The Love Songs of WEB Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers Review – The Desires of the Oppressed | Fiction

Tauthor Zora Neale Hurston once joked: “I am the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on my mother’s side was does not an Indian chief. “In part, Hurston alluded to the embarrassment some African Americans felt over their” degraded “African descent, a performance that lies at the heart of the poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ ambitious debut novel.

Epigraphic reflections on race by WEB Du Bois, a founder in 1909 of the Interracial National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who proposed that a “talented tenth” (an elite of 10% of the African American population) would transform the poor status of black people, hovers over chapters in the novel. Its airy, yet detailed 800 pages alternate between a fable-like background story of enslaved Africans who made connections with Creek Native Americans (both brutalized by European traders) and a tragic, contemporary family saga of descendants of the slaves.

Garfields, which hails from Chicasetta, a fictional city in Georgia, is the book’s focus. The main character, Ailey Pearl Garfield, daughter of fair-skinned parents, who describes herself as a “pumpkin full of secrets”, tells as a reserved, attentive guide. As she enters puberty, she becomes more and more aware of family pretensions and hypocrisy, as well as her sexual abuse of a relative.

Ailey’s branch of Garfields, counted among the black Americans who migrated from the southern states to Washington DC, is tense with societal anxiety about maintaining their middle-class status. The most important among them is the fragrant, white cotton glove-wearing matriarch Nana, whose aroma “led you to a better place in the world” than that of the southern relatives who “ate pig waste and covered their living room furniture in plastic.”

Regardless of their height, there is still a trail of inherited shame, a condition psychologists have called “post-traumatic slavery syndrome.” However, Garfields is not willing to reflect on confusing reports that their ancestors were betrayed by sign Women of European and African blood who sold them into slavery. The novel’s quiet tone reflects the cut-back language of slave women like Beauty, whose response to ritualistic humiliation is to make “a bare spot in her mind. [which] she crawled in ”.

Ailey may long to crawl out of the darkness of buried family secrets, but she’s determined to at least acknowledge the unpleasant 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 African Americans’ impeccable opposition to racism, most evident in Ailey’s uncle Root. The retired, pioneering schoolteacher moves to the secluded “silk stocking district” to live among white families, who welcome him with a bucket of spoiled fried chicken and an overripe watermelon back on his doorstep. His defiant response to bigots is to eat the watermelon with gusto.

Reflections on race by sociologist, historian and civil rights activist WEB Du Bois, depicted at home in New York in 1958, 'hovering over chapters in the novel'
Reflections on race from the sociologist, historian and civil rights activist WEB Du Bois, depicted at home in New York in 1958, ‘hover over chapters in the novel’. Photo: David Attie / Getty Images

Uncle Root’s mischief gives an otherwise sober novel a welcome boost that nourishes the bubbly humor engine that occasionally drives the book. At one point, Uncle Root remembers a pilgrimage in his youth to meet Du Bois when the great scholar visited Atlanta. Du Bois, whose lifelong work was a demand that black people should show respect, closes the door on the face of his young admirer.

What are we going to do out of this little thing? It is certainly a glimpse of the disgust that only kith can feel for his relatives, repeated in the tensions between those members of the Garfield clan who are considered to have failed or been successful in life.

Throughout the early 1900s, African Americans lived in awe of Du Bois, a proselytizer of black intellectual progress through art and books, especially as a strategy to achieve what historian David Levering Lewis has called “civil rights by copyright.” In a way, Jeffers is in dialogue with Du Bois about the wisdom of oppressed people who are constantly striving for perfection. Ailey’s two sisters illustrate this riddle: one who continues the family tradition is a passionless Ivy League-trained doctor, the other is a dangerous junkie. Ailey looks at her sisters and comes to think that generality might be good enough.

Jeffers captures the compromises and delusions of the “talented tithe.” However, their lives have been reproduced regularly by equally talented writers. Less well known are the stories of Afro-native people and the inner lives of the slaves that Jeffers tenderly evokes. Thus, she chimes in with Ailey’s ancestor, who aims to “praise the blood that shouts in dreams long after the memory has surrendered”.

Love songs from WEB Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers is published by Fourth Estate (£ 20). To support Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery costs may apply

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