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A Review of “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois”: Race, gender, and the pecan tree that watches it all

Picture of Hope’s hand holding HonorĂ©e Fanonne Jeffers’ novel The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois. The cover of the novel is bright red with a yellow tree on the cover.

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There is so much to talk about in The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois! I don’t know where to begin. I do want to say that despite this novel’s almost 900 pages, this is well worth the read. I know that long books can be intimidating, but if there was a book that you make an exception for – then this is it. I carried this around with me everywhere for two months. The weight of the pages was a constant reminder to get it finished. Although, it was anything but a chore to read. I loved taking it with me to work and out to lunch. It is a big book, so it got people’s attention. I loved the conversations it started with strangers, and I hope that some of the people I recommended the book to went out and got their own copies. Although, I did recommend buying a digital version of the book after I accidentally dropped this book in the bath, thinking I could just flick and turn the page like I would with a much smaller book. All I can say to that is – it takes a really long time to dry out a very big wet book.

This is Jeffers’ first novel and what a debut! Jeffers is also a well-established poet and academic in the United States. Her poetic training comes through, and the whole epic saga is lyrical and beautifully written. It is truly a delight to read. While this book is categorised as historical fiction, it is so much more. It is a story of America, of love, of Black self-love, of revolution, of healing, of untold truths.

This novel reminded me a lot of Yaa Ygasi’s Homegoing but on a grander scale. The novel weaves the narratives of three sisters and their family history but centres on the story of the youngest sister, Ailey Pearl. This is a story of intergenerational trauma and also healing. One of my favourite characters in the novel is the pecan tree (if you read my blog regularly, you won’t be surprised that I love this tree too). It stands through so much and stands for so much. When Uncle Root takes Ailey there to talk about how he was almost lynched, it is both a story of immense pain and somehow love. To share those stories is, I believe, part of the healing process. The tree becomes a signifier of Black strength, sorrow, love, loss, and beauty.

I loved Jeffers’ discussions and interweaving of Indigenous and Black stories, specifically the Creek people (the Muscogee). I made me think of (Australian) Wiradjuri writer Anita Heiss’ words in Am I Black Enough For You? where she talked about the disconnect between Indigenous and Black Americans. It felt really important to have this story told in this way. In doing so, Jeffers raises questions about how white supremacy and the proximity to whiteness were (and still are) used as tools of oppression for both Indigenous and African Americans. It also touches on how this disconnect was created.

Nations are fiction. The U.S. is fiction. Australia, my home country, is fiction. The stories that are celebrated and told about these nations do not speak to the true history of these lands. They begin at an arbitrary point, picked by and for white supremacy. They are stories told over and over again, like water over stone. They are stories about collective groups that change and form over time. But they are just that – stories. For far too long, the publishing sector and citizens from all over the world have believed in one kind of nationhood – in one kind of storytelling. Jeffers proves that there are nations within nations, stories within stories, and we are yet to see and understand the full beauty, horror, and wonder from all the stories still yet to be told. I cannot wait for more of Jeffers’ novels.

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I have loved reading this book so much. Definitely one of my top reads for 2022. I hope it wins all the awards – it is well deserved. I also plan on writing an article about a reading list for feminism inspired by Jeffers’ novel and her character Ailey’s journey. So stay tuned. As always, share the reading love.

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