Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s debut novel, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois (Harper 2021), is a five-star historical saga. Jeffers’s background in poetry gives this chunky book a cadence and rhythm that carries the voices of the silenced ancestors such they stay with you long after the last page. The truths and horrors of American history, all the blood and tears and broken bits that have defined this country, are beautifully and painfully found in Ailey’s family tree, but it’s the resilience, love, pride and determination of the females that shows the depths of the roots.
With a subject matter as heavy as American history, this novel certainly comes with many trigger warnings. I strongly suggest that sensitive and mood readers check those out before diving in. There were many sections where I had to walk away from the book. For me personally, my breaking point is with assault and sexual assault of children and there are many allusions and depictions of such assaults through the nearly 800-page novel. Many. When Ailey is conducting research into the past, her mentor tells her to shower afterwards and pray. When she doesn’t, she becomes violently ill. Her visceral reaction to the horrors contained in the journals is mirrored in the reader – or it should be.
The generational trauma is carried in the wombs and nestled at the breasts of the many women who came before Ailey, including her sister Lydia. These women add life to the pages. I wish Ailey’s other sister, Coco, had been given a bit more of a voice as she appears an afterthought – a shell of a character needed to advance the plot. But the strength of this novel is in the strength of its women.
These words don’t begin to capture the genius that is The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois. It’s a sweeping narrative of a love letter to the lost and forgotten voices that made this country.
Read this book.