Book Review: ‘The Love Songs of WEB Du Bois’, by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

Historic Georgia Ground is where we meet “Love Songs” hero Ailey Pearl Garfield. As a young black woman in the late 20th century, Ailey feels this sense of double consciousness, not only as Du Bois imagined when it comes to race, but also in terms of how one navigates the sexes in a black body. Ailey divides her time between an urban place known only as “the city” and Chicassetta, a rural town where she is known, loved and free. The novel swings between past and present, with “Song” sections that tell the stories of Ailey’s ancestors and chapters that tell a current story through the eyes of Ailey and the women in her life.

Worthy of a novel with Du Bois in the title, education is a theme of the book. Ailey attended a predominantly black high school, then a predominantly white high school. She then studied at Routledge, a historically black university, where her family history runs deeper than she can imagine. Jeffers paints a nuanced and compelling portrait of HBCU life, both past and present. One of Ailey’s guides and champions is her beloved great-uncle, Uncle Root, and he’s one of the ways Ailey manages to connect with her rich ancestry.

Class and colourism 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 off as white. Ailey comes to see how her grandmother hides the cruelty behind her Edith Wharton manners and ways:

“On Christmas morning, Nana arrived at our place in a taxi, looking fresh and impeccable, wearing the Chanel suit that she had bought in Paris during a family trip abroad, at the time when my father and uncle were teenagers. She handed me her purse and a tray of Creole cookies, then tore off the tips of her gloves, like an actress in an old movie, and criticized my outfit.

In Ailey’s bourgeois world, the luminaries of black American history are not just characters in a history book. Jessie Redmon Fauset is a family friend. Uncle Root drinks “bug juice” with the great Zora Neale Hurston. Even WEB Du Bois itself makes an appearance. “Love Songs” sometimes reminded me of a line from Beyoncé’s song “Black Parade”: “Ancestors on the wall. Let the ghosts chat. Her grandmother wants her to be a doctor, but Ailey is destined to be a historian. In his world, and in this book, history is everything – a legacy of secrets, lies, talents, betrayals, ambition, accomplishment, and possibility.


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