Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, University of Oklahoma
In conversation with Tracy K. Smith, Harvard University
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.
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers is a novelist, poet, and essayist. Her first novel, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois was an Oprah’s Book Club pick; Love Songs was long-listed for the National Book Award in Fiction, included in “10 Best Books of 2021” lists for The New York Times and The Washington Post, selected as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, the Kirkus Prize for Fiction, the Prize for First Novel of the Center for Fiction and nominated for the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work: Debut. Her fifth poetry collection The Age of Phillis was long-listed for the National Book Award in Poetry and won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work: Poetry. A native southerner, Jeffers now lives and teaches on the prairie: she holds the Paul and Carol Daube Sutton Chair in English at the University of Oklahoma.
“Something in me has longed for this: to know a specific place, landscape, town, as it was years, even centuries before I was born. To know not only that I am from a place but that there was a place before I encountered it. Honoree Fanonne Jeffers’ astonishing novel The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois has given me this gift I always wanted, without knowing exactly that I wanted it… Thank you, Daughter, Granddaughter, Great Granddaughter, beloved witness for our people and our land.”
(photo by: Sydney A. Foster)