Book #23

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

The great scholar, W. E. B. Du Bois, once wrote about the Problem of race in America, and what he called “Double Consciousness,” a sensitivity that every African American possesses in order to survive. Since childhood, Ailey Pearl Garfield has understood Du Bois’s words all too well. Bearing the names of two formidable Black Americans—the revered choreographer Alvin Ailey and her great grandmother Pearl, the descendant of enslaved Georgians and tenant farmers—Ailey carries Du Bois’s Problem on her shoulders.

Ailey is reared in the north in the City but spends summers in the small Georgia town of Chicasetta, where her mother’s family has lived since their ancestors arrived from Africa in bondage. From an early age, Ailey fights a battle for belonging that’s made all the more difficult by a hovering trauma, as well as the whispers of women—her mother, Belle, her sister, Lydia, and a maternal line reaching back two centuries—that urge Ailey to succeed in their stead.

To come to terms with her own identity, Ailey embarks on a journey through her family’s past, uncovering the shocking tales of generations of ancestors—Indigenous, Black, and white—in the deep South. In doing so Ailey must learn to embrace her full heritage, a legacy of oppression and resistance, bondage and independence, cruelty and resilience that is the story—and the song—of America itself.

This novel is such a beautiful experience, and one which I’m grateful to have known. Deeply researched, filled with emotion, and with an unfathomable ability to pull you into the lives of its characters, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is something very important.

Jeffers weaves the past into the present as she chronicles the ancestry of a Black family in America. Stories flick around in time as we piece together the connections and begin to understand the family tree and the dynamics which are attached.

Our character focus is primarily on the women of the family; we see their power contrasting against their struggles, we see how women are the essential components within a family, we see them rise and fall. There’s a lot of commentary on the role of Black women and what’s expected of them, both by white people and by Black men. Jeffers does well to show us this happening in both past and present narratives, whilst also allowing her characters to strive for more than just settling into the expectations of others.

And despite the gorgeous prose, the wonderful structure, and the skill Jeffers has in reaching out from the page and grasping you by the neck, it’s the characters who really make this novel special.

The novel also offers required and much appreciated history lessons. I’m sure we all know our school teachings have been diluted and whitewashed, and to discover the real stories we must dig deeply. Jeffers teaches a great deal here about America’s true history; the important things without justification, and the horrific things with peoples’ faces attached to them.

Eight hundred pages without a single word wasted, each of them dripping with beauty, emotion, layers, and importance. Jeffers has done an incredible thing here, something to be savoured and appreciated for its depth, honesty, and tenacity.

“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.”