Honoree Fanonne Jeffers discusses writing about the full range of a community, its sexuality and gender, in her first fiction novel, “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois.” She says her imperfect and morally reprehensible characters portray life as it is. Which they do. All things that can happen in life can happen in a novel, and this is a supreme example. You don’t immediately arrive at a particular destination, you travel a road to get there; this is a novel written without lying about, making excuses for, or blaming, its characters who need to be forgiven.
This episode originally aired on September 9, 2021.
Excerpt from The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers.
Mama steps back. She’s still smiling.
“I promise I’m telling the truth. This is my daughter, and I ought to know. I was there for the labor, all seventeen hours of it.”
The lady points her finger at my sister. “Are you telling me this here is a colored child?”
Then Lydia starts singing our favorite song about how she’s Black and proud. I start dancing, shaking my booty. Mama tries to grab my hand, but I run behind Lydia. The white lady turns pink. Then she pushes her cart away.
Lydia says, “I’m Black.”
Mama says, “Don’t you think I know that? And who’re you talking to?
You know better than to cause a scene in public!”
Mama walks away, and Lydia pushes the cart and puts our gro- ceries back on the shelves. The bacon and the cereal and the mushy, light bread. At the checkout, she buys me a candy bar and says she’ll hide it for me so Mama can’t see, but in the parking lot the station wagon is gone.
Lydia holds my hand and we wait for Mama. We wait and wait, and then Lydia says we’re going for a walk. My legs start hurting, and Lydia kneels and tells me climb on her back. She starts walking again. There is a house, and I think I remember this place. The red flowers. The bird in the tree: coo-coo, coo-coo. I climb off Lydia’s back, but before we knock Uncle Root opens the door.
“Young lady, before you start, my name is Bennett, and I’m not in this mess. This is supposed to be my summer vacation, so I’m not getting in the middle of this. And I told your mama the same when she called and woke me from my very enjoyable nap. Come on.”
We follow him through the living room and into the kitchen. Lydia sits in a chair and pulls me onto her lap. She puts her chin on top of my head, but her lap is too skinny. Her bones hurt my booty.
Uncle Root picks up the phone on the wall. “Hello? Miss Rose, I have your grandbabies.” He waits and there’s squawking.
“Say she’s still mad, huh? This one over here is ’bout a wet hen, too. Well, what did Maybelle Lee expect? Children don’t have any sense. Did she think they’d just wait at the store while she drove around? She should know better. If this was Atlanta, no telling who’d have these girls.”
More squawking, and he makes a silly face. “All right, Miss Rose. Okay. All right. That’s fine.” He hangs up and tells us our granny says we should spend the night in his guest room.
Lydia says, “That sounds fine.” I say, “Yeah, that sounds fine.”
“But first, young ladies, let’s ride over to the Cluck-Cluck Hut. Get us some chicken and biscuits and French fries. Matter of fact, let’s stop back by the Pig Pen for some ice cream. I got a pie in the freezer and we’re about to have us a party. Power to the people!”
He raises his fist.
I say, “Ooh wee!”
Before it’s time for bed, Lydia asks Uncle Root for another sheet to put underneath me. I’m scared she’ll tell him what I told her about the long-haired lady, but Lydia don’t say nothing. Doesn’t. That night, the long-haired lady comes to my dream, but she only sits with me. In the morning there’s no yellow stain. Lydia tells me that’s what she’s talking ’bout. Two nights in a row with no wetting the bed. Who’s a big girl?
And I say, “I am!”
“Give me some skin, big girl!” I hit her hand hard and she turns her palm down: “Now, on the Black hand side!”
For breakfast, Uncle Root makes us cheese and eggs and pan- cakes topped with butter and syrup. He says he knows how to feed some hungry children. Don’t play him cheap.
Then we are going and going in his long car back to the country. At the driveway, we all climb out of the car, but Uncle Root tells me to stay with him. Let my sister go first. The screen door opens, and Mama comes out to the porch and down the steps. My sister runs to her. She’s crying, and Mama hugs her and rocks her side to side.
Lydia says, “I’m sorry.”
Mama says, “It’s all right, darling. It’s okay.”
Excerpted from “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois” by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers. Copyright © 2021 by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.