Book Review: ‘The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois,’ by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

Book Review: ‘The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois,’ by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

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.

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