In the early days of a poet’s fiction, a woman’s story guides a journey through black history
WEB Du Bois love songs is an immersive journey through American history. Dramatic, beautifully written and compulsively read, the novel is replete with page to page with great storytelling and heart.
Spanning two hundred years, it takes an intimate look at race, feminism, love and family as told by a lineage of unforgettable black women from southern America. It focuses on a fictional African-American family in Georgia, starting before the State was Georgia. Specifically, we travel to Chicatetta, a rural town that was once a plantation, and before that a Creek village.
Ailey Pearl Garfield is at the center of this great saga. We meet her at the age of three, the youngest daughter of Mrs. Maybelle Lee Garfield and Dr. Geoffrey Louis Garfield. Ailey’s sisters are Lydia, the eldest, and Carol Rose, the middle sister. The Garfields live in “the town” – it’s up north, and by the way, every town in Jeffers’ novel has the same nickname. No more detail or words are needed to describe “the city” – it’s just where some of Chicatetta’s residents go, get lost, or come back (or not).
For the past 30 years, Ailey and her family have made the trip south to Chiccastetta every summer and most vacations to visit family. It is a multigenerational tale; Ailey is surrounded by her grandmother, a great aunt, a great uncle – Uncle Root, one of my favorite characters – and a city full of lives, stories, secrets and of interconnected lines. These richly sharpened and delightfully distinct characters are part of what makes Jeffers’ first novel masterful.
And then there’s Ailey. She’s curious, critical, suspicious, and full of shame, and by the time she turns six, she has a secret she can’t tell. But her story serves as a stepping stone: the author uses Ailey’s coming-of-age tale to span decades, revealing the multiple threads that connect the descendants of a runaway slave who sought the Seminoles but fell. on a Village Creek in 1733. Eventually, Ailey’s connections to her family’s past lead her to uncover the truth about her ancestors, a discovery that helps her cope with adulthood, femininity and to the tragedies, losses and mistakes of life.
Jeffers is a renowned poet and essayist – his collection Phillis’ age, has been selected for a National Book Award. WEB Du Bois love songs is his first novel; it took him over a decade to research and write. This poetic talent can be seen on the page. The author doesn’t tell a linear story – instead, she expertly navigates decade-to-decade, often using events in Ailey’s life as a catalyst to explore another character’s crisis a hundred years into the past or ten years in the future. This movement over time runs smoothly. We do not lose sight of who or what or why. We are so connected to these characters; we can almost anticipate the next reveal as Jeffers navigates the familiar of black culture while digging into what is mysterious and past. This does not mean that the novel is predictable – on the contrary, only events rooted in history can be anticipated.
I especially enjoyed the deep dive into 40 years of African American college and university experience as we follow Ailey and her family – from engagement and hazing to homesick and falling in love for the first time, and the lies of love that can strengthen or destroy.
Love songs is immersed in black feminism, but also explores early 20th-century philosophies that helped shape the civil rights movement. For example, an ongoing debate between two characters – David James and Uncle Root – about WEB Du Bois and Booker T. Washington – centers on what made these two very different men so confrontational. and so vital to the black community. One of the discussions gets pretty heated:
Uncle Root opened his eyes.
“Can you imagine that? Here, Booker T. Washington had the opportunity to change the hearts and minds of these vicious white southerners. He could have truly helped our people that day, and those despicable words are what ‘he chose to pronounce! “
The length may seem intimidating – 800 pages – but the structure of the novel will take you deeper and deeper into the DNA of these black characters. By crossing the centuries in a transparent way, Jeffers amplifies the consequences of their choices.
And the words of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois himself, interspersed between the chapters, are a bridge that continually and beautifully renders WEB Du Bois love songs a remarkable reading experience.
Denny S. Bryce is the author of the historical novel Wild women and the blues.