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Excerpt

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

August 24, 2021 
The following is excerpted from Honorée Fanonne Jeffers's new novel, The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois, a story of grappling with identity, ancestry, and heritage. Jeffers is a fiction writer, poet, and essayist, and is the author of five poetry collections, including the 2020 collection The Age of Phillis, which won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Poetry and was longlisted for the National Book Award for Poetry and the PEN/Voelcker Award. She teaches creative writing and literature at University of Oklahoma.

Lydia don’t look like none of us. Doesnt. Daddy’s got brown eyes, but he looks like a white man. Mama’s dark like chocolate and little and pretty. She makes her hair straight with a hot comb and blue grease. I’m dark, too, but not like Mama. I got red in my skin underneath the brown like my granny. Coco’s eyes and skin match, like caramel candy. Her nose is wide like Mama’s, and she’s real short, too. Her hair’s like Mama’s, and it grows real long. Lydia’s hair is long, too, but won’t hold a curl. But in the back of her head, she’s got a kitchen. It grows in curls like mine. That’s how you can tell that she’s a Black girl. She’s got a gap in her teeth like Mama’s too. Her skin is light but not like Daddy’s. She looks like she went out in the sun and stayed a long time and got a tan. But Mama says Black folks don’t get tans. We already got some color. And Mama don’t care if folks are ignorant about her children. Doesn’t. She carried all of us in her belly and we belong to her and we should love her very much.

It’s cold in the store. When Mama pushes the cart up the aisle, the white lady waves at us. Mama waves back and says good morning, and the lady and her cart come our way. She’s old like my granny and has a pink shirt and a jean skirt. Her brown shoes are ugly. I don’t like those shoes.

The white lady says, “You are so good with children.”

Mama says, “Thank you, ma’am. I try my best with these two.

There’s another one at home.”

“How long have you been in service?”

“Ma’am?”

The lady touches Lydia’s shoulder. “This one won’t need a nanny soon, and my daughter has a little boy who’d just love you. Let me give you her number. She’ll pay well.” The white lady puts her hand in her purse and pulls out a pencil. She puts her hand in again and has a smooshed piece of paper, and Mama frowns, but then she smiles. She says Lydia is her daughter. They have the same teeth, but Lydia is getting braces next year.

Lydia don’t look like none of us. Doesnt.

“Gal, you’re funning me!” The white lady shakes her finger close to my mother’s face, and I say, “Ooh,” ’cause you ain’t never supposed to put your hand in somebody’s face. Arent.

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 17 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 groceries 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: coocoo, coocoo. 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.”

Lydia starts singing our favorite song about how she’s Black and proud. I start dancing, shaking my booty.

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.  Doesnt. 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 pancakes 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.”

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Excerpted from The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. Copyright © 2021 by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers




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