The Love Songs of WEB Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers review – desires of the oppressed | fiction

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Jauthor Zora Neale Hurston once joked, “I’m the only Negro in the United States whose maternal grandfather was not an Indian chief. In part, Hurston was referring to the embarrassment some African Americans feel about their “degraded” African lineage, a notion that is at the heart of poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ ambitious debut novel..

Epigraphic reflections on race by WEB Du Bois, founding father in 1909 of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which proposed that a “talented tenth” (an elite 10% of the African-American population) would transform the baseness of blacks, skim over the chapters of the novel. Its 800 airy but detailed pages oscillate between a fable-like backstory of enslaved Africans who forged affairs with Creek Native Americans (both brutalized by European traders) and a tragic, contemporary family saga of descendants of slaves.

Hailing from Chicasetta, a fictional town in Georgia, the Garfields are the focus of the book. The protagonist, Ailey Pearl Garfield, the daughter of fair-skinned parents who describes herself as a “gourd full of secrets”, narrates as a reserved and watchful guide. As she enters puberty, she becomes increasingly aware of the family’s pretensions and hypocrisy, as well as her sexual abuse by a loved one.

Ailey’s branch of the Garfields, counted among black Americans who migrated from southern states to Washington D.C., is torn by society’s anxiety about maintaining their middle-class status. Chief among them is the white cotton-glove scented matriarch Nana, whose aroma “took you to a better place in the world” than that of southern relatives who “ate pork offal and covered the furniture in their plastic salon”.

No matter how high they rise, there’s always the inherited tug of shame, a condition that psychologists have called “post-traumatic slavery syndrome.” The Garfields, however, are quick to ponder the disconcerting tales that their ancestors were betrayed by signares – women of European and African blood who sold them as slaves. The novel’s calm tone reflects the pared-back language of enslaved women such as Beauty, whose response to ritual humiliation is to make “a bare spot in her mind [which] she slipped into it”.

Ailey may yearn to crawl out of the darkness of buried family secrets, but she’s determined to at least acknowledge the uncomfortable past. Emotionally and spiritually, she is closer to her southern relatives. The spiritual heart of this novel is also found in the languorous south, the site of the quiet resistance of African Americans to racism, most evident in Ailey’s Uncle Root. The retired schoolteacher and pioneer moves to the “silk stocking district” to live among white families, who greet him with a bucket of spoiled fried chicken and an overripe watermelon left on his doorstep. His defiant response to fanatics is to eat watermelon with relish.

Reflections on race by sociologist, historian and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, photographed at his New York home in 1958, “skip through the chapters of the novel”. Photography: David Attie/Getty Images

Uncle Root’s misdeeds provide a welcome boost to an otherwise restrained novel, fueling the engine of humor that intermittently powers the book. At one point, Uncle Root recalls a pilgrimage in his youth to meet Du Bois, when the great scholar traveled to Atlanta. Du Bois, whose life’s work was a plea for respect for black people, shuts the door in his young admirer’s face.

What about this lightweight? It’s surely a glimpse of the disgust that only friends can feel for parents, echoing the tensions between members of the Garfield clan deemed to have failed or succeeded in life.

In the early 1900s, African Americans lived in awe of Du Bois, a proselyte of the intellectual advancement of black people through the arts and books in particular, as a strategy to achieve what historian David Levering Lewis called “civil rights through copyright”. In a sense, Jeffers is in dialogue with Du Bois about the wisdom of the oppressed who constantly seek perfection. Ailey’s two sisters illustrate this enigma: one, carrying on the family tradition, is an impartial doctor trained in the Ivy League, the other is a perilous junkie. Looking at her sisters, Ailey comes to believe that maybe ordinary is good enough.

Jeffers captures the compromises and delusions of the “talented tenth”. Their lives, however, have been rendered regularly by equally competent authors. Less well known are the stories of Afro-indigenous people and the inner lives of slaves that Jeffers fondly evokes. In doing so, she chimes with Ailey’s ancestor, who aims “to praise the blood that calls in dreams, long after memory has surrendered”.

The love songs of WEB Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers is published by Fourth Estate (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply


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