In The Prophets, Robert Jones Jr upends the norm and writes a queer story centred on a “love that resists debasement”. In an interview over Zoom, the author explains: “My major was creative writing and my minor was Africana studies. In all the works that I had read, something struck me as missing. And that was a Black queer presence. There was Wallace Thurman in 1929 and later James Baldwin, but before that there was nothing, except in the context of rape or sexual assault. And my question was, but what about love? And Toni Morrison says if you cannot find the book you wish to read then you must write it.”
In a conversation with author Britt Bennet, Jones recalls how this story was brought to him. “Our fiction tutorial instructor gave us an assignment where we had to go out into the world and find an object that a character in a novel would possess, and I found a pair of shackles in the garbage in Brooklyn.” Jones Jr believed this was a communication from an enslaved spirit that wanted this book to be written.
The Prophets is his debut offering. The novel, which is located in antebellum Virginia in the United States, introduces us to Isaiah and Samuel, two slaves valued for their virility. But they are interested only in love and in living an audacious life of attachment to each other, even in a world where rupture and severance are constants.
Slavery was a cleaver to Black life. Kinship and family connections inevitably ended in grief. But in this story set on the plantation named Empty, the love between Isaiah and Samuel glows as onlookers observe its sweetness. Readers are given an intimate glimpse into the lives of the enslaved, all attempting to find a modicum of dignity.
Preservation in destruction
Jones Jr creates a world in which queer and gender-fluid characters exist in a way that is not spectacular or otherworldly. In fact, they belong. The presence of Samuel and Isaiah is initially not a cause for concern or a spectacle that elicits wonder, disgust or hate from the other slaves. There appears to be generosity and softness offered to the orphaned boys in the many people who take up the role of parent.
But one character, Amos, shows us the indignity and violence of white supremacy as it forces those living under subjugation to turn against each other to grasp a little power for themselves. Amos offers to mould the slaves into docility. This act of becoming an agent of destruction on the plantation is rooted in the hope that it will keep the wandering hands of the master off his wife, Essie – and with this Jones Jr offers us complexity. Amos insists that the “young bucks” represent a loss for the master as they do not partake in the systematic rape of enslaved women to produce more of the master’s so-called property.
“Is Amos a bad person? I don’t know. That is for the reader to decide,” Jones Jr says.
Amos labels Isaiah and Samuel sexual deviants and, through undermining them, offers the slaves a way to elevate themselves. By introducing a homophobic Christian rhetoric, Amos convinces the community that condemning Isiah and Samuel will win them favour with God. Their sexual orientation is criminalised and the reader witnesses the devastation this creates. “It’s a great distraction, divide and conquer, and it always works. And that is one of the things I wanted to show in The Prophets.”
On language and sexuality in Africa
The novel centres those existing on the margins and imaginatively speculates on their history and ancestry. Time is not linear in the book. Jones Jr writes an Africa from “the time before” slavery, but refuses to refer to it as precolonial Africa. Rather, he pulls from and speculates on queerness as African ancestry. There are brief flashes to a fictional village of the Kosongo people who are ruled by a woman referred to as a king.
Finding hope in his research on the oral histories of Africans, Jones Jr focused on the concept of love in all its forms. “What you meant when you said homosexual, they would’ve said, ‘Oh, you mean love,’” he says.
“There is this idea in American academia that because there was no name for it, then it must have not existed.” The Prophets transgresses this failure to imagine a queer ancestry, particularly in Africa. In the storyline with a king who is a woman with many wives, readers begin to feel the tussle between gender, sexuality and language.
The book thus serves as a critique of the way American academia imagines Africa as seeing “heterosexuality as the norm”, which is limiting and narrow. “You cannot … identify my … ancestral history and let me have my own historical lineage,” Jones Jr says.
Women as witnesses
“They need witnesses,” Jones Jr says of the lovers.
He did not want to make violence a character in the book, although violence and conquest were endemic to slaves’ stories. The author dignifies the lives of Samuel and Isaiah by creating a theatre in which their love is witnessed.
In the circle of women who surround the boys are Sarah, Aunty B (previously known as Beulah), Essie and Puah. With a meticulous and attentive hand, Jones Jr renders the textured lives of multiple women.
Maggie is a slave woman who reclaims her agency through abominable acts that result in death and illness. She coats her breasts with substances that kill the children she is instructed to nurse. She also defiles the food she is told to make for the master’s house. She exists between the maternal and the constant threat of severance, and so she minimises her attachment to her children. But there is a visceral love under Maggie’s callous exterior. She summons guidance from ancestral spirits to protect the boys, whom she fondly refers to as “the two of them”.
As Jones Jr recalls the diverse cast of women in his own life, it becomes clear how he can write complex women beyond their physical attributes or tropes about strong Black women who exist to endure. “I was fortunate enough to be raised by my grandmother and my great-grandmother. I was raised by women who carried razor blades in their mouths and would slash anybody that would mess with them.”
“Women taught me how to write,” he says of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Toni Cade Bambara, among others.
The Prophets carries Baldwin and Morrison in its timbre. Lauren Michelle Jackson for the New Yorker raised the question of whether being compared to these literary ancestors may act as an albatross, as it might have for Ta-Nehisi Coates, who was compared to Baldwin after his debut offering, Between the World and Me. But Jones Jr says, “I cannot touch the hem on Toni Morrison’s garment. I will spend the remainder of my career chasing her.” Although the comparison to these giants is well placed, The Prophets and Robert Jones Jr stand in their own glory.