The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois
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The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, published in August 2021, is Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s debut novel. Prior to the novel’s publication, Jeffers worked primarily as a poet, publishing five collections of poetry since 2000. Her work often involves deep historical research, especially her 2020 poetry collection The Age of Phillis, which combines archival records with imagination to tell the story of 18th-century African American poet Phillis Wheatley. Having grown up in North Carolina and Georgia, Jeffers often incorporates her background as a Black Southerner into her work. This is especially true in The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, an epic novel that focuses on protagonist Ailey Pearl Garfield’s coming of age while also narrating the story of her African, European, and Creek ancestors. In 2018, Jeffers received the Harper Lee Award for Literary Distinction. The Age of Phillis was longlisted for the 2020 National Book Award for Poetry and won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work (Poetry), while The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois was longlisted for the 2021 National Book Award for Fiction. This study guide uses the 2021 HarperCollins hardcover edition of the novel and contains references to racial violence and rape.
The novel continuously travels back and forth between Ailey Garfield’s life in late 20th-century Georgia and her ancestors’ lives on the same land. Part 1 of the novel’s 11 parts begins in the 18th century as Micco, a young boy, is forced to kill his European father to save his Creek uncle. In the 20th century, young Ailey’s immediate family lives in an urban area identified only as “the City,” but her earliest memories involve annual trips to visit her mother’s family in rural Chicasetta, Georgia. As she ages, she enjoys the steady comfort of these trips. She is upset, however, when her beloved older sister Lydia disappears for a period, only to reappear with a surprise husband and then subsequently disappear once more.
Back in the time of Ailey’s ancestors, Micco grows into adulthood, marries, and separates from his tribe. One day, a white man named Samuel Pinchard shows up at his farm and convinces Micco to transfer the farm’s deed to him. Samuel takes over the farm and gives Micco’s family no say in its operation. In Ailey’s timeline, Ailey transfers to a mostly white private high school. She has her first romantic relationship and learns that Lydia used to have a drug addiction but is now in recovery. By the end of Part 2, Lydia has relapsed.
Part 3 begins in Africa with the mother-daughter pair of Assatou and Kiné, who get kidnapped into slavery because of the alleged sins of Kiné’s father. Kiné is taken to Georgia, where she is sold to a farming family. She grows up very close to the family’s son, Paul, and marries him as an adult. First Kiné and then Paul dies, but not before the latter remarries; after his death, his second wife sells Beauty, his daughter with Kiné to a trader. Samuel Pinchard buys Beauty; on Wood Place, the name Samuel has given to the increasingly successful plantation he now owns, Beauty is renamed Ahgayuh—Aggie, for short. In the 20th century, Ailey has a brief relationship with a Chicasetta boy over the summer and learns more about the difficult history of her family.
In Part 4, Aggie, now enslaved at Wood Place, realizes that Samuel is continuously raping a young slave girl. Ailey has her first sexual relationship shortly before beginning college at Routledge University, a (fictional) Black university not far from Chicasetta. At Routledge, she wrestles with difficult course content, colorism, and restrictive gender expectations.
Part 5 departs from the novel’s usual pattern to focus exclusively on Belle, Ailey’s mother. It recounts her young years attending Routledge and her unexpected pregnancy. The early years of Belle’s marriage to Geoff, Ailey’s father, involve their growing interest in pan-Africanism under a charismatic community leader. Although the couple’s marriage almost crumbles when Geoff has an affair, Part 5 ends with their agreement to preserve the relationship.
Part 6 focuses exclusively on Ailey’s timeline. An abusive relationship mars Ailey’s sophomore year; her boyfriend Abdul first hits her and then, after a breakup and reunion, rapes her. Although she enjoys a subsequent relationship with a kind, respectful man, she ultimately breaks this one off too when her past trauma surrounding childhood sexual abuse interrupts the budding romance. After Ailey’s father dies of a heart attack, her sister Coco, worried about Ailey’s resulting depression, finds her a volunteer job at a clinic. While working there, Ailey runs into her long-lost sister, Lydia.
Part 7 explores Samuel Pinchard’s backstory, from his boyhood experience of sexual assault to his current status as owner of Wood Place, where he routinely rapes young enslaved girls. He even starts buying girls for this express purpose, keeping them isolated in a cabin next to the main house. In Ailey’s timeline, Part 7 focuses on Lydia. It recounts the abuse that she, like Ailey, suffered at the hands of the girls’ paternal grandfather, as well as her marriage to a man who sold cocaine and her resulting drug addiction. A person with a drug addiction shoots and kills Lydia’s husband while trying to rob him, and although she manages to get sober after this, she relapses. When Ailey finds her at the clinic, the two regain their former status as best friends, but Lydia accidentally dies by overdose one night in her apartment building and dies.
Part 8 finds Ailey adrift after Lydia’s death. Concerned about her listlessness, Uncle Root finds her a job as a research assistant for a professor at Routledge: Dr. Oludara is investigating the largest recorded slave auction in the US. Ailey is quickly drawn into the research and decides to pursue a PhD in history at North Carolina Regents University. In her ancestors’ timeline, Aggie’s daughter (Tess) and Samuel Pinchard’s son (Nick, born to one of the girls Samuel has raped), grow up together at Wood Place and eventually marry and have twin girls: Eliza Two and Rabbit. Samuel finds Eliza Two beautiful and eventually begins drugging her so he can rape her. When Aggie discovers this, she makes a plan for Nick and Tess’s family to run away, but ultimately only Nick manages to flee.
In Part 9, Ailey enjoys her graduate work but dislikes attending classes about slavery with white people who speak insensitively on the topic. In the ancestral timeline, Samuel hires a runaway slave hunter to find Nick to no avail.
In Part 10, Ailey’s research leads her to a startling discovery: The two founders of Routledge University, Adeline and Judith Hutchinson, are actually Rabbit and Leena, one of Samuel’s young captive girls. Ailey figures out that they faked their own deaths, fled north, and enjoyed a life of freedom, laying plans to start a school for formerly enslaved people. After Judith died, Adeline came back to the South and founded Routledge. The ancestral timeline of Part 10 fills in this story, which includes a white man named Matthew Thatcher who helped the girls run away, fell in love with Rabbit, and provided financial support for Routledge.
Part 11 describes Ailey’s continued research into her discovery, including interviews with her own elderly family members. Uncle Root has a health scare, which reunites Ailey with her old high school boyfriend. He has since married and divorced, enabling the pair to reignite their romance. The novel ends with Aggie and Lydia coming to Ailey in a dream, showing her a vision of Wood Place in its slavery days that leaves her with more questions about her past.