To write a first novel of 800 pages is either supremely confident or crazy. Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, a professor of English at the University of Oklahoma and the author of five poetry collections, now gives us The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, a multigenerational saga set over two centuries.
It opens in the 18th, with a young black American in search of the Seminole tribe in Florida. Instead, he finds another Native American community in an area of Georgia fabulously named The-Place-in-the-Middle-of-the-Tall-Trees. He calls himself Coromantee, and is embraced by the Creeks. This part of the novel is narrated like a chorus by the collective voice of the community.
The settlement is later stolen and disbanded by a slave-owner named Samuel Pinchard. Known as the White Man with Strange Eyes, he establishes a plantation called Chicasetta. In taut prose, Jeffers conveys the dehumanising effect this has on the black people labouring there under bondage: ‘Tears and sleep were not luxuries cast to slaves. There was only work.’
In the next section, a descendant of Coromantee, Ailey Pearl Garfield, takes up the narrative. She is the youngest daughter of Maybelle, a school teacher, and Geoffrey, a doctor, and we follow her from the age of three until after she gains her history PhD. Ailey wants to learn about her lineage — part black, white and Native American — to better understand herself. She moves back and forth between an area simply called ‘the City’ and her hometown of Chicasetta.
We also get vivid portraits of other members of the family, including Uncle Root, Ailey’s charismatic great-great-uncle and a former teacher at a black college in Georgia. And we learn about Ailey’s sister Lydia, who, unable to overcome childhood abuse, tragically succumbs to drug addiction.
W.E.B. Du Bois was a black American intellectual, whose life spanned the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement — a period fully explored in the novel through the experiences of the Garfield family. Jeffers’s gamble has paid off, and this debut, at once epic and intimate, is an extraordinary achievement.