Skip to main content

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois


The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois

I don’t always agree with Oprah’s book club sections, but I understand them. Every once in a while, though, she puts aside her interest in midlist fiction and focuses our attention on a true work of art. The latest of these is THE LOVE SONGS OF W.E.B. DU BOIS, the first novel from Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, whose previous poetry collection was longlisted for the 2020 National Book Award. With a long career of essays and poetry behind her, she has put both her investigative and artistic experience to great use in this monster tale (800 gorgeous pages) about a young woman and the generations of her family.

From native tribes to the slave trade to a post-Civil War world, the novel gives us a tumultuous ride through the centuries as we witness Ailey Pearl Garfield live her life through the skein of “Double Consciousness,” the sensitivity about race and belonging that the great scholar W.E.B. Du Bois named as the struggle of every Black child in America. This book is an examination into the depths of how the past and present mix and inform each other as Ailey tries to grow up and honor her family legacy.

" intellectual and artistic breakthrough. Thank you to Honorée Fanonne Jeffers for this remarkable, creative and knowing work, an indelible struggle of one woman’s search for an identity that runs centuries deep."

Ailey spends her winters up “north” in “the city” and her summers down south in the tiny Georgia town of Chicasetta, where her family has lived since their earliest ancestors were brought to these shores as colonial slaves. Her maternal line, filled with secrets and compromises, hopes to lure her to follow in their footsteps, through her mother and sister and generational traumas. However, to find her place in the family, she ventures out, going far and wide to research and reclaim the aspects of their origins that are both shocking and deserve appropriate honor.

Ailey is forced continuously to wave between bondage and independence, in terms of her societal standing, her familial standing, her womanly honor, and her need for love. She is the perfect protagonist --- a proud, brave girl who grows up to become a woman we all can admire, a woman who makes informed decisions about where she comes from and where she is going based on the true stories of her family’s past and her own undiscovered future.

It is clear that Jeffers is a poet. Every word is beautiful, simple, specific and profound. She has written her novel in a non-linear fashion that emboldens the hope and heartbreak of every story uncovered, her worldbuilding deep and made visible by language that seems to flow like water across the pages. Even when the book skips between generations, it is easy to follow, and her streamlined romanticism conveys both the fear and the power in every revelation. It is a pure joy to read.

As the traumas of racial injustice and divide continue to be discussed and hopefully changed in our world today, so do those of Ailey. Named after choreographer Alvin Ailey and her great-grandmother Pearl, Ailey is a fully developed conduit of the wonders of her ancestors and the often painful memories that were created by the desire to survive in the past. This is not a propaganda piece, nor is it merely a history of generations of indigenous and Black Americans. It is a beacon call, a beautiful story through which we can experience the doubts and celebrate the joys of a culture that is so much a part of the fabric of the world in which we live today.

Once you begin your travels with Ailey, you won’t be able to put down this heavy book. As we care more about Ailey and her family, we also can make a vow to her and all those like her that this nation can do better, that it owes the people who have gone through so much pain throughout history. Each chapter opens with a citation from Du Bois’ original writings, leading us back to both the inherent poetry of his own work and the inspiration of fighting oppression that he provided to Jeffers in the 10 years that it took her to put this tome together.

THE LOVE SONGS OF W.E.B. DU BOIS is an intellectual and artistic breakthrough. Thank you to Honorée Fanonne Jeffers for this remarkable, creative and knowing work, an indelible struggle of one woman’s search for an identity that runs centuries deep.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on September 17, 2021

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

  • Publication Date: May 10, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 816 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0062942956
  • ISBN-13: 9780062942951