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The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois

I circled around this book for several months – checking it out in the bookshop, but not buying it – at 800 pages, this is quite an intimidating commitment, and the multi-generational impacts of slavery isn’t a light topic. It’s also written by a poet, which gave me pause for thought – 800 pages of poetic language? But then I heard a review on Radio New Zealand where the reader gobbled it up in a week of Covid. She said it’s an easy read, about a girl growing up in America, and her summer holidays in the American South.

So, when I was going away on holiday, I took this book with me and it truly gave back. This is not a book to read and move on from. It will stay with me for a long time – particularly the understanding of what it is like to be born into a family in America with lots of opportunity and family expectations, but also the growing and terrible understanding of what happened to the people who came before you.

Ailey is a Black American. She has a professor for a mother and a doctor for a father. Like her sister Coco, she is on track to becoming a doctor, because that is what you do in this family.

Every summer the mother and her three daughters go down to Chicasetta, in the south, where her mother’s family lives. At first, it is just a place to holiday and later to meet a boy. But she moves on in her life, going to college, having other relationships, and dealing with a painful secret in her own life as best she can.

Intermingled with Ailey’s story is the story of her mother and her sisters, as well as people from further back. This is also a story about the people who used to live on the land at Chicasetta, including the Creek American Indians, and then the Negro slaves arriving from Africa and sold to the white landowner, and then the children who were born from both voluntary and forced relationships between the Creek people, the slaves and the white people.

These complicated relationships echo down through the generations, influencing Ailey’s relationship choices. Her heritage also affects her friendships and her sense of exclusion from the other students – we learn what it is like to be one of only two Black Americans in a college, and the assumptions made about how you got there, to fill a quota. And why this ongoing discrimination makes her wary of white people and the lighter coloured mixed race people who can ‘pass’.

We also learn what it is like for Ailey to read about her ancestors being forcibly separated from their spouses, and their children, during slave auctions. These people had no choice but to live on without those they loved because of some casual decision by the white ‘owner’.

We also have to face up to a history where it was perfectly legal for slave girls to be bought for a white man’s pleasure. These girls are kept trapped in a cabin, to be maintained by other slaves. These house slaves are despised by the others working in the field, for their complicity with this evil. But no one is able to stop the state-sanctioned abuse of what is happening to that man’s ‘property’.

There’s a lot of history that is hard to bear, but in this novel you can keep reading, because you are learning about it in the context of a family that has a lot going for it, and from the perspective of a girl who is growing up in a world where she has a lot of love and success.

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers writes about people doing the best they can with their situation, rather than as victims. This 800-page story gives Ailey (and us, as readers) the time we need to slowly learn to live with it.

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