The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers surprised me. I expected it would be commentary on the works of W. E. B. Du Bois, but it ended up being a family saga of a uniquely American family. Mr. Du Bois did introduce each section of the book and there was an amusing and somewhat substantive debate between two characters about whether Booker T. Washington or W. E. B. did more to raise up African Americans. So, the author, who speaks in the afterword about her personal hero, the one in the title of the book, manages to offer both a tribute and to speak some truths in her novel.
Of course, African Americans brought here as slaves did not choose America as their home, it was forced on them. But theirs is still a quintessentially American story and not always one white Americans can be proud of, which is probably the basis of American racism. This is Roots for girls, women are in the lead in this family saga, what women endure, how they endure it, what was done to Black women in this country, and because this fictional family begins with a marriage between a Black man and an indigenous (Creek) woman, two ethnic tragedies become intertwined.
When white farmers moved into Georgia, these men forced the Creek tribe out, and as their farms grew into plantations, they bought slaves to farm the land. Slaves were their property and not considered to be evolved humans, and so women and men, even children were exploited and abused. Slaves survived, reproduced, were relocated, or died at their “master’s” whim. Because of forced interbreeding many of the family trees of black folks are involuntarily intertwined with white families, although perhaps unacknowledged until modern times. White people were shamed by having black relatives, but for all the wrong reasons. Their behavior was beastly and that is what the shame should be all about. The author does not say these things but these feeling can be extrapolated from what she writes.
We come to enjoy each visit to Chicasetta, Georgia, as much as the characters in this story. Although it is not a real place it becomes real by the gift of the writer’s art. We time travel back and forth between the beginnings of a couple of family trees and the modern family that was born out of these beginnings. Ailey Garfield is the narrator, and her dialect is evocative of the South and the warm manners of Black families who reside there. Her mother Belle and her father Zachery Garfield married because Belle was pregnant with her first child. They were almost separated by the Black Power movement but became stable and loving parents. Belle had to give up on her college degree, but she became a mother who tried to inspire her three daughters to succeed where she had fallen short and, for the most part she succeeded. Lydia is the middle sister. Coco is the oldest daughter.
It’s a long book and it is engrossing. It took me a long time to read it only because I kept getting distracted by my own projects and chores. It’s a wonderful book and a great addition to the genre. Ailey’s relations are quite strong characters, and I came to admire Jason Thomas ‘Uncle Root greatly. Eliza Two, Rabbit and Leena are also interesting characters to keep an eye on. It accomplishes some of the same goals as Coates’ book, The Water Dancer, except with more realism, less magical realism.