Honorée Fanonne Jeffers' epic American novel, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, follows a young Black woman as she investigates generations of her family's tragedy and joy in a small Georgia town called Chicasetta.
Essayist and poet Jeffers has spent much of her life cultivating a better understanding of her own family and her connection to the rural South. Here she reveals the powerful role that the words of W.E.B. Du Bois have played in that self-discovery.
I grew up in Durham, North Carolina, during the 1970s, when the city was de facto segregated—meaning, segregated by custom, if not by law. I never felt discriminated against as an African American, however, as the privilege of my Black community was always on display.
In a city of only about 90,000 (at that time), there were 25 Black millionaires, including the CEO of the first Black-owned insurance company, North Carolina Mutual. My parents' huge, fancy church, St. Joseph's African Methodist Episcopal, was one of the jewels of the Black religious community. There was also a Black-owned bank, Mechanics and Farmer, where my parents kept their checking and savings accounts.
My piano teacher, the legendary Mrs. Barbara Cook, lived in a big house with an actual soda shoppe in the basement. Her house was directly across the street from North Carolina Central University, the historically African American institution where my mother worked as an adjunct instructor. My parents would take my sisters and me to listen to lectures in the auditorium at NCCU, or maybe to watch an opera or piano recital.
There were pushy Black folks in Durham, ones who waged battles against that de facto segregation. My mother was one of those activists, sitting on what was called the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People. My parents' friends—also activists and sometimes artists—were highly educated African Americans who had earned (at least) college educations. They spoke in perfectly elocuted English, with subjects and verbs that matched.
When I played with the children of these intellectuals, I neglected to mention anything about my maternal grandmother who lived down in Eatonton, Georgia. From June through late July, I lived with my cousins and two sisters in Grandma Florence's house on Concord Avenue, across the railroad tracks. I would have been horrified to say Grandma didn't buy her vegetables from the grocery store, because she kept a large garden out back. She didn't purchase bacon at the grocery store, either. Every morning, she fried something called "streak-a-lean," an odd pork variant bought from a farmer she knew.
It didn't matter that Grandma Florence's own lawn was manicured like those in my middle-class neighborhood in Durham. I didn't care that she cultivated red and pink roses in her front yard. To me, those Eatonton flowers weren't as pretty as Durham flowers. Grandma's sun didn't shine as bright as the one up in my city.
Honestly, I was embarrassed by my grandmother. Surely, she was a mean, tough-talking lady, but her meanness didn't bother me. In fact, I admired how she didn't "take no junk." It was the way Grandma Florence turned her phrases in English that shamed me. Her speech didn't adhere to formal grammar rules. Her rough hands and feet weren't manicured and soft. And she only had about an eighth-grade education.
Down in Eatonton, there were no Civil Rights advocates either. The Black folks in that town weren't pushy like those in Durham. They were scared all the time, for in Eatonton it seemed like 1950s Jim Crow had never ended. It was true that Durham had its "Black" and "white" neighborhoods, but there weren't any large, fancy houses owned by Black folks in Eatonton. As soon as you crossed the railroad tracks into the African American neighborhood, the homes became markedly shabbier.
"I loved Du Bois' language. Certainly, I was encountering something profound."
In Durham, the stores, libraries, pools and movie theaters weren't segregated; the white government of that city wasn't quite that bold when it came to public places. But in Eatonton, whenever I went to see a movie downtown with my cousins and playmates, we had to sit up in the balcony. There were two county pools in Eatonton, a large one for white patrons and a much smaller one—about the size of my current 10-by-10 living room—in the African American neighborhood, right around the corner from Grandma's house. Black patrons in Eatonton stores stood meekly if a white person—or two or three or four—cut in front of them in line. The mortuaries were segregated as well; there was a Black funeral home across the street from my Grandma's sister's house. And even after death, these outrages continued, for the cemeteries in Eatonton were segregated, too.
Whenever I left the house to go walking across the railroad tracks—into the white side of Eatonton—with my cousins and other playmates, Grandma Florence would urge, "Y'all be careful, now. You hear?"
• • •
I was about 12 when I first read The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois. Of course, I'd heard his name mentioned frequently. From my parents, I'd absorbed the notion that anyone who was Black and considered themselves smart couldn't ignore the works of Du Bois, the first Black person to earn a doctorate from Harvard University. I didn't understand everything in The Souls of Black Folk, but as a budding creative writer, I loved Du Bois' language. Certainly, I was encountering something profound.
For college, I enrolled in a historically Black institution, Clark College, and then transferred to another Black school, Talladega College. At both places, I read Du Bois in my literature classes. Over the years, I don't remember how many times I read The Souls of Black Folk. But I do remember that I was in my 40s when I grasped that Du Bois provided a bridge between those two worlds in which I'd been reared: Durham, which I'd proudly considered, and Eatonton, which I'd tucked away in shame.
I thought back to Durham, to those privileged years of my early childhood. To the manicured lawns of my middle-class Black neighborhood, to the lectures and recitals in the auditorium at NCCU. The Black church I attended, the Black bank where my parents kept their money, the historically Black college where my mother taught.
I remembered my piano teacher's fancy soda shoppe in the basement of her house, but by my 40s, I'd read enough Southern history to understand why Mrs. Cook and her late husband had invested in constructing that wonderland in their home. In the 1950s, when Mrs. Cook's children had been young, white-owned dime stores throughout the South would not allow African American customers to sit and be served a milkshake or soda at the counter.
"I couldn't achieve myself into racial equality."
Those cozy Durham trappings that I'd loved had been a buffer between Black people and the outside white world. A world that the children of integration would eventually be forced to enter, sooner or later. That urbane privilege in Durham was merely a nonverbal—yet equally eloquent—version of Grandma Florence's warning: "Y'all be careful, now. You hear?"
• • •
I was 26 when I entered a graduate creative writing program. Though I was a poet, I secretly began to write stories about a rural community in Georgia, one I'd eventually name Chicasetta. By that time, my embarrassment over my country relatives had been replaced with defiance, as white classmates ridiculed me because I'd gone to a "Black school." Frequently, it was suggested I attach a "glossary" to my workshop poems, so my classmates could understand my references to African American culture.
My defiance turned into a strange pride. I stopped trying to alter the Southern drawl that had crept into my voice, right around the time I realized I couldn't achieve myself into racial equality. Before that point, there had been so much loneliness, sadness and isolation in my life, but then I turned to African American authors to find a sense of community on the page. I turned to W.E.B Du Bois once again and started seeing the significance of what he'd presented in The Souls of Black Folk.
This extraordinary Black man had encountered the most egregious aspects of segregation, much worse than the microaggressions I was enduring in graduate school. Even Du Bois' doctorate from Harvard hadn't kept him from terror in 1906, when he survived a race riot in Atlanta, Georgia; a friend of his was lynched in the melee. Yet Du Bois remained in Atlanta for several years after that riot before leaving. Two decades later, he would return to teach at Atlanta University.
Du Bois returned to Georgia because he felt a kinship with working-class Black folks in that state, those country folks who lived close to the red dirt. He revered people like my Grandma Florence. He appreciated the music of clapboard country churches. What Du Bois called "the sorrow songs" were hymns composed by enslaved people, like my own Georgia ancestors.
In 2011, I started reading The Souls of Black Folk again—for the umpteenth time—and understood that Du Bois' sense of kinship had been my actual kinship. His love of rural, Southern Black folks was my love—finally. I began to write a novel set in Chicasetta, Georgia, the town I'd created in my imagination back in graduate school. And once that novel was finished, I gave a belated apology to the spirit of Grandma Florence.
• • •