Honorée Fanonne Jeffers is a full-tenure professor who’s been teaching nearly two decades in the English department at the University of Oklahoma. The first African American full professor in the history of the department, who is also Afro-Indigenous.
Her new novel explores the Afro-Indigenous experience, an area of literature Jeffers said has been long underrepresented and under-discussed.
The 790-page novel titled “The Love Songs of W.E.B Du Bois” released earlier this year in July explores the two centuries-old history of a Black family in central Georgia who is descended from Afro-Indigenous origin.
She discussed the book at the virtual National Book Festival event with Karen Grigsby Bates, senior correspondent for NPR’s Code Switch on Sept. 23.
Jeffers sat down with Gaylord News to discuss the themes of her book and reflects on how the narrative can translate to social justice issues across minority groups in the US.
Q: When did you meet poetry?
A: Well, I met poetry as an observer and student. My father, Lance Jeffers, was a well known Black Arts Movement era poet of the 60s and the 70s. And so when I was a little girl, my parents would take me to his poetry readings because my big sisters, I have two big sisters and they didn't want to babysit, how they would take me with them. And that's how I first encountered poetry. Then I was a very early reader. I started reading about four and a half, and by the time I was probably about six or seven, I was reading on the college level. I was a very solitary child, I didn't have very many friends. I was socially awkward. So books were really my friends. So I started reading poetry and fiction as a very little girl in elementary school. And then I started writing my first little childhood stories. And then I first started writing poetry when I was in high school. That's when I really started understanding that I was a writer.
Q: I mean, that's such a developmentally amazing time to discover that in your life right? That's a young age to kind of already know what you want to do.
A: Because I was so solitary, and I didn't have really any friends, my mother was my friend. It sounds bad, but it taught me the solitary work of being a writer, and now that I probably still am socially awkward, but I have several really good close friends. I'm able to know how to negotiate between being a social person, and a solitary person. So those very early years when I was very much alone as a child and as a teenager, really taught me how to keep my writing time sacred and keep my contemplative and reading time sacred.
Q: I wanted to hear how did your writing process shift, if at all during the pandemic. How did you kind of mediate what was going on in the world of the global pandemic?
A: So, when the book of poetry came out it was very terrifying. It was very terrifying to have a book come out in the middle of a pandemic. And the pandemic just kept getting worse. But I do think that, as an older person I've seen some things I haven't quite seen before. You have to learn how to improvise. And so I already had a social media presence. And I started noticing that younger folks on Instagram were doing things they call Instagram Live … I started noticing things that they were doing, and just sort of imitating that. I learned how to navigate Zoom. I was teaching in 2020 Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 so I had to learn how to navigate teaching online, so I used a lot of those same tools. … But I think that young people have been very wonderful, because as an elder, there are certain things that are very important to me. But I think that it's always important to learn from the younger generation. So the younger generation has really taught me that you just got to keep always learning, and you got to learn how to pivot. The one thing I will say that makes me rather sad is I miss the people in person. As I like to fellowship with people. I like to see people's faces. I like to talk to people. My book seemed to connect very much emotionally with people, and sometimes ancestrally with people, and I like to talk to them. And that's made me sad, but I pray that we'll be over this moment soon. And that I'll be able to fellowship with the people in person.
Q: I know in your book you talk a lot about ancestry, the history of intergenerational issues with that. How important is ancestry and language of our ancestors. How important is that to not only the black community of central Georgia like your characters but any minority communities?
A: Well I feel it's incredibly important, I wouldn't be here without my elders. And if I may, I wouldn't be here without my ancestors. I do commune spiritually with my ancestors. Some people may find that a little weird, but having moved out here to Oklahoma, and having colleagues and friends who I consider distant kin. I'm very careful not to impose on the Indigenous community that I encounter, if that makes sense. In my family, we talk about Indigenous ancestry, but I have no proof because my people stayed in Georgia. But I have received great support from … my colleagues in the English department. These people have been very accepting of me as an Afro-Indigenous poet, despite the fact that I can't prove it, because I've tried to be very respectful. It takes a very long time to be even tangentially accepted into Native American communities, and there's a reason for that so much has been taken. So much has been stolen. So much has been appropriated, so it is very important to be respectful and patient. And I'm just deeply honored when Native American folk have reached out to me and thanked me for writing the Afro-Indigenous story, which is not a story that's very much focused on, particularly in black literature. The first few lines of my novel talk about the history of the land and the land as a living being. I don't feel like that would be respectful to ignore the first inhabitants of the land. And so, I wrestled with telling that story, for probably about five or six years, because again, I didn't want to be disrespectful, I wanted it to be very respectful. I didn't want to appropriate the story. I prayed on it. But having been someone who communes with ancestors, those ancestors are sometimes Indigenous. I hope that's all right. And so, I felt like I was gonna step out on faith. But I did a lot of research, because I knew that I was going to be dragged by Native American scholars if I didn't get it right. And so that first chapter, that really deals with the Afro-Indigenous origin of the Creek village that is the beginning of the story, I spent probably about five or six years, just on those 30 or 40 pages.
Q: I wanted to hear from you as an Afro-Indigenous person what are the differences or any kind of nuances in what colonialism means for the Afro-Indigenous communities?
A: As someone who also identifies as Afro-Indigenous I straddle these two cultures. I love trying to learn more about indigeneity so that I can honor, more fully, my Indigenous background. One of the things that I'm very clear on is that, as a Afro-Indigenous person, I have to look at both sides of this situation. I've noticed that many African Americans will say things like slavery was the original sin of this country. And in the novel, I even in my novel I even say the original sin was not slavery, the original sin was greed. Because I want people to understand that there were folks here when Africans arrived. So our sufferings do not push those sufferings aside. And so we have to be respectful of the original inhabitants of this land. And then think about many of these laws that we see as only used to oppress African Americans, for example slave codes of the 18th century included mentions of Indigenous people. So that many of these laws served a double purpose of oppressing African people, and oppressing Indigenous people. And so, settler colonialism, just reached out in all sorts of different vectors to oppress enslaved people and to oppress free Indigenous people. And so I want us to begin to look at our struggle as mingled struggle, instead of separate struggle.
Q: Why were themes of education and colorism in particular vital for you to include when you were painting the picture of the minority experience?
A: I always believe that no matter what sort of political oppression is happening, education is key for struggle. One of the reasons I believe education to be key is that when you learn how to, for example, do research, how to understand what you're reading, then you will understand the history of the country, you will understand how laws have been used to oppress your people. And so you can keep that information going through generations. I think it's incredibly important ... One of the things that I wanted to stress is that oral tradition, oral history is just as important as learning oral tradition. Learning oral history is just as important as what is written down on paper. I think that is very important, with what I have learned about Indigenous cultures, and I think that's very important with what I already know about African American culture.That is a non-Western point of view. But if you do not keep this history intact, then it will be erased by people who are trying to tell you that what you know to be true is a lie. When we look at colorism, as a macro issue in dealing with America at large, what we see is that the issue of colorism connects directly to settler colonialism. So that someone who is the closest phenotype, the closest in skin color to the settler colonists, is considered more beautiful because they are in greater proximity to violent power. It's an illusion that you are closer to the power.
Q: How can we as a society start managing having to accept and acknowledge all minority history, as you said it is mingled not separate. As a society, how can we bridge that?
A: Young folks need to begin to cross lines. And we need to stop looking at justice as a zero sum game, that only one group gets to have justice at the same time. And that again is something that I wanted to stress, because even though the main character in my novel appears only to be African American. She has ancestors that come to her through spirit dreams. And one of these ancestors, the main ancestor is an Afro-Indigenous woman. I have that happen so the main character never forgets the entirety of her ancestry, not just one part, but all parts. And then how she can honor all of that ancestry. And so I would like young folks, young BIPOC folks, to begin to think about how do they join for collective justice initiatives, for collective study of history, because we all occupied his land now.
Jeffers said she was very grateful to the editor of her book for not looking at the story strictly through the lens of word counts and page numbers. She said the original draft of the book was nearly half the length, and at the time, that had already concerned her.
But when her editor told her to not worry and that they could cut anything after the writing process, Jeffers kept writing, then wrote more.
Her editor asked for still more, calling the work a “magisterial epic” and that’s how Jeffers said the book ended up at nearly 800 pages.
She said she didn’t know what would have happened to her story if another editor had looked at it. She said her story may not be the same if it weren’t for allies in the literary world who wanted this story told almost as much as she did.