In her first novel, Jeffers covers a wide range of history, but focuses on one place called Chicasetta, moving from the Indigenous Creek to African Americans and whites as they move into or are brought into the area. The novel follows two strands of a story that ultimately intersect: one from the Native American viewpoint covering hundreds of years and one following Ailey Garfield from her childhood to graduate school in history in the early 2000s.
There are echoes of African American history and literature, ranging from the obvious references to DuBois—not only the title, but significant ideas in the novel—but also narratives by those who were enslaved (Jacobs and Douglass) and more contemporary writers, such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. While drawing on such sources, though, Jeffers makes this story her own by setting it so concretely in one place and following one family’s history.
My one criticism is that the novel covers so much time, even within the contemporary story, minor characters seem to come in to serve a particular role, then exit quickly. That’s especially true when Ailey is in college and graduate school, as those characters seem to represent some idea that needed covering.
However, Jeffers uses the historical sweep to explore questions of America and identity and race, knowing there are no answers, only questions, as Ailey says at the end of the novel: “I know the story will be over soon. That I will wake up with a question. And then another, but the question is what I have wanted. The question is the point. The question is my breath.” Jeffers’s novel shows us the power of questions: Who’s asking them? Who’s avoiding them? What’s left out?
The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. Harper, August 2021.
Reviewer bio: Kevin Brown has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. You can find out more about him and his work on Twitter at @kevinbrownwrite or at http://kevinbrownwrites.weebly.com/.