The Question Is My Breath: On Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s “The Love Songs of W. E. B. du Bois”

November 23, 2021   •   By Chris Via

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

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

ONCE IN A GREAT WHILE, a book comes along that shatters assumptions, exposes ignorance, and reveals prejudice, while building a world of glorious complexity and aching possibility. Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s debut novel, The Love Songs of W. E. B. du Bois, is a sweeping American epic that spans the antebellum period to the early 21st century. Jeffers is the author of five collections of poetry, but Love Songs is her first novel, and it is a masterpiece.

Jeffers’s first poetry collection, The Gospel of Barbecue (2000), which was selected for the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize, announces themes that she will develop in her subsequent work: the stealing of land from Indigenous peoples (“these whites […] these / silly children snatching toys”); the importance of song to subjugated peoples (“My tongue is strong and hides me”; “they choke on my songs”); the violent hierarchy of colorism within the Black community (“it was a lie that only / the yellow will see the face of God”); and the abiding injustices of racism (“black always means step aside”) and sexism (“where is the part about blood and fists…?”). These poems are often sorrowful (“I am at my best when tragic”), yet exuberant in their emotional range.

Jeffers’s second collection, Outlandish Blues (2003), gathers poems that foreground a panoply of voices of the displaced and enslaved. In “The Battered Blues (Four Movements),” for example, Jeffers expresses the fear, terror, pain, isolation, and despair of a woman suffering domestic abuse at the hands of “my man.” The entire second part of the collection recasts biblical tales from female perspectives, those of Sarai, Hagar, and Lot’s wife. In “Pantoum for a Black Man on a Greyhound Bus,” young Black men return from jail fundamentally changed in a way beyond what words can repair: “I can’t find vocabulary to resolve absence.” In this meticulously evoked Deep South setting — with its “perfume of homemade / cigarettes, chitlin plates, [and] hair grease one / grade above Vaseline” — the oppressive heat catalyzes the need to sing: “O, the blues / is all about slinging those low tales out / the back door…”

In all her work, Jeffers gives honor and praise to “the Creator, from Whom all words and life descend” and to her Ancestors, with whom she communes as much as memorializes. In the acknowledgment of Red Clay Suite (2007), she also includes “my red clay folk” — nodding to her roots in Georgia, but also to the skin tone of the Creek and Cherokee peoples who originally occupied the territory, and the centuries of bloodshed soaked into the earth there. The poem “Passing” opens with a question — “What would I be if she were still alive?” — and ruminates on a forked path of destiny that began with a “great, great, great Cherokee woman […] committing // the sin of loving a slave…” Here, red clay represents the history of racial comingling — white, Black, and red: “I’m a mixed-blood, / a mistake, a buffalo hair.” Thus, the physicality that infuses these pieces: “feet caked with red dust”; “tongues coated with loud blues”; “guilty water / chattering down my face.”

Jeffers’s 2015 collection, The Glory Gets, focalizes through Lady Wisdom of the Book of Proverbs, crying out in the streets across five sections that foreground fear, beauty, blues, hoodoo, and wit, respectively. Like the second section in Outlandish Blues, the “Blues” section focalizes through a female biblical character, this time Mary Magdalene. In the opening poem, “Singing Counter,” Jeffers announces (or perhaps prophesies) a major tenet of what would become her debut novel: “This stands for that, but if no one black ever says that, how would / someone white learn this?” The main charge here is that Black people must state things directly, avoiding elaborate metaphors, to ensure white comprehension, lest the latter misconstrue the message. Jeffers gives voice to the “triple bind” of the Southern Black Woman, what she cheekily calls “the Southern Anthropological Equation of lady plus race,” with her experience of multiple-variable prejudice.

Jeffers sees her career as a Black female poet as having been made possible by the example of Phillis Wheatley, the first African American poet. Jeffers’s 2020 collection, The Age of Phillis, is the crowning achievement of her poetry (so far). The product of 15 years of work, including painstaking research in the archives of the American Antiquarian Society, Jeffers offers original insights into the life and work of the 18th-century poet — for example, debunking the popular view that her husband was a stereotypical good-for-nothing Black man. The collection’s title, and its titular poem, is a pun that links the spirit of the age in which Phillis lived with the narrator’s wondering about her chronological age at certain moments: “How old was the child when she first laughed / in her master’s kitchen?”; “And what was the age / of Phillis when she stopped turning East…?” The implication of this rhetorical inquiry is made explicit in a resonant declaration — “There is no such age” — since the ugly truth is that slaves were stripped of their names, their ages, their parents, their land, their language.

In an online conversation hosted by Rain Taxi, Jeffers asserts a strong point about such erasure: “When you rename something, you erase documentation” — a fact that makes the achievement of The Age of Phillis even more striking. The book is a patchwork of many forms: historical court proceedings, 18th-century journals, and newspaper articles. Jeffers orchestrates a polyphonic cry of voices across the generations, culminating in reports about “the New Slavery” taking place on the US border. In “cleaned up” letters, we get bracketed looks at what the poet really wanted to say but, in the Age of Phillis, never could. The racism of intellectual giants of the age, like Thomas Jefferson, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant, is displayed in all its harsh reality. In perhaps the most attention-seizing poem, “(Original) Black Lives Matter: Irony,” Jeffers’s language is as lacerating as her message:

The Americans fight back, begin to greet

Redcoats with sneers, in tracts call themselves slaves.
            Insist they’re tethered, yet the Africans —

the many souls, the wretched, the taken
            who move from humans to trafficked

are ignored as white men don paper chains,
            the language of wounded throats, chatteled claims.

The reverence Jeffers has for Wheatley is clear throughout the volume: the collection is a shrine to the original Black bard, as well as a bracing protest against the silencing of Black voices.

Jeffers has credited the great Toni Morrison with the method of writing a novel from a question. In its most general form, the question at the heart of The Love Songs of W. E. B. du Bois is: How did we get to this place as a country? Branching out from this are more specific variations: How did we get to this place as the South? As the Black community? As a family? The book is thus an inspection of chains of events at different scales and along intergenerational parallels. Unflinching in the depiction of cruelty in its many manifestations, it is also, according to Jeffers, a love letter to Black women (the “Archival Coda” unapologetically declares it a Black feminist novel), as well as a love letter to our nation. To address questions of such magnitude, Jeffers chronicles no less than four generations of a family across almost 1,000 pages.

The narrative is brilliantly twined out of three strands. The first strand is told in the first-person plural on behalf of the Indigenous people who inhabit the territory that James Oglethorpe would appropriate as the Georgia colony. These sections are the “songs” of Jeffers’s novel, just as du Bois prefaced his essays in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) with the “Sorrow Songs” he loved so much. As we will come to see, however, the “we” that focalizes this strand is far from limited to the Creek and Cherokee peoples. In fact, one of the book’s major lessons is a conscientiousness about what we mean when we say “we,” “us,” “our.” The second strand is in the first-person singular of the central character, Ailey Garfield, and progresses from the present tense of childhood to the past tense of adulthood’s accumulation. The third strand, told in the third person, provides exposition about Ailey’s mother, Belle, and her sister, Lydia. Deploying this back-and-forth layering across time and among characters displays Jeffers’s many strengths as a storyteller. As we move through the text, and family secrets and lineal connections come to light, our understanding of the narrative is in a constant flux of reevaluation.

We follow the endearing, human-all-too-human Ailey Garfield from the age of three to her postdoctoral achievements as a historian — the novel itself becoming, in retrospect, the very product of Ailey’s efforts as a scholar and griot. A career in academia comes to her after a long period of growing pains, the constant blows of loss, suffering, failure, and uncertainty. She stands in the crosshairs of virtually all the book’s tensions: between “the City” and the Deep South, Black and white, high class and low, traditionalism and progressivism, motherhood and independence, male and female.

Complicating matters, Ailey and her sisters are hiding a horrifying family secret, which becomes the source of much psychological trauma and heartache. One of the book’s most crushing lines captures some of the weight of the offense: “She didn’t remember when it started, only that when she emerged into memory, the hurting already was a fact of her life.” As Ailey puts it: “I’d become a gourd filled with secrets…” Through this pivotal transgression, Jeffers develops a robust interrogation of classism, racism, colorism, and sexism that powerfully extends du Bois’s concept of “double consciousness.”

Yet for all its intellectual ambition, The Love Songs of W. E. B. du Bois is an exceedingly human novel. Its characters, even its heroine, are messy and make terrible choices despite wanting to do good. Ailey is a self-declared Black feminist, but her feminism is not fully formed; she has a long way to go, as do we all. Her mother, Belle, spouts flawed truisms: “There are no Black atheists”; “It’s impossible for Blacks to be politically incorrect.” Her Black paternal grandmother, Nana, foists a preference for lighter skin on the family. But these contradictions and flaws are the point: Jeffers is not interested in offering a fairy tale of perfect characters or the illusion of simple solutions. The final sentences of the book are key: “The question is the point. The question is my breath.” Asking questions is, for Ailey, the only way to keep her heart beating. Freedom from the blinders of ignorance comes precisely through the process of inquiring, listening, and learning. Taking a cue from Ailey, may we all work to turn our sorrow songs to love songs.

Already an accomplished poet, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers shows herself, with this novel, to be a glowing, confident storyteller. Her work is an invitation to a conversation and a reckoning of hard truth. As she commented in a Bookworm interview, her goal is to depict Black people “straight, no chaser.” The du Bois epigraph that prefaces the fourth section of Love Songs states: “You misjudge us because you do not know us.” It is the responsibility of every American to remedy misjudgment with knowledge, and this magnificent novel offers a wealth of resources to begin this task.

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Chris Via’s work appears in Kenyon ReviewLos Angeles Review of Books3:AM MagazineRain Taxi Review of BooksSpliceArts Fuse, and Rupture. Chris also hosts the growing, literature-obsessed YouTube channel Leaf by Leaf.