Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
Robert Jones, Jr. had doubts about writing The Prophets: “Not only was the subject matter too uncharted but the psychic weight of it felt too heavy to dredge up”, he writes. He did persist, though, and I’m glad he did, as the result is a timely and touching novel that binds the personal, political and anthropological into one powerful story.
The subject matter is certainly a weighty one: The Prophets explores Black queerness in the pre-abolition American South. At the centre of the Halifax plantation — called Empty by its slaves — is a barn. It’s both the place of toil and refuge for Samuel and Isaiah, slaves, lovers and young men destined to father the next generation of labourers.
Their love is accepted or at least tolerated by the community; it’s an open secret that is kept from Paul, the master of the plantation, as an act of defiance. However, tensions arise as their fellow slave Amos finds himself in a position where he needs to protect those closest to him. He takes it upon himself to seek favour from Paul by preaching Christianity, and as his congregation grows, he begins to direct suspicion against Samuel and Isaiah and their relationship.
Outside the barn, in the cotton fields, muddy huts and the master’s house, Jones Jr gives a voice to other slaves, their abuse, defiance and dreams, as well as their slavers. He also ventures back in time to Kosongo territory in an unnamed part of Africa where the ancestors of Samuel and Isaac are first captured and transported in less than sub-human conditions across the ocean, underlining the horrific clash of cultures.
I couldn’t help thinking back to Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous when reading The Prophets. Like Samuel and Isaiah, in Vuong’s novel Little Dog and Trevor’s love flourishes in a barn in the middle of tobacco fields; and their tale is projected against a backstory of war, otherness and abuse. However, The Prophets takes on more anthropological tones; especially the segments narrated through the women on Empty explore ideas of gender fluidity in ancestral beliefs, and the Kosongo sequences offer a fascinating look into power relations and social structures of the people before enslavement.
Finding balance in a setting where one group is brutally abused by another is not an easy task, but Jones manages to capture shades of grey where there is easily just good and bad. The tale of Timothy, Paul’s son, in particular is psychologically intricate: he is the progressive in the family, studying in the North where slaves walk free, and discovering his sexual identity — yet the ideas of racial inferiority are so deeply ingrained in him that you question whether he could ever think otherwise.
As such, though, the novel takes on lot, and sometimes it feels as if the author is trying too hard to ensure that the message and cultural observations come across; it’s almost as if a blunt force is applied to an otherwise intricately built story.
The Prophets mirrors Vuong also in its lyrical style. The prose flows through metaphors and sequences where the now, then and the world of myths are woven together. There are powerful descriptions of the plantation and how the nature reflects the humans, mixed with laconic remarks:
How dare nature continue on as though his suffering didn’t even make a dent, like the bloodshed and the bodies laid were ordinary, to be broken down for fertilizer by insects and sucked up by crops. No more than cow dung in the grand scheme. Same color, too.
Sadly, though, this doesn’t quite carry throughout the book as there are parts where the writing stumbles. For example, I wasn’t sure whether it was intended as a clever play with words when Timothy “took off his pants and attempted to cool the heat between his legs. but it only grew. So he took matters into his own hands.” All I get is a bad pun.
The lyrical stumbling shouldn’t deter readers from The Prophets, however: as a well-researched deep dive into slavery and queerness, it raises themes that have so far been largely overlooked in literature but that deserve the attention that Jones Jr gives them.
Anna is a bookworm and journalist.
Robert Jones, Jr., The Prophets (riverrun, 2021). 978-1529405705, 320 pp., hardback.
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