It’s not often I get to the last few chapters of an 816-page book and wish it wouldn’t end so soon.
But that’s what happened when I read The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, the stunner of a debut novel by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. It’s historical fiction in which a solid base of research is brought brilliantly to life by a cast of memorable characters and irresistible storytelling.
Jeffers is an accomplished poet — one of her five books of poetry, The Age of Phillis, was longlisted for the National Book Award in 2020 — and a professor of English at the University of Oklahoma. Her first novel comes out of the gate as an Oprah’s Book Club pick.
The core of the novel is narrated by Ailey Pearl Garfield, born in 1973 and raised in a northern metropolis called only “the City” and in her mother’s hometown, the tiny fictional hamlet of Chicasetta, somewhere south of Atlanta.
Geoff, Ailey’s father, is a doctor, mother Belle a schoolteacher, and she and her two older sisters, Lydia and Coco, are expected to be equally ambitious. A century ago, they would have been among what scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois called the “Talented Tenth” of Black Americans, shaped and educated to be leaders in their communities.
It’s just one of many connections to Du Bois in the novel. Just as Du Bois did in the dozens of books he published in his very long and eventful life, Jeffers tackles the endlessly complex topic of race in America.
To do that, she not only tells Ailey’s story but sweeps back into the past to tell stories of her ancestors in chapters called “Song.”
Those stories begin in Georgia when it was still a British colony. The land that would become the town of Chicasetta was part of the territory of the Creek tribe, the site of an ancient and sacred mound built by their ancestors.
The earliest traces of Ailey’s family begin there, already a combination of tribes: Creek, Wolof, Scottish. Many of the Song chapters focus on the decades before and after the Civil War at Wood Place, the plantation owned then by the “monster” Samuel Pinchard, who was, along with several of the people he enslaved, another ancestor. In the near present that land, with the burned-out shell of its grand house still precariously standing, is the idyllic farm where Ailey’s grandmother, Miss Rose, lives.
Some of the family history blends with Ailey’s own, like tales of her parents’ involvement with Black Power politics in the 1960s (when a “revolutionary” tells Belle Garfield she can best support the cause by cooking up lots of her delicious fried chicken for the meetings) and Lydia’s tragic arc into addiction.
Ailey has always known bits and pieces of the family history, mainly thanks to her beloved Uncle Root, who’s actually her great-great-uncle and whose real name is Dr. Jason Freeman Hargrace. He’s a professor of history at Routledge College, a fictional historically Black school near Chicasetta where Ailey will begin her academic career.
Inspired by Uncle Root and by one of his pupils turned professor, Dr. Belinda Olufunke Oludara, who maybe conspire to give her a push, Ailey becomes a historian herself, delving into research that reveals secrets and surprises in her family’s past.
Jeffers writes unflinchingly about her Black characters’ experiences, from the endless horrors of slavery to the microaggressions of 21st century graduate seminars. She also, generation by generation, dismantles the notion that there has ever been any clear dividing line between the races in America.
That’s underlined by the colorism of many of Jeffers’ characters — the obsession with gradations of skin color that runs in a line from slave traders to sorority sisters, all of them concerned with the range from “dark dark” to those who, like Uncle Root and Ailey’s father, can easily pass as white.
You can’t write about racism without writing about sex — the basis of racism is, after all, the lost cause of trying to prevent sex between people with different skin colors. Jeffers writes about sex well, and from many perspectives. There are the heart-wrenching rapes of slavery days, but also cringy-comic teenage sex and some flat-out erotic interludes. But all of them are about power as well as sex — which race, which gender holds power over the other.
Jeffers writes powerfully about terrible times, but she also writes warmly about good ones. Family relationships, especially those between mothers and daughters, are an important theme and the source of some of the book’s funniest dialogue. She’s also sharply observant about academia, as in the scenes with Ailey’s grad school nemesis, a clueless white student named Rebecca who wants to write her research paper on mammies to show that “Slaves were family, too.”
The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois brings readers a clear sense of the lived experiences of people whose role in American history has long been discounted. As Uncle Root tells Ailey, “The truth can be both horrible and lovely.” Even now, some want to push that part of our history back under the surface. But this novel shows us that those who want to censor history are those who have secrets to hide.
The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois
By Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
Harper, 816 pages, $28.99
Times Festival of Reading
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers will be a featured author at the virtual Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading, Nov. 8-14.