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 possessed in order to survive. Since childhood, Ailey Pearl Garfield has understood Du Bois’s words all too well.
Ailey grows up 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 her 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, she must learn to embrace her full heritage, a legacy of oppression that is the story – and the song – of America itself.
Thank you to Liv Marsden for the gifted proof copy of The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, a mighty tome at close to 800 pages. A magnificent read, one that I savoured, one that informed and educated me as I travelled on this epic journey with Ailey. On opening the book I noted a written family tree, I wasn’t convinced this was necessary, but trust me I referred to this many times as I turned the pages, it was essential!
Told in a then and now format, this book spans years and generations. In the ‘now’ this is the story of Ailey and her family, mainly Ailey but her sister Lydia and then we go back, to various points in time, to her mother and father, but further too, to Micco born in 1764 to a Scottish father and a Creek native American mother. From this point onwards we learn about the history of Ailey’s family, the plight of the native Americans, the black Africans brought as slaves and the horrors this entailed and the white people, who came and took, and took and took.
This was an incredible read, dense in detail and as such not a fast read, but the story that unfolded, the legacy of Ailey and the way the author told her story, rich in detail and through the lens of Ailey’s own education exploring the female experience primarily but also slavery, racism, abolition, trauma… this book shies away from nothing and makes for a searing read.
I was left feeling impressed with the amount of information imparted in this book, whilst also finding myself invested in the story and its characters. For me I preferred the aspects detailing Ailey and I suspect this may be true for most given that this was the primary storyline, however every alternate chapter went back and the stories weaved together as we learnt the history of Ailey and her family and the land they lived on. The story of the female line and the experiences of the women, however a special mention to Uncle Root, almost a centurion by the book’s conclusion and a pillar for Ailey throughout.
A mammoth read but please don’t be put off by the size of this book, it was absorbing and rewarding and worthy of the page count. Thank you again to Liv Marsden for sending me a proof copy of this immense book which is available to buy now.
About the Author
Honoree Fanonne Jeffers is a fiction writer, poet and essayist. She is the author of five poetry collections, including The Age of Phillis, which won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Poetry, was longlisted for a National Book Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry. She was a contributor to The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward and has been published in the Kenyon Review, the Iowa Review and other literary magazines. She teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Oklahoma.