Honoree Fanonne Jeffers is a poet and writing professor at the University of Oklahoma. Her most recent release is “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois” (Harper Collins, 2021), an epic tale that moves back and forth in time between our country’s early founding and the modern day South. Weighing in at over 700 pages, the length of the novel indicates the complexity of its subject matter.
Ostensibly the work is a coming of age story. The novel’s protagonist, Ailey Pearl Garfield, does not think much about her family’s past, true of any typically unconscious teenager. But under the surface something, or many somethings, send out an undercurrent of sadness that makes Ailey and her sisters numb and disconnected from peers, school, and especially themselves. Her sister Lydia becomes a lost soul addicted to crack. Her sister Coco takes off for college and medical school and never really comes back. Only Ailey continues to spend summers in Chickasetta, Georgia with her Uncle Root, a former college professor who had met such influentials as W.E.B. Du Bois and Zora Neale Hurston.
By all rights and means, this should have been a joyful family. It is a well-educated group of high achieving, college-educated men and women who studied at so-named Routledge and Mecca universities, as well as having associations at Howard, Harvard, and Spelman. Ailey attends an exclusive, mostly white, private secondary school before pursuing a bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate. Her father is a physician. In other words, these people have it all, and yet some duality in their collective conscience pulls at them.
The cultural use of double consciousness was first described by W.E.B. Du Bois in his seminal work, “The Souls of Black Folk” (1903), describing the twoness African Americans can feel because of having one foot in and one foot out of white American society. Jeffers uses Du Bois’ words at the start of each chapter to introduce its focus. With stark themes of family, explicit child sexual abuse, hideous slavery scenes, and drug abuse, the novel can get oppressive itself and one may be tempted to throw it across the room. But, with flawless poetic skill, Jeffers manages to tie together the foundational origins of the modern South from the Creek in Georgia to antebellum slavery to modern college life in 2007 where the story ends. Ultimately, it is a coming of age story of an individual, a race, and a nation. This is a true magnum opus that will evoke strong emotions, but will be gratifying, if you stick with it to the end.
Pound cake is mentioned in the novel several times. The doyenne of Southern cooking was Edna Lewis who was a restaurant owner, lecturer at the American Museum of Natural History, and recipient of the James Beard Living Legend Award in 1999. Her cookbook “The Taste of Country Cooking” (Knopf, 1976) contains her famous pound cake recipe, which can be found online here: https://www.thekitchn.com/white-pound-cake-edna-lewis-23099601 .
You can also try this version.
Traditional pound cake
1 1/2 cups butter (3 sticks), softened
3 cups sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. almond extract
3 cups sifted flour
1/2 tsp. salt
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Spray a 10-inch Bundt cake pan with baking spray with flour. Place the butter in a large mixing bowl and beat until creamy. Add in the sugar slowly and blend until creamy. Add eggs one at a time, beating after each one. Stir in the vanilla and almond extract. Combine the flour and butter in another bowl then slowly stir into batter. Beat until just blended. Add to pan at about 2/3 full. Bake for 1 hour and 20 minutes until cake begins to pull away from sides and toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Let cool in pan then turn out on a wire rack and leave to cool. You can play with the flavorings, perhaps using lemon extract or coconut.