The Day – ‘The Love Songs of WEB Du Bois’ is the kind of brilliant epic that only returns once a decade


WEB Du Bois love songs

By Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

Harpist. 797 pages $ 28.99

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No matter what to say to weigh you down on this intimidating debut novel by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, I will say, because “The Love Songs of WEB Du Bois” is the kind of book that only comes out once a decade. . Yes, at around 800 pages it is, indeed, a mountain to climb, but the journey is captivating, and the view from the top will transform your understanding of America.

A poet whose most recent collection, “The Age of Phillis,” was shortlisted for a National Book Award, Jeffers has devoted a lifetime of experience and research to this epic about the hardships of a black family. As any honest record of centuries-old should, Jeffers’ story traverses a geography of unspeakable horror, but it eventually comes to a place of hard-won peace.

One of the many wonders of “The Love Songs of WEB Du Bois” is the protean quality of Jeffers’ voice. Sweeping back and forth through the years, its storytelling changes nimbly to reflect the tenor of the era – from the shared legends of indigenous peoples to the candid realism of the modern era. At the opening, immersed in the mists of history, we are greeted by an incantation:

“We are the earth, the earth. The tongue that speaks and stumbles over the names of the dead as it dares to tell these stories of female lineage.”

We don’t read these phrases so much as we hear them in the wind: “We used to sing then and we sing now.

Jeffers uses this oracular narrator to quickly transport us through the fundamental sins of North America. “The original transgression of this land,” she writes, “was not slavery. It was greed, and it couldn’t be contained. Although European immigrants “were oppressed in their own country by their own king … they resurrected this misery and passed it on”. Kidnapped Africans are transported across the ocean, while the natives who live here are driven back or murdered.

Black slavery and the Indian genocide can be seen as separate historical crimes, but Jeffers constructs his story to illustrate the integration of African and Indian pain in America. Almost immediately, the genealogies of its enslaved white European, Native American, and African figures begin to blend together in a collage of opportunity, love, and rape.

If the convoluted racial makeup of these characters is a challenge to follow, that’s the point: despite the strict color demarcations that reside in the white imagination, the society that evolves in these pages is populated by a spectrum of hues. Some claim their superiority, most suffer and a few pass.

From this cloud of repression, deception and certainty, “The Love Songs of WEB Du Bois” begins to merge around a farm in Georgia founded in the early 19th century. Here, on this stolen and re-stolen land, Jeffers carefully unrolls a vast catalog of human misery. If there are strands of nostalgia that still cling to pre-war life, presumptions of honor that still cling to the Old South, they are burned by the torch of Jeffers’ prose. Aside from the cruel labor of slavery, “The Love Songs” explores the most egregious perversity of slavery: its function of state-sponsored rape and pedophilia.

Samuel Pinchard, the owner of the plantation, is a literary descendant of Simon Legree, but Jeffers dragged him into all the psychological complexity. He is an exceptionally patient and intelligent businessman, an Olympian self-deluding husband and an unfathomably depraved Christian. But more importantly, he is the cornerstone around which the entire plantation company revolves. His cunning mind is the razor’s edge that every black trapped on this farm must walk.

Jeffers gives herself all the space she needs to build relationships between these enslaved families. And what a heartbreaking bunch of people they are. In the hellish conditions of the plantation where paternity is often suspected or denied or impossible to know, where children and spouses are separated from each other, and where bodily integrity can be violated at any time, black women develop remarkable qualities of underground wisdom and courage.

But all of this – this gripping story about the outrages suffered on a pre-Civil War Georgian farmhouse – only appears in the divider chapters, or “Songs,” as Jeffers calls them. In the longer, modern sections of the novel, we follow the life of Ailey Garfield, a volunteer child born in the 1970s. Daughter and granddaughter of doctors, Ailey is part of what WEB Du Bois once called the “tenth.” talented ”, these exceptional and well-educated black Americans who“ will guide the mass away from contamination and the death of the worst ”.

Here again, Jeffers explodes all the rigid categories. In her patient examination of life during and after the civil rights movement, she traces the lingering and pernicious effects of colourism, the inconstant rewards of overcoming, and the crippling burden of being “exceptional.” But Jeffers does not confer any heroism or automatic martyrdom on his black characters. For all the relative advantages that Ailey and her family enjoy, they cannot escape the long clutches of sexual abuse or the ravages of drug addiction – what Du Bois has called “a plexus of social problems.” And every move they make must be calibrated against the competing demands of their ancestors, extended family, and a quick-to-judge white society.

Jeffers is particularly adept at how she portrays Ailey coming of age in the 1980s and 1990s, trying to forge her own course amid wise advice from her accomplished family.

In one of the novel’s many fascinating maneuvers, this story partially set in the past ultimately becomes a story about reclaiming that past.

By the depth of his intelligence and the breadth of his vision, “Les Chansons d’Amour de WEB Du Bois” is simply magnificent.


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Grace D. Erickson

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