The 2020 National Book Award–nominated poet makes her fiction debut with this magisterial epic—an intimate yet sweeping novel with all the luminescence and force of Homegoing; Sing, Unburied, Sing; and The Water Dancer—that chronicles the journey of one American family, from the centuries of the colonial slave trade through the Civil War to our own tumultuous era.
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 possesses in order to survive. Since childhood, Ailey Pearl Garfield has understood Du Bois’s words all too well. Bearing the names of two formidable Black Americans—the revered choreographer Alvin Ailey and her great grandmother Pearl, the descendant of enslaved Georgians and tenant farmers—Ailey carries Du Bois’s Problem on her shoulders.
Ailey is reared 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 Ailey 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 Ailey must learn to embrace her full heritage, a legacy of oppression and resistance, bondage and independence, cruelty and resilience that is the story—and the song—of America itself.
Let me just start by saying that The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois* was SO good and there’s no way my review can do it justice.
It was on my TBR for a few months. Was I intimidated by the 800 page count? Absolutely. But I’d been hearing such good things! When Oprah selected it as a book club pick, that was the final push that made me commit to reading it.
This was such an epic family saga as Jeffers traces the history of this family over the course of several hundred years. She writes about their triumphs and struggles and secrets and she does it with such skill. I quickly became so invested in this story and reading this book made me want to learn a bit more about my own family history. It reminded me that discovering history can be exciting and difficult and rewarding all at once.
There are a lot of characters in this book and I wasn’t fully keeping track of them, but luckily there is a family tree in the front. I definitely referenced that a lot and that’s how I was able to make connections between the characters.
This book gives you a sweeping look at life in the South. I haven’t spent much time in the South, so that was very interesting to me. A good portion of the book takes place when slavery was legal, so of course that was difficult. (Also, lots of content warnings in general for this book, so I would definitely recommend researching those if you have certain triggers). Reading about the atrocities committed against Black people and Indigenous people was very difficult. At the same time, I felt like Jeffers really wrote this book for a Black audience, which I appreciated.
These characters are so human and I thought the way that Jeffers wove this story together was masterful. She writes about the love and trauma that is passed down through generations. She writes about the history that lives in our bones, even when we’re not aware of it. What a beautiful, beautiful book.
Is it on your TBR?
*Thank you to the publisher for giving me a free copy of this book. All opinions are my own.
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