitioned to writing fiction in releasing The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois, a National Book Critics Circle Book of the Year winner. This absorbing and compulsively readable story sprawls across the painful, mixed history of native American, African-American, and white settlement in Georgia. Jeffers mixes in the musings of the twentieth-century African-American intellectual W.E.B. DuBois and the personal and intellectual growth of her main character, Ailey Pearl Garfield, a young, educated Black woman navigating the juxtaposition of white and Black worlds. Ailey grows into her destiny in the late twentieth century and beyond, as she uncovers the tangled worlds of her past.
Born in the Seventies, independent, youngest sister Ailey; middle sister Coco; and older sister Lydia grow up the daughters and granddaughters of doctors. They transition between an unnamed urban area simply called “the City,” and vacations to her mother’s ancestral home of Chicasetta, Georgia, where her grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-uncle Root live on a farm. They coexist distantly and uneasily with the white branch of her family, which intermittently shows them a combination of decency and prejudice. Both family lines are descended from a slave owner named Pinchard, representing fully their painful, inextricably intertwined past.
Growing up in an educated household, the daughters do not escape the problems inherent in a modern society’s, and sometimes in particular a modern Black world’s, structure. Coco is brilliant, gay, and closeted, and beautiful Lydia suffers from drug abuse. Despite a loving, solid upbringing, they suffer from sexual abuse and one snobbish grandmother’s internalized racism, as she most highly prizes the lightest-skinned members of the family.
As Jeffers sets up her story of Ailey’s growth into Black womanhood, she intersperses chapters about the tortuous intermingling of Native Americans, African-Americans, and white settlers in the area of Georgia where Ailey’s family farm is eventually located. In recounting the history of the aforementioned slave owner named Pinchard, Jeffers reveals the cruelty, rape, and indiscriminate violence exhibited against slaves, along with plantation owners’ snobbish treatment of poor whites, who take out their resultant anger on slaves. In addition, Jeffers shows the folk wisdom and courage that gets handed down primarily through women over the centuries. Each chapter, modern or historical, is juxtaposed beautifully with the others, as we hear these aforementioned songs of Ailey’s ancestors, then a chapter devoted to her song of herself, and additional interspersed “song” excerpts from the writings of W.E.B. Dubois.
One wonderful character is Ailey’s Great-Uncle Root, a wise, intellectual man who debates the merits of DuBois’s ideas with her former boyfriend, who defends another hero of the race, Booker T. Washington, and his differing ideas for moving Black folk forward. There are tensions in the novel when it comes to education and ideas of progress: the quality of majority public high schools versus majority-white private high schools, the benefits to an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) education versus one from the Ivy League, and the Black experience attending a mostly white graduate school. Ailey does find her voice however, and does not suffer ignorant, privileged fools gladly.
Ailey, a naturally bright and gifted scholar, tears herself away from her family’s prescribed path for her to become a doctor, and decides to become an historian focusing on American history. As she inhabits the double identity of representing the Black world while walking through her white world, she studies historical figures from her undergraduate HBCU, connecting them with her very own family farm in Chicasetta. In finding out more about and accepting her fascinating yet painful background, she becomes less and less inclined to code-switch, being less inclined to make white people more comfortable with the uncomfortable facts of history.
If I had any quibbles, they would be the author’s, or at least Ailey’s, antipathy towards biracial relationships and rather strong, stereotyped characters she meets at her schools. These include a handsome Black man going out with a white woman who represents the worst of blonde hair-flipping white privilege. I realize that I am reacting a bit personally to the latter stereotype, who has no understanding that she knows extraordinarily little and has even less interest in learning more about Black life. On the other hand, I am aware that in understanding the African-American experience I am at the very least inexperienced from growing up white. Sometimes we cannot help but make literature about us, fortunately or unfortunately.
The Love Songs of W.E.B. Dubois does anything but promote the false romanticism of Southern belles on a plantation, with the South losing a hallowed way of life. This book is not for people who book tours on plantations and only want to enter that version of the past in the process. Instead, it covers the wide sweep of unvarnished, tortured southern history as exemplified on a farm on Georgia, the strength, mysticism, and wisdom of Black womanhood to overcome adversity through the centuries, and the importance of education and intellectual debate towards sparking progress for Black culture. There are beautiful moments of poetic insight throughout, in particular in the historical chapters, and Honoré Fanonne Jeffers does an expert job at tying together these sections with the more plainspoken, modern chapters involving Ailey Garfield.
At eight hundred pages, this book may qualify technically as a tome, but luckily it is an unexpectedly speedy read, moving you along as it draws you inexorably into Ailey and her family’s story. I recommend it as a way of helping you better understand not only the America of our past, but also the one that stutter steps into the future.