Honorée Fanonne Jeffers published her first poetry collection, The Gospel of Barbecue, in 2000. She also published her first short story, “Sister Lilith,” that year. In the two decades plus that followed, the 53-year-old has established herself as a renowned poet, releasing four collections and earning a National Book Award longlist nomination in 2020.
Born in Kokomo, Ind., Jeffers nonetheless considers herself a native Southerner. She was raised throughout the South and stayed there for her undergraduate and graduate education, receiving a BA from Talladega College in Talladega, Ala., and an MFA from the University of Alabama. Since 2002, she has taught at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, where she currently lives. In 2018, she was awarded the Harper Lee Award for Literary Distinction for an Alabama writer.
Though Jeffers’s poetry career has flourished over the years, she didn’t give up her passion for prose. That passion is coming to fruition in her debut novel, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, which Harper will publish in July. Jeffers writes poetry in a confessional style, with a focus on African American history, and her novel, which clocks in at 816 pages, is a loving and sprawling portrait of Black Americans who survive slavery only to fight to make space for themselves in a country that continues to question their worth.
“The shelves of the Western literary canon are filled with so many lengthy epics by men, and I’m excited for Love Songs to hold its own alongside them,” says Erin Wicks, Jeffers’s editor at Harper. “We’re long past due to have female-identifying BIPOC authors take up space on our shelves and in our canon in a much, much larger way.”
Love Songs tells the story of Ailey Pearl Garfield, born in Washington, D.C., in 1973, and her immediate family: her father, a doctor; her mother, a schoolteacher from the South; and her two older sisters. Interspersed with the Garfields’ story are “songs”—chapters that trace the history of Ailey’s mother’s family, which goes back generations to the earliest residents of Chicasetta, Ga., and includes Native Americans, Scottish slave holders, and enslaved Africans.
Though Ailey’s family is the embodiment of what W.E.B. Du Bois referred to as the “talented tenth” (a term he coined to refer to a leadership class of African Americans in the early 20th century), she is weighed down by trauma. Ailey, like her sisters, is molested by her paternal grandfather when she’s a child. After her oldest sister dies of a drug overdose, she moves South to be closer to her mother’s extended family, including her beloved Uncle Root. She goes on to attend a graduate program in history at a fictional North Carolina university, following in the footsteps of Uncle Root. While in grad school, Ailey decides to study her own roots, uncovering, in the process, long-held secrets about her ancestors and their homeland.
As early as 2002, Jeffers was publishing what she calls “very Faulknerian” short stories set in and around her imagined Chickasetta, Ga. In 2005, her story “All Them Crawfords” was a finalist for the Zoetrope All-Story contest. The magazine sent the finalists’ work to a number of agents, and Sarah Burnes at the Gernert Company made Jeffers an offer of representation.
“I didn’t really want to write a novel to begin with,” says Jeffers, but Burnes encouraged her to continue writing and sharing short stories with her.
After steadily writing stories and teaching and writing poetry, Jeffers delivered the manuscript that would become The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois to Burnes in early 2016. “I knew she was a wonderful writer, but as a poet,” Burnes recalls, “and not all poets can make that leap to the longer form.” After she read the manuscript, she was confident that Jeffers could make the leap. “It was clear from the beginning that the scope, the ambition, and the emotion was staggering,” the agent notes.
When the manuscript was on submission in 2018, Jeffers says, it was “already longish at around 450 pages.” Wicks wound up acquiring the novel after pulling into a rest stop on her way to a wedding for an enthusiastic phone call with the author. She even encouraged Jeffers to expand the book.
“When Jeffers delivered the next draft, it was double in length,” Wicks says. “It all was necessary to realize the full brilliance of the book’s ambition.”
The novel touches on a wide range of atrocities throughout American history, from the genocide of Native Americans to the Atlantic slave trade. And it includes epigrams from the eponymous sociologist and civil rights activist that anchor various sections of the book. Du Bois is also referenced in a story told and retold by Uncle Root.
Jeffers says Du Bois’s constant presence echoes the experience of “Black folks who grew up in all-Black spaces and went to HBCUs,” where he is taught across all disciplines. His belief that Black people are capable of far more than white society expects is a running thread in the novel.
“W.E.B. Du Bois is the most important Black intellectual of the late 19th and most of the 20th century,” Jeffers says. “But the thing about him is that he really loved Black Southerners. They had a special place in his heart. As a Black Southerner, I’m also part of a community that he imagined and that he tried to save. That’s why they’re the love songs—because these are the people whom he loved.”
For Jeffers, the novel is a collection of bittersweet love songs that celebrate, as Du Bois did in his work, the beauty and pain of Black life in America. She has constructed a world that aches with humor and deep abiding love.
Lauren LeBlanc is the New York Observer’s book columnist and has written for the Atlantic and the Los Angeles Times, among other outlets.