The author Zora Neale Hurston once joked: “I am the only negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother’s side was not an Indian chief.” In part, Hurston was alluding to the embarrassment some African Americans felt about their “debased” African lineage, a notion that lies at the core of the poet Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s ambitious debut novel.
Epigraphic reflections on race by WEB Du Bois, a founding father in 1909 of the interracial National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who proposed that a “talented tenth” (an elite 10% of the African American population) would transform black people’s lowly standing, hover over chapters of the novel. Its breezy yet detailed 800 pages flit between a fable-like backstory of enslaved Africans who forged liaisons with Creek Native Americans (both brutalised by European traders) and a tragic, contemporary family saga of descendants of the enslaved.
Originating from Chicasetta, a fictitious town in Georgia, the Garfields are the book’s focus. The protagonist, Ailey Pearl Garfield, daughter of light-skinned parents who describes herself as a “gourd filled with secrets”, narrates as a reserved, watchful guide. On entering puberty, she becomes increasingly conscious of the family’s pretensions and hypocrisy, as well as her sexual abuse by a relative.
This novel’s spiritual heart is found in the languorous south, the location of African Americans’ resistance to racism
Ailey’s branch of the Garfields, numbered among the black Americans who migrated from southern states to Washington DC, are riven with societal anxiety over maintaining their middle-class status. Chief among them is the fragrant, white cotton glove-wearing matriarch Nana, whose aroma “took you to a better place in the world” than that of the southern relatives who “ate pig offal and covered their living room furniture in plastic”.
No matter their elevation, there’s still the tug of inherited shame, a condition psychologists have termed “post-traumatic slavery syndrome”. The Garfields, though, are not minded to reflect on bewildering accounts that their ancestors were betrayed by signares – women of European and African blood who sold them into bondage. The novel’s quiet tone mirrors the pared-back language of enslaved women such as Beauty, whose response to ritualistic humiliation is to make “a bare spot in her mind [which] she crawled into”.
Ailey may yearn to crawl out of the darkness of buried family secrets, but she’s determined to at least acknowledge the uncomfortable past. Emotionally and spiritually, she’s closer to her southern relatives. This novel’s spiritual heart is also found in the languorous south, the location of African Americans’ unshowy resistance to racism, most evident in Ailey’s Uncle Root. The retired, pioneering schoolteacher moves to the segregated “silk stocking district” to live among white families, who welcome him with a bucket of spoiled fried chicken and an overripe watermelon left on his doorstep. His defiant answer to the bigots is to eat the watermelon with relish.
Uncle Root’s mischief gives a welcome boost to an otherwise sober novel, fuelling the sputtering engine of humour that intermittently powers the book. At one point, Uncle Root recalls a pilgrimage in his youth to meet Du Bois, when the great scholar visited Atlanta. Du Bois, whose lifelong work was a demand for black people to be shown respect, closes the door in his young admirer’s face.
What are we to make of this slight? It’s surely a glimpse of the loathing that only kith can feel for kin, echoed in the tensions between those members of the Garfield clan deemed to have failed or succeeded in life.
Throughout the early 1900s, African Americans lived in awe of Du Bois, a proselytiser of black intellectual advancement through the arts and books especially, as a strategy for achieving what the historian David Levering Lewis has called “civil rights by copyright”. In a sense, Jeffers is in dialogue with Du Bois about the wisdom of downtrodden people constantly striving for perfection. Ailey’s two sisters illustrate this conundrum: one, carrying on the family tradition, is a dispassionate Ivy League-educated doctor, the other is a perilous junkie. Eyeing her sisters, Ailey comes to believe that maybe ordinariness is good enough.
Jeffers captures the compromises and delusions of the “talented tenth”. Their lives, though, have been rendered regularly by equally able authors. Less well known are the stories of Afro-indigenous people and the inner lives of the enslaved that Jeffers tenderly evokes. In doing so, she chimes with Ailey’s ancestor, who aims “to praise the blood that calls out in dreams, long after the memory has surrendered”.
• The Love Songs of WEB Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers is published by Fourth Estate (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply