In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brought together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, winner of the 2022 National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction, is our next selection.
Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): “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.”
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois is an intimidating read. It’s nearly eight hundred pages, thirty hours in audiobook form, and its prodigious length is not the only thing ambitious about it. It’s a story about the takeover of Native land, the enslavement of Africans, rape, murder, sexual and physical abuse, Jim Crow and segregation, broken families, crack cocaine, and the neverending waterfall of prejudice and pain that continues to this day. For the first five hundred pages I confess I wondered whether the point was to simply hammer home the truth I’d known (intellectually) for most of my life: that the history of Black people in America was a litany of injustices. I’d heard these sad facts before. They didn’t seem worthy of eight hundred new pages. But my judgment was shortsighted, and my intellectual understanding was insufficient. I repent.
For as the pages turned, I found myself slowly drawn into a story that became more and more like a poem, like a song, that has echoes and parallels across centuries, similar people, similar scenes. I was touched: first my mind, then my heart, then my soul. The characters became familiar, then resonant, then real. Ms. Jeffers has achieved that elusive “final goal” of fiction: to write something that is not factual but is nonetheless absolutely true. What’s more, she has written this work with talent and effort to match her high ambition. I believe this book ought to be placed on the shelf with the rest of your classics. I can’t recommend it highly enough. But be ready when you read it, because what you read will weigh on you, no matter who you are. It’s a heavy burden. And remember, if you’re white like me, when you put the book down with tears in your eyes, reaching for a different book, a lighter one, one less bothersome to your heart: some people don’t get to put that burden down. Maybe you should keep forging ahead. And when you finish, maybe you should turn to the first page and start again.
A centuries-long story of struggle spread out over roughly eight hundred pages, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers can hardly be considered light reading. However, it is also the type of book I can’t imagine regretting having read. Stitched over the patchwork narratives of her ancestors is the first-person account of 1970s-born Ailey Pearl Garfield as she experiences, first through her own encounters in childhood and adolescence, and later vicariously through her historical research as a doctoral student, the heartache and hard-won triumphs of Black women. This is a story about colonialism, racism, and sexism, and as such, it’s also a story about secrets: how they promise protection but only offer pain, and how life has a way of revolving around them. The real story, even when it does come out, seems to do so only piecemeal, and with every revelation, Ailey’s wise uncle’s words about truth ring, well, true: that it can be “both horrible and lovely at the same time.”
As one might expect with a story of its breadth, I struggled at times to maintain a firm grasp on events and characters—even with the family tree listed for reference at the start of the book. I’d catch myself hesitating mid-scene, thinking, Wait, didn’t that happen to so-and-so’s husband? Or was that her mother’s husband? Upon reflection, I’d recall that, in fact, the same terrible thing had happened to both. Perhaps I wasn’t getting mixed up as much as I was experiencing deja vu. History repeating itself. This feeling of familiarity—along with the book’s telling and retelling of stories, along with the women whose dreams peer into the past and future, along with the long-haired lady who was with Ailey at the beginning and with her again at the end—affirms words once written not by Du Bois himself but by Einstein (with whom the former once corresponded on matters of race): that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.
When I first saw the nearly eight hundred page The Love Songs of W.E.B Dubois, I thought if it was dropped from a height, it would probably injure someone. But from the first sentence, I eagerly flipped through the pages until I reached the end. Honorée Fanonne Jeffers makes writing such a story look easy, but with her captivating characters, alluring narrative that blends time, and mastery of writing, I found it hard to put the book down. In The Love Songs of W.E.B Dubois, Jeffers utilizes many functions of narrative to bring forth a story that encapsulates themes such as love, layered roots, and family.
The narrative started with one word that stood out to me, “We.” The voice of the collective. This snippet of the past sets the stage for readers just before the story’s main character, Ailey, appears on the pages. In utilizing the first-person point of view, but rather as the collective than the individual, the narrator establishes that roots are to be acknowledged in connection to the narrative and that the story covers the past and legacy of what Ailey’s ancestors have created. Although these stories from the past are told in this style mix of first person and third person, there is also a distance that Ailey’s “I,” “me,” “my” contrasts against. These different stylistic choices in writing were particularly intriguing to me and kept me reading, fascinated by how time transcended with how it affected the characters.
The roots from what came before are established and out branch different stories and families. However, characters from the past remain in the foreground and are not forgotten but start the story and remain a part of it. The blend of Indigenous and African backgrounds written into the story make for a multifaceted and rich narrative that include the devastation of colonization, racism, and colorism. The Love Songs of W.E.B Dubois has the created a rich soil of love, complexities of family and the legacy of ancestors and beginnings in a thought-provoking narrative which was a joy to read.
Shalah E. Hamza
The novel opens with the first-person plural point-of-view, and the author almost immediately begins defending a stylistic choice—the use of a boy as the beginning of a woman’s story. Jeffers argues in first-person plural with the reader, already anticipating a backlash that even I raised my brow at. The author feels the need to “protect” the writing like the judgment of the Heavens or some online platform may bear down too heavily on its rather substandard prose. This abrupt justification offers an air of uncertainty around the novel. It is well-known that you must play into your audience’s tastes to win awards and get published by third parties, and it’s even more well-known that you should be confident in the work you make, because it is all a reflection of you. I didn’t appreciate this awkward defense at all.
I also didn’t enjoy the dry reiteration of history. However, I will point out how the story eventually begins traversing between the past and the present, but there is very little unity aside from ancestry and a few themes. The obligatory Du Bois quotes were also painfully shoehorned in as the novel flits from one idea to the next. Even the attempts to engage the reader by asking questions and making side comments throughout the narration quickly become tiring and unwelcome. While there is undoubtedly compassion to be felt for the characters, especially the ones that are purely victims—overall, I liked The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw much better. The narrative feels more sincere concerning black communities and how black women engaged with their surroundings. Oprah’s Book Club should have picked up Philyaw’s novel instead. I would not reread this novel.
S. N. Valadez