An American epic about race and family, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ debut novel, “The Love Songs of WEB Du Bois”, spans centuries and continents, rural and urban, past and present. The heroine is an Ailey Pearl Garfield, pushed towards a career in medicine but much more inclined to study history. She’s curious and a little angry, a bullet on her shoulder for anyone suggesting who or what she should be.
Or maybe the heroine is Ailey’s mother Belle, who marries her fair-skinned boyfriend Geoff and backs off at every word her toxic, color-sensitive mother says, who is thrilled when her other son brings home. at home a white woman.
“Love Songs” is one of those books that loves twists and turns, shining the spotlight on a protagonist for hundreds of pages, introducing another character in the margins, then bringing that character to the fore throughout the next section. . But they all live on the same continuum, with the themes of autonomy, caste, color and education continuing from section to section.
What the different generations have in common, among others, is the historically black fictional college Routledge; Ailey divides her post-high school training time between the small Georgian town of Chicasetta and a town known only as City. The rural south, as depicted in the flashback (mostly through the words of Ailey’s Uncle Root), is as dangerous as you might expect. There is a lot of blood at the root of Ailey’s family tree.
But “Love Songs”, whose title takes up TS Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, is also embraced with nostalgia, not in the form of naivety but as an open-hearted memory of things past.
Ailey’s college years fall in the early ’90s – her parents were in the class of 66 – and these chapters come to life with a resurgence of black nationalism (through rap group Public Enemy) among the guys and a rush. thorny sorority among Ailey and her friends. In moments like this, “Love Songs” exudes the energy of Spike Lee’s “School Daze”, especially in a class scene that erupts into a debate over skin color.
Ailey counts Native Americans and Scots among his ancestors; race is never a simple issue in “Love Songs”, not even among those who want it. Jeffers has a lot to say here, and at 816 pages she’s giving herself plenty of room to say it. “Les Chansons d’Amour de WEB Du Bois” is an investment, but well worth it. It’s the kind of epic that deserves its place in the sun.
Chris Vognar is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications.
WEB Du Bois love songs
Through: Honorée Fanonne Jeffers.
Editor: Harper, 816 pages, $ 28.99.
Virtual event: In conversation with Lissa Jones-Lofgren. 5:30 p.m. on August 25, hosted by Rain Taxi. Free, but register at raintaxi.com/honoree-fanonne-jeffers.