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book cover of the love songs of W.E.B. du bois

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

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ first novel The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is extensive and demanding: The family history of the African American Ailey Pearl Garfield is traced back over several generations and reveals complicated family entanglements that are consequences of settler colonialism and enslavement. It’s been a long time since I’ve got to know a character from a novel as deeply as Ailey. The book is almost 800 pages long. The novel could have come to end at a number of earlier points, but each time it took a surprising turn and it never got boring.

Like the content of the book, its composition is also complex. The chapters are accompanied by quotes from W.E.B. Du Bois, the famous African American intellectual and first Black Harvard graduate. As the founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Du Bois advocated in the early 20th century for Black people in the United States to leave their low social status behind. He was initially particularly interested in the idea of the “talented tenth”, a small Black elite of 10%. Ongoing discussions between the novel’s characters Ailey, her uncle Root and her friend David indicate how this view should be taken critically, and that Du Bois nevertheless remains an incredibly important historical figure.

One narrative strain provides detailed insight into Ailey’s life from childhood through her early 30s. Ailey is the youngest of three children and grew up in “the city” in the northern United States. But until she begins college, she spends almost every summer in Chicasetta, her mother Belle’s fictional birthplace in Georgia. Her relatives live there on a former cotton plantation. This narrative thread is punctuated by historical flashbacks and follows the descendants of the Creek Nila Wind, as well as of Aggie Pinchard, who was kidnapped from West Africa and enslaved in the US southern states, and Samuel Pinchard, son of a white European settler in search of wealth. Samuel Pinchard is described as exceedingly handsome, but is the very manifestation of evil. His selfish, violent behaviour binds these families together. Ailey brings these separate narrative strands together even more as she begins her PhD in history and combs through archives for material on Pinchard Plantation.

Personal and heartbreaking, this book keeps taking new turns, addressing traumatic experiences and different ways of dealing with them. Thus, family history itself shows that the rise of the “talented tenth” is an illusion created and simultaneously thwarted by historical and family trauma. Especially if you liked Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, I can warmly recommend The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois.

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