Criticism & Features

Year 2021: 30 Books

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers: 2021 Fiction Finalist

By Jane Ciabattari

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers (Harper)

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is a voluminous ancestral story, vast in scope, ranging from the first decades of the Afro-Indigenous interactions with Europeans on this continent to the contemporary U.S. The opening lines signal the lyrical language that permeates this first novel, whose author has published five books of poetry (she was longlisted for the National Book Award for The Age of Phillis): “We are the earth, the land. The tongue that speaks and trips on the names of the dead as it dares to tell these stories of a woman’s line. Her people and her dirt, her trees, her water.” 

In a daring structure, Jeffers echoes the legendary W.E.B. DuBois’ sorrow songs by weaving several centuries’ worth of “songs” from the ancestors into her narrative of the coming of age and young adulthood of a brilliant Atlanta scholar. Ailey (named for Alvin) Garfield’s story alternates between Atlanta, where she was born and educated, to rural Chicasetta, where her mother’s people first arrived from Africa. Ailey uncovers her own lineage through family stories, historical documents, oral histories, and slave archives from rural Georgia, which reveal Indigenous, Black and white roots. She is sometimes daunted by the trauma of her legacy. Drawing comfort from her uncle Root, who studied with DuBois, and her graduate school mentor, Dr. Oludara, but she pursues her work through to a dramatic culmination. “We have waited, sipping our grief, before recounting the rest,” Jeffers writes, as her final Song section, digs deeply into the “tragedy of slavery.”

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is an illuminating, emotionally resonant, and ultimately profound masterpiece, offering reclamation, reckoning and hope. 

Jane Ciabattari is National Book Critics Circle Vice President/Events and Fiction Committee Chair. She is a regular contributor to Literary Hub; her cultural criticism has been published in the New York Times Book Review, BBC Culture, NPR, Bookforum, Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Globe,  among others. She is a member of the Writers Grotto, on advisory boards of The Story Prize, the Bay Area Book Festival, and Lit Camp, a Pushcart Prize contributing editor, and a co-founder of the Flash Fiction Collective, a San Francisco-based reading series.

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