Jhe socialist, historian, and civil rights activist WEB Du Bois wrote in a 1903 essay titled The Talented Tenth: “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its outstanding men. Although he is not a character in this ambitious debut novel by award-winning American poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, his lively reflection on the important role of classical education in the struggle for black liberation permeates the book. It’s an expansive tale cataloging an African-American family’s journey through the centuries, from slavery in the antebellum South and Civil War to the present day.
The novel begins with a family tree. We are first introduced to Micco Cornell, the son of a Scottish man and a woman from a Native American tribe known as the Creek people, who also have African ancestry. In the late 18th century, when Cornell inherited a village from his father, he turned it over to a white man named Samuel Pinchard in case his African heritage was ever exposed. The deal is made with the promise that Pinchard will peacefully run the farm and eventually marry Cornell’s daughter, but he soon turns brutal, buying slaves and committing endless atrocities. It is then that we discover Aggie, who is brought from Africa and sold to Pinchard. “Tears and sleep were not luxuries thrown to slaves. There was only work,” Jeffers writes. But soon, Aggie becomes an energizing force determined to destabilize Pinchard’s sadistic reign.
Ailey, a smart and sensitive academic who is both bubbly and spectacular, takes us to modern times. She provides the primary first-person narrative and connects to the family tree through her visits to the fictional town of Chicasetta, Georgia, where her ancestors were once enslaved and where her maternal family still lives. We see her growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, while carefully observing her family: her pale-skinned Nana, with colorist attitudes, who sometimes passes herself off as white; his sister’s spiral into crack addiction. There’s a lot of trauma and tragedy to go through, but there’s also respite — sex scenes with forgettable men, entertaining back and forth with racist white grad students. Yet Ailey’s most important relationship is with her Uncle Root, a retired teacher and tremendous mentor, and the one who first introduced her to Du Bois.
Along with details of the forced influx of Africans to America and the violence suffered by Native Americans, Jeffers also explores the young years of Ailey’s mother, Belle, and her experience of racial segregation, the riots during the movement civil rights and changing cultural attitudes. Continually looking back, Jeffers does delicate needlework, stitching together the inner lives of African Americans to illustrate how they survived historic moments.
Sexual abuse is a central theme, although it is never sensationally treated. This helps form a broader landscape of misogynoir that spans from Pinchard’s fetish for prepubescent black girls, who he says “seduce” him with their beauty, to the policing of promiscuity that Ailey observes. in her college years via a list of the most sexually active. girls on campus.
Ailey herself is haunted by the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her grandfather Gandee. This also shapes his older sister, Lydia, who arrives one day high at her Nana’s house crying: “Leaving me with him, I was only a child!” Her other sister Coco, a successful doctor, replies, “You don’t see me using Gandee as an excuse to sleep in, be lazy and eat someone else’s groceries. The trajectory of each sister shows that there is no universal way to suffer.
Some of Jeffers’ strongest writings come when Ailey gives up on her family’s dream of becoming a doctor like her father and decides to pursue a doctorate by researching Chicasetta. Here we see the pain that comes with being a black historian personally connected to archival information that can make you cry and rage. This book is gigantic in size and scope, and while it sometimes overflows with excess detail, it is exceptional in the way it engages so deeply and forcefully with the story.
The Love Songs of WEB Du Bois is published by 4th Estate (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.