Anyone who lives with more than one member of Felis catus knows that our beloved felines love to smell each other’s anal…
When a dear friend recommended The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois, I thought the book was a tribute to the famous Black historian, sociologist, scholar, and civil rights activist. Although excerpts of his writings open chapters, the book is sweeping historical fiction – perhaps the best I’ve ever read.
The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois, the first novel by award-winning poet Honoree Fanonne Jeffers, traces an American Black family back eight generations, through the eyes of Ailey Pearl Garfield, who untangles her own origins while doing research for a doctorate in American history. I expected something similar to Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family from 1976, but the added dimension of a contemporary Black female perspective transcends even that classic.
Ailey’s ancestors were Creek, African, and white European – Afro-Indigenous with white thrown in, often forcefully. She navigates a dual world, as the privileged daughter of a physician in “The City,” and when she visits fictional Chicasetta, Georgia, where her mother’s people come from and where Ailey strongly identifies. The Creek called it The-Place-in-the-Middle-of-the-Tall-Trees.
The book has earned well-deserved accolades. In The New York Times Veronica Chambers provides background on Du Bois and nails the impact of the book: “Just as Toni Morrison did in ‘Beloved,’ Jeffers uses fiction to fill in the gaping blanks of those who have been rendered nameless and therefore storyless.”
Latria Graham, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution writes, “Jeffers, through Ailey’s analysis of her family history, sums up the battle for the soul of America.”
I have a different perspective, as a geneticist and author of a human genetics textbook. Perhaps more telling, I recently discovered a previously unknown branch of my own family tree that includes a dozen half-siblings that I know of, from a DNA test that I didn’t even remember taking. I told my story in a New York Times Modern Love podcast and in blog posts and articles.
The History of Enslavement Makes Genetic Tools Moot
Love Songs opens with four bulleted lists under “FAMILY TREE.” At first, I naively wondered why Jeffers didn’t use pedigree diagrams to depict the families, with the standard circles for females, squares males, horizontal lines linking siblings and partners and vertical lines depicting generations. Genetic counselors and textbook authors use these diagrams to represent family structure.
The shared names on the FAMILY TREE lists reveal that classic pedigrees could not even remotely capture family structures of (white) men routinely raping (Black) women, the men not acknowledging resulting offspring as theirs, and sometimes, eventually, raping them too. Surnames mirror those of the enslavers, first names often replaced, obscuring identities.
In pedigrees, double horizontal lines denote consanguinity – relatives having children together. Some white owners spread their seed so liberally that the inbreeding would render a pedigree chart like a plate of spaghetti.
“Songs” of the Past Alternate with Ailey’s Tale
I had to return to the initial family lists as the linked stories unfurled. The narrative swoops back and forth in time, with alternating styles.
Lyrical segments, labeled simply “Song,” in honor of Du Bois, recount history. The Songs glimpse Creek life and the arrival of colonialists who brought captured Africans to the land. Ailey’s ancestor Kiné was a Wolof-speaking woman from West Africa who arrived during the Middle Passage and was sold to Wood Place plantation near Chickasetta.
The Songs contrast with chapters telling Ailey’s story, each opening with a W. E. B. Du Bois quotation. Ailey’s sisters Lydia and Coco are also important characters, with more recent threads about drug addiction and childhood sexual abuse.
The Songs and chapters dovetail as Ailey connects the dots, aided by recollections from great uncle Root, a noted scholar. Yet even minor characters, like high school chums, trace back, as their surnames pop up towards the end of the book.
The first Song follows the family lists, opening with:
“We are the earth, the land. The tongue that speaks and trips on the names of the dead as it dares to tell these stories of a woman’s line. Her people and her dirt, her trees, her water.”
It tells of a Creek woman, Nila, who had a son with Scottish deer skin trader Dylan Cornell. The story of Ailey’s family begins with their son, Micco. Their home would become Georgia around 1733, when Englishman James Oglethorpe arrived and deemed the land vacant. The Creek would eventually be sent to Oklahoma. Jeffers adds perspective:
“For the original transgression of this land was not slavery. It was greed, and it could not be contained. More white men would come and begin to covet. And they would drag along the Africans they had enslaved. The white men would sow their misery among those who shook their chains. These white men would whip and work and demean these Africans. They would sell their children and split up families. And these white men brought by Oglethorpe, these men who had been oppressed in their own land by their own king, forgot the misery that they had left behind, the poverty, the uncertainty. And they resurrected this misery and passed it on to the Africans.”
I reread the 18-page first Song as the vignettes unfolded in subsequent Songs and through Ailey’s memories, conversations, and, eventually, her scholarly research.
Doctoral students were to research a family from the Old South Collection of documents, and Ailey had known it was “common knowledge in Chicasetta” that lots of Black people were related to the plantation-owning Pinchards, although the white Pinchards claimed otherwise:
“When I began doing research in the Pinchard family papers, I wasn’t reading about strangers anymore. These were my own ancestors, Black and white. Samuel Pinchard was the great-grandfather of Uncle Root and Dear Pearl.”
By the final hundred pages of the nearly 800-page book, the characters and their overlaps, told repeatedly from different viewpoints, fell into place.
SPOILER ALERT: Images Unravel the Mystery
The similarity of scarred cheeks in a daguerreotype of a young girl and her twin to a photograph of them as young women suddenly assembles the puzzle pieces for Ailey.
The reason behind the disfigurement in the images is perhaps the most horrifying revelation of the book.
One young woman, Eliza Two (whose name changed later to Meema) had been considered exceptionally beautiful because her features and skin color mirrored those of her white grandfather, evil plantation owner Samuel Pinchard. Over his wretched lifetime, he kept a series of “young friends” in a special cabin where he would rape them. Pinchard didn’t consider Eliza Two kin because her mother was Black, and so he would regularly rape her after drugging her with poppy juice.
Eliza Two’s twin Rabbit (so named because she was scrawny at birth) had dark skin and kinky hair. (It’s a stark example of the theme of colorism that runs throughout the book and that transcends time: Ailey’s paternal grandmother, who passed for white, told her: “You are very, very brown, so you must find someone much fairer than yourself. You must think of your children.”)
When Eliza Two was 11 years old, her grandmother cut three lines down each cheek and shaved off the child’s sleek curls, so she would repel the rapist. It was the scarring that later Ailey would notice in the photograph that hung at Routledge College, which the twins, under different names after they escaped the South, eventually founded.
Eliza Two was Uncle Root’s grandmother, and she lived into her nineties. So his memories connect past to present, fleshing out the archival documents.
The discovery of the scarred cheeks reminded me of looking at the DNA testing results from Ancestry.com and realizing, with a gut punch, that the nice woman who had contacted me thinking we were cousins was actually my half-sister.
The Pie Charts, Polygon Maps, and Family Trees of Genetic Genealogy
After discovering in the fall of 2018 that I had a half-sister, and as others were revealed throughout 2019, I became familiar with interpreting results from consumer DNA tests, even adding a chapter on it to my textbook.
Ancestry.com’s polygon depiction of deep ancestry and 23andMe’s pie chart brought no surprises – I’m 100% from eastern Europe, something most Ashkenazi Jewish people know simply from having listened to their grandparents chatter in Yiddish. The second type of information from the companies is a list of relatives in descending order of shared ancestry. Sibs on top; then half-sibs; then cousins, aunts, and uncles. Most Ashkenazim can trace back only three or four generations, and we’re all probably sixth cousins, perhaps even closer.
Facebook finally enabled my half-sibs and me to narrow down the man who donated sperm in the 1950s, which he likely had done to bring in some income. I compared shared sections of chromosomes to sort out our relationships, but the daughter of that first half-sibling deduced how to triangulate from our 30-something new relatives, my grandnieces and nephews and cousins, three generations back to our biological male parent. It was eerily like forensic scientists using familial DNA to track down serial killers.
Facebook led back in time to three brothers from a rather illustrious family. Which one was our biodad? If a few other contemporaries would test, we’d know, depending upon whether they were our offspring of our half-cousins or half-siblings. We didn’t have the deep family lore that Ailey did.
Some of our possible relatives steadfastly refused to swab or spit, one even accusing us of trying to exploit her. But with the help of a new half-cousin whom we were disappointed to learn wasn’t our half-brother after all, and his sister, we finally know the identity of the sperm donor.
Caveat: My half-sisters and full sister consider the men who raised us to be our fathers. But we are thankful for the donor family – without them, we wouldn’t be here.
CODA: Race is Not a Biological Concept
The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois eloquently conveys the absurdity of dividing people into races based on one trait.
I have never, since my first textbook published thirty years ago on general biology, defined human races by this one characteristic, or any one or collection of traits. Race is a social construct, not a biological one.
In my classes, to reinforce that point rather than ignoring it, I’d ask students to define race based on one trait other than skin color. Imagine classifying people by whether or not they can taste cilantro. Or blood type. But of course the perception of difference based on the visible trait of skin color can profoundly affect health. Like the spaghetti pedigrees of complex connections for enslaved families, the social determinants of health complicate access to care.
The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois hammers home the horror of the importance of skin color in Ailey’s ancestors’ time. A Creek woman could marry a white man and receive some degree of respect – not so a Black woman. She didn’t exist. Ancestors who more closely resembled the blond-haired, light-eyed Scottish forebear from eight generations back could pass, yet Eliza Two fell victim to the “one drop rule,” appearing white thanks to her father’s genes, but considered Black because of her mother.
The book is a spellbinding classic. Wrote Latria Graham:
“Jeffers has created an opus, an indelible entry to the canon of contemporary American literature and one of the foundational fictional texts of Black literature worthy of sitting alongside Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man,’ Toni Morrison’s ‘The Bluest Eye’ and Jesmyn Ward’s ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing.’