Powerful and Painful: a Book Review of The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois
Updated: Apr 8
In this house we love books, oral renditions, and narratives in any format of Afro-Indigenous stories created by Afro-Indigenous people.
The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers is such a story. A powerful work which centers on the experiences of African American and Native American people at the onset of colonization and their Afro-Indigenous descendants, Love Songs illustrates, in velvet, illustrious words, intergenerational trauma, resilience, and healing.
I started the audiobook version of this historical fiction piece about a month before moving home to North Carolina. As an Afro-Yèsah woman, the “Songs,” aka intermittent historical rememberings told in the voices of the ancestors, soothed me as I worked at a thankless job in a land far, far from here. After living in O'odham jeved aka the Sonoran desert aka Phoenix, AZ, for over 13 years, I was long overdue for a home coming. Thus, on my way to the aforementioned job, which I could only tolerate for two weeks before quitting, I traveled through the beautiful O’odham desert known as the Gila River Indian Community. As I traveled, I listened to these "Songs" of the ancestors.
Love Songs flashes back and forth between the distant past of Indigenous African and Indigenous American ancestors and the lives of their descendants, namely Ailey Garfield and her family.
Ailey is the daughter of a white-passing African American man from an unnamed northern city and a Afro-Muskogee woman from the fictitious town of Chicasetta, Georgia who’s ancestral line the book focuses on. Just as the “Songs” of the past focus on America’s colonial infancy, Ailey's story begins with her early life as a young child.
The stories from the early times were most enjoyable for me. There is the story, set in the British Colonial Era, of an enslaved girl who was stolen from Africa and purchased by an assimilated Muskogee man as a servant to help “keep his wife company and assist with house work.” The Muskogee woman, who seemed uninterested in the so-called luxury and prestige that came with owning enslaved Africans, raised the girl as her own alongside her son. The latter two ended up marrying and having Ailey's ancestor: Beauty, later known as Ahgayuh "Aggie".
Then there is the story of an African man who escaped Georgia slavery and a Muskogee woman who together begat a daughter: Nila Wind. Wind married an abusive Scotts-Irish trader named Jonathan Cornell and had their son, Micco Cornell. The author explains how a group of Muskogee people had to leave the place where Micco was born to avoid white settlers, even before the Indian Removal Act. Micco, taking after his father in certain regards, claimed the land as solely his own. This included the Sacred Mound which is constantly alluded to throughout the book.
Later in the story, a white settler family built a cabin despite warnings from the local Muskogee who remained. Within six months, the wife and 9 of 10 children were "mysteriously" killed by a sickness that affected no one else in the county. Shortly after their deaths, the husband and remaining son burned down the cabin and spent that night in a lean-to structure not far from the mound. The next morning, they astonishingly reported that the flowers on the mound which had been burned the night before had regrown over night.
Micco marries a colorist Muskogee woman, Mahela, who is not aware of his African heritage until decades later when it is revealed to their daughter, Lady, another one of Ailey’s ancestors, by Samuel Pinchard. In his middle age, Micco is lonely and, against the better judgement of a Black presenting Little Person named Joe, befriends white settler Samuel Pinchard. Samuel deceives Micco into selling his land to the former stating that white Georgians may contest his right to the land because Micco is Indian.
Samuel takes over as plantation owner of the land, marries Lady, and moves Micco and Mahela out of “the big house” and into a small cabin at the edge of property. Lady's parents live there for years until Samuel forces them to leave for Oklahoma under the authority of the Indian Removal Act. Years earlier Micco shared the secret of his Black ancestry with Samuel, who later used this knowledge against Micco. Samuel told the Afro-Muskogee man that if he and his wife did not leave, he would enslave him since he was part “Negro.”
The way the author toggles between the past and present is fascinating. She draws lines between the origins of intergenerational trauma, the affects on the character's lives, and the resilience of those characters.
However, I had a difficult time with the regular occurrence of graphic, sexual violence. It is important to demonstrate the history and prevalence of sexual violence towards women and children of color at the hands of colonizers and within our own communities. But the scenes of Ailey's molestation at the hands of her grandfather were repetitive to the point of ad nauseam. It got to the point where these scenes didn't seem to add anything more to the story expect for shock and awe value. As an Afro-Indigenous woman who has experienced violence first hand, through the stories of my women relatives, and through the blood of my ancestors, it felt unnecessarily triggering.
I started this book in mid-January. I thought that, during my drive moving from Arizona to North Carolina in February, I would be able to finish up the 32-hour-long audio book and this review to share by the end of Black History month. I’m now typing this in early April. The main reason it took me so long to finish the book is the aforementioned repetitive and triggering descriptions of sexual trauma.
There is a scene, about two-thirds through the book, that a previous professor and mentor of Aileys tells her to “shower, pray, and wear white to bed” after reading traumatic historical documents of slavery. This antidote is offered to Ailey, and the reader, but only after dozens of graphic trauma scenes. I wish it was incorporated earlier as a quote, etc. This information could have helped readers, like me, avoid a lot of nightmares and flashbacks that these necessary truths naturally bring up for those in BIPOC communities. Without that knowledge, and in the face of repetitive violence, I almost did not complete the book. Thankfully, by using the methods of Ailey's professor, Dr. Oludara (sp.?), and taking my time with it, I finished this epic novel.
I would have loved to see what the novel would look like replacing those, in my opinion, extra doses of graphically traumatic scenes with more ancestral anecdotes. I would love to know why Joe renamed Beauty to Ahgayuh. Or more stories about the Muskogee cultural influence on the Woodplace Plantation like those of the carrot seeds and the Moon House.
This novel began and ended with a dream surrounded by ancestors which brought it full circle. However, I was puzzled that after 32 hours (800 pages), all of Ailey's difficult research, and her finding Ahgayuh's name that Ailey could not remember Aggie's name in the dream. This may be personal preference, but I would have liked a clearer, more defined ending. A ta-da moment if you will.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed the book. I think it's a wonderful read, especially for those who are curious how Afro-Indigenous communities were forged amidst the flames of colonization. It was an emotionally difficult journey, but I am glad that I took it. Many themes ran parallel to my home-coming back to Yésah amai: aka north central North Carolina. Now that Love Songs has come to an end, I'll be filling the next month or so with meditative, healing, and humorous BIPOC authored books to balance the pain, power, and knowledge I've gleaned from Chicasetta.
Dominique Daye Hunter is an Afro-Indigenous storyteller, artist, and advocate of West African, Yésah (Saponi), Nansemond, Irish, and Polish descent.
The CEO of D. Daye Hunter Designs, LLC she has a B.S. in Nonprofit Leadership Management with an emphasis in American Indian Studies. Hunter's work explores the complex connections between historical trauma and healing in BIPOC communities. She creates safe spaces for BIWOC, children, neurodivergent individuals, and chronic illness warriors. She lives between Arizona and North Carolina.
📕 Get your copy of Dominique's book 𝑺𝒆𝒆𝒅𝒔: 𝑺𝒕𝒐𝒓𝒊𝒆𝒔 𝒐𝒇 𝑨𝒇𝒓𝒐 𝑰𝒏𝒅𝒊𝒈𝒆𝒏𝒐𝒖𝒔 𝑹𝒆𝒔𝒊𝒍𝒊𝒆𝒏𝒄𝒆 at ddayehunter.com/books