The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois,
by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
Published by Harper (2021)
As a reader, there are few things more exciting than the discovery of a literary gem that enriches your understanding of the world, captivates your imagination, and leaves you with a sense of wonder. This experience is only heightened if the book marks a night spent reading to start the Easter weekend away from e-mail.
In Love Songs, Jeffers masterfully weaves together the story of Ailey Pearl Garfield, a young woman struggling to make sense of her family’s complex history and her place within it. As the novel unfolds, the reader is drawn into a rich tapestry of interconnected lives, spanning from the days of enslavement to the present. With each beautifully crafted chapter, Jeffers expertly layers historical fact, personal narrative, and a touch of magical realism to create a story that is both deeply moving and utterly captivating.
Jeffers’ storytelling prowess is impressive. Her characters are vividly rendered and deeply human, their voices ringing clear and true. Ailey, in particular, is a beautifully realized protagonist, her journey of self-discovery serving as the novel’s emotional backbone. Jeffers has a remarkable ability to breathe life into her characters, making them feel as real as the people we encounter in our own lives.
Despite its length and the complexity of its narrative, the novel is a true page-turner. Jeffers expertly balances the various storylines, allowing each to unfold at just the right moment to keep the reader fully engaged. This sense of momentum and pacing is reminiscent of other great works within the genre, such as Yaa Gyasi’s “Homegoing,” which also explores the multigenerational story of an African American family through history.
Growing up, my first exposure to the female African American experience was through Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”. Even accounting for their differences in genre and scope, it is difficult to look past common thread they share: the exploration of African American identity, history, and resilience. Through their respective narratives, both authors provide powerful insights into the complexities of race, culture, and self-discovery. I think some comparative analysis is therefore merited here.
Both works share a strong emphasis on the theme of self-discovery. In Love Songs, Ailey embarks on a journey to uncover her family’s history and understand her place within it, grappling with her identity as a young, educated African American woman. Similarly, in Caged Bird, Angelou recounts her own struggles with self-acceptance, self-worth, and identity as she navigates the challenges of her childhood and adolescence. In both narratives, the protagonists’ journeys of self-discovery are intrinsically linked to their understanding of their family’s histories and the broader African American experience.
Furthermore, both authors demonstrate a keen understanding of the complexities of race and culture, examining the ways in which these forces shape individual lives and experiences. In Love Songs, Jeffers explores the concept of racial “passing,” or the practice of light-skinned African Americans presenting as white in order to escape racial discrimination. In doing so, she highlights the fluidity and constructed nature of racial identity, as well as the painful sacrifices that individuals must make in order to survive in a racially stratified society. Similarly, Angelou’s work delves into the complexities of race and culture by examining the impact of racial prejudice and discrimination on the protagonist’s sense of self-worth and identity.
Both books possess an undeniable emotional resonance that has the power to captivate readers and leave a lasting impression. They share a profound commitment to exploring the African American experience with depth, nuance, and empathy. My recall of Angelou’s work was especially struck by Jeffers’ use of sex and religion as themes.
The portrayal of sex in these books allows the authors to explore complex and sensitive topics, such as sexual awakening, sexual violence, and the intersection of race and sexuality. In Love Songs, as Ailey comes of age, she grapples with her emerging sexuality and its implications for her identity and relationships. Jeffers’ portrayal of sex in the novel is nuanced and multifaceted, encompassing both the desire for intimacy and the darker aspects of sexual relationships, such as power imbalances and coercion. By incorporating these elements into the narrative, she invites the reader to reflect on the complexity of sexual relationships and their impact on personal growth and self-understanding.
Maya Angelou’s autobiographical account includes a harrowing portrayal of sexual violence, as the young protagonist is raped by her mother’s boyfriend. This traumatic event profoundly affects Maya’s sense of self-worth and contributes to her struggles with identity and self-acceptance throughout the book. Additionally, Angelou’s exploration of her own sexual awakening and subsequent unplanned pregnancy highlights the complex relationship between sex and personal growth, and the undue societal expectations placed upon young Black women.
In both works, the intersection of race and sexuality is an important aspect of the narrative. The authors examine the ways in which race and cultural expectations influence the characters’ experiences and perceptions of their own sexuality. In Love Songs, the concept of racial “passing” also has implications for the characters’ sexual relationships, as it raises questions about identity, authenticity, and the nature of desire. In Caged Bird, Angelou’s experience of sexual violence is situated within the broader context of racial discrimination and the devaluation of Black bodies.
Through their respective narratives, both authors also explore the complexities of faith and spirituality, as well as the impact of religious institutions on the African American experience.
In Love Songs, Christianity is depicted as a central component of the community and family life, shaping the characters’ values, beliefs, and sense of identity. Throughout the novel, the church serves as a place of solace, hope, and community, offering spiritual guidance and support in times of struggle. However, Jeffers also explores the darker aspects of religious institutions, highlighting instances of hypocrisy and the potential for religious dogma to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and social norms. This nuanced portrayal of Christianity in the novel invites the reader to consider the multifaceted role of religion in shaping individual lives and communities, as well as its potential to both empower and constrain.
Similarly, in Caged Bird, religion plays a significant role in Maya Angelou’s upbringing and the shaping of her values and beliefs. The church serves as a central institution within her community, providing a source of spiritual guidance, communal connection, and moral instruction. However, Angelou also grapples with feelings of doubt, disillusionment, and questioning, as she navigates the complexities of her faith and its implications for her understanding of herself and her place in the world. Through her candid exploration of her personal spiritual journey, Angelou offers valuable insights into the role of religion in the African American experience, highlighting both its potential to uplift and its capacity to perpetuate oppression.
One of the most striking aspects of this novel is the thoroughness of Jeffers’ research. Throughout the book, it becomes apparent that the author has painstakingly studied the historical context within which her story takes place. For example, in the chapters set during the era of slavery, Jeffers deftly incorporates details about the daily lives of enslaved people, from the brutal work in the fields to the cruel punishments meted out by slave owners. Additionally, she brings to light the often-overlooked contributions of African Americans in shaping the United States, such as the heroism of Black soldiers in the Civil War.
This commitment to accuracy and historical truth-telling is commendable and serves to elevate Love Songs from a mere work of fiction to a powerful educational tool. As a result, readers are not only entertained but also enlightened, gaining a deeper understanding of the African American experience and the intricate tapestry of American history. Jeffers enables readers to empathize with the struggles, joys, and triumphs of the characters, fostering a deeper understanding of the complexities of race, identity, and resilience. In a time where empathy is difficult to ‘teach’, I was left with the feeling that fiction can heal.