Reviews of The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fannone Jeffers

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois

by Honorée Fannone Jeffers

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fannone Jeffers X
The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fannone Jeffers
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2021, 816 pages

    Paperback:
    May 2022, 816 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book

Book Summary

The 2020 National Book Award–nominated poet makes her fiction debut with this magisterial epic - an intimate yet sweeping novel with all the luminescence and force of Homegoing; Sing, Unburied, Sing; and The Water Dancer - that chronicles the journey of one American family, from the centuries of the colonial slave trade through the Civil War to our own tumultuous era.

A New York Times Book Everyone Will Be Talking About • A People 5 Best Books of the Summer • A Ms. Most Anticipated Book of the Year • A Goodreads Most Anticipated Book of the Year • A Book Page Writer to Watch • An Essence Book of the Summer

The great scholar, W. E. B. Du Bois, once wrote about the Problem of race in America, and what he called "Double Consciousness," a sensitivity that every African American possesses in order to survive. Since childhood, Ailey Pearl Garfield has understood Du Bois's words all too well. Bearing the names of two formidable Black Americans—the revered choreographer Alvin Ailey and her great grandmother Pearl, the descendant of enslaved Georgians and tenant farmers—Ailey carries Du Bois's Problem on her shoulders.

Ailey is reared in the north in the City but spends summers in the small Georgia town of Chicasetta, where her mother's family has lived since their ancestors arrived from Africa in bondage. From an early age, Ailey fights a battle for belonging that's made all the more difficult by a hovering trauma, as well as the whispers of women—her mother, Belle, her sister, Lydia, and a maternal line reaching back two centuries—that urge Ailey to succeed in their stead.

To come to terms with her own identity, Ailey embarks on a journey through her family's past, uncovering the shocking tales of generations of ancestors—Indigenous, Black, and white—in the deep South. In doing so Ailey must learn to embrace her full heritage, a legacy of oppression and resistance, bondage and independence, cruelty and resilience that is the story—and the song—of America itself.



Excerpt available here (link opens in new window)

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. The life and legacy of W.E.B Du Bois plays a central role in this novel, from the title, to the quotations at the start of each section, to the many conversations Uncle Root, Ailey, and others have about the great scholar. What was Uncle Root trying to teach Ailey through his many musings on Du Bois? What is the author trying to communicate to readers through the inclusion of Du Bois's words and history in the novel?
  2. What role does colorism play in the book, both for Ailey and for the members of her family across generations? How does Ailey experience colorism in her family, in her personal and romantic setting, throughout her academic career?
  3. Chicasetta, Georgia is a key location in Ailey's present-day story and in the "...
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    National Book Critics Circle Award
    2021

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

I'd generally opine that when a work is this massive — over 800 pages — it perhaps would have been stronger had the author concentrated on fewer topics. But although Love Songs is big, sprawling and multi-faceted, there's not a sentence in it I'd have edited out. It's messy in the same way the experiences of most lives are messy — one goes through phases, finds romance, makes bad choices — but combine to form a whole. Jeffers brilliantly reflects these experiences throughout the novel, but her depiction of Ailey's growth in particular is perfect...continued

Full Review Members Only (599 words).

(Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Media Reviews

New York Times
Jeffers has deftly crafted a tale of a family whose heritage includes free Blacks, enslaved peoples and Scottish and other white colonialists...Class and colorism are constant tensions in the novel, and Jeffers expertly renders a world of elite African Americans...The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is quite simply the best book that I have read in a very, very long time.

NPR
The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is an immersive journey through American history. Dramatic, beautifully written, and compulsively readable, the novel brims from page to page with grand storytelling and heart...[The] richly honed and delightfully distinct characters are part of what makes Jeffers's debut novel masterful...The length might seem daunting — 800 pages — but the novel's structure will pull you deeper and deeper into the D.N.A. of these Black characters. By shifting through the centuries seamlessly, Jeffers magnifies the consequences of their choices.

Time
A vibrant and tender coming-of-age novel. Ailey Pearl Garfield is a young girl reckoning with what it means to be a Black woman in America...[Ailey's] journey features complex and intimate narratives of love and heartbreak from her family's two centuries in the American South, giving her not only insight into her family's complicated past, but also the tools to imagine her own future.

Washington Post
Whatever must be said to get you to heft this daunting debut novel by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, I'll say, because The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is the kind of book that comes around only once a decade. Yes, at roughly 800 pages, it is, indeed, a mountain to climb, but the journey is engrossing, and the view from the summit will transform your understanding of America.

BookPage
In her debut novel, celebrated poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers weaves an epic ancestral story…From slavery to freedom, discrimination to justice, tradition to unorthodoxy, this story covers large parts of not just of Ailey's heritage but also America's…The result is a dazzling tale of love and loss…Comparisons to Toni Morrison are bound to be made and…The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois earns its place among such company, as Jeffers engages with and builds upon the legacy of African American literature as carefully and masterfully as she does the narrative of Ailey's family.

Booklist (starred review)
Poet Jeffers reinvigorates the multigenerational saga in her first novel, an audacious, mellifluous love song to an African American family...Incandescent and not to be missed.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A sprawling, ambitious debut novel that is as impassioned in promoting Black women's autonomy as it is insistent on acknowledging our common humanity...masterful...If this isn't the Great American Novel, it's a mighty attempt at achieving one.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[A] staggering and ambitious saga exploring African American history...Themes of family, class, higher education, feminism, and colorism yield many rich layers. Readers will be floored.

Library Journal
A worthy addition to the growing corpus of Black generational novels, and an essentially American story.

Author Blurb Angie Thomas, author of The Hate U Give
As one of the most prolific poets of our time, Jeffers has penned a family saga that is just as brilliant as it is necessary, just as intimate as it is expansive. An outstanding portrait of an American family and in turn, an outstanding portrait of America.

Author Blurb Deesha Philyaw, author of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies
From our earliest roots, African and Indigenous, to our present-day realities weighed down by inequity and injustice, Jeffers writes about all of us with such tenderness and deep knowing. Hers is the gorgeous prose one expects from a gifted, accomplished poet, masterful and stunning, as she explores both the bountiful resilience of Black folks and the insidious depravity wrought by white supremacy. These Love Songs make for a frank, feminist, and unforgettable read.

Author Blurb Jacqueline Woodson, author of Red at the Bone and Another Brooklyn
This sweeping, brilliant and beautiful narrative is at once a love song to Black girlhood, family, history, joy, pain…and so much more. In Jeffers' deft hands, the story of race and love in America becomes the great American novel.

Author Blurb Stephanie Powell Watts, author of No One Is Coming to Save Us
In this dazzling debut, generations of high yellow and brown 'skin-ded' women in one Georgia family explore the complexities of kin, the legacies of trauma, with all the sharp corners and blind alleys of real life. Wise, funny, deeply moving, I can't tell you how much I love this book. A few times a generation a book comes along that gathers you up with its force, its insights, its sound and fury, its lyrical beauty. The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is one of those books. Not merely a good novel, but a great and important one.

Reader Reviews

Victoria

Excellent and creative
This was as fantastic as you might have been hearing. It tackles an almost uncountable number of current topics in a sensitive and realistic way by wrapping them in a beautiful multi-generational historical fiction. I fell in love with Ailey and her ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois, c. 1907 William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (aka W.E.B. Du Bois) was a noted author, historian, activist and sociologist as well as a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). His philosophies play an important role throughout Honorée Fannone Jeffers' novel The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois; each section of the book begins with a relevant quote from his works, and an elderly family patriarch frequently engages in debates about the man's opinions on how to best confront racism.

Du Bois (pronounced "doo-BOYS") was born in 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts — just three years after the end of the United States' Civil War. His father, a barber, deserted the family when Du Bois was two years...

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