Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, The Love Songs of W E B Du Bois (Fourth Estate 2022)
An African-American woman once told me about a research project in which she interviewed Black women in the US who were leaders in a range of fields. Among other things, she asked her subjects what internal obstacles they’d had to overcome to take leadership. Almost every one of them, she told me, had referred unprompted to the legacy of slavery. For someone like me – white, male, middle class, Australian – the US history of slavery was something belonging to the distant past. Not for those women.
The Love Songs of W E B Du Bois, a door-stopper of a novel at nearly 800 pages, has reminded me of that conversation. It tells the story of a young woman, Ailey, who grows up in a small town in Georgia in the second half of the 20th century, goes to a local college and eventually becomes a history scholar. Ailey’s story is inseparable from the stories of her family going back two generations – she is close, for example to her great uncle Root, a fair-skinned African-American who made it in academia when few Black people did; and we follow the tragic loss to addiction of her beloved older sister Lydia.
Then there are the ‘Songs’. These are sections interspersed among the chapters of the 20th century story, in which different, older stories are told in an almost shamanic voice. The Songs begin with the Native Americans who lived in the place where Ailey’s family town was to be built, and take us through the horrors of genocidal dispossession, and then the story of slavery as if unfolded in that place. As you read, you really want to believe that the author is indulging in Hanya Yanagihara–style suffering- spectacular, but this reader at least was convinced that the narratives were grounded in research.
There’s no mystery about the relationship between the narrative threads. They are both connected to the same place in rural Georgia. But when, thanks to Ailey’s historical research, they come together explicitly, the emotional effect is huge. Faulkner’s line, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’ may have become a commonplace, but this book bring is vividly, viscerally home.
I’m not sure why W E B Du Bois is in the title. The great scholar and early advocate of civil rights for African Americans is definitely a presence. Each chapter is prefaced by a quotation from him, and each of the quotations is profoundly insightful about racism in the USA and elsewhere. Uncle Root met the great man in his youth. Characters discuss his writings. But he’s not a character, and I can’t see how the ‘Songs’ can be attributed to him – unless perhaps Honoré Fanonne Jeffers is implying that her own deep immersion in Georgian Black culture and history is due in some large degree to his influence.
It’s a good book to have read when Georgia is again in the news, and not in a good way, when Critical Race Theory is being attacked by legislators who, probably not knowing anything about it, are concerned that it will make white children suffer. This book is a graphic reminder where the much greater suffering has been, and still is. It’s also a riveting read.