Review: The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr.

The Prophets begins with the declaration, “You do not know us”. The us is a chorus, perhaps not of this world. The you it is addressed to is more mysterious – is it the reader, or someone within the story? Both become clear in time, as the speakers promise, and the answers are simpler than you might expect, which is how a lot of this novel is despite its dense and tricky sentences.

Shortly after this allusive opening chapter we meet Samuel and Isaiah, two enslaved young men on a cotton plantation called Empty in Louisiana, on the banks of the Yazoo River. They are sixteen or seventeen and, over the past sixteen seasons (four years), they have developed a beautiful and dangerous intimacy. Unlike the other enslaved people (in the novel they are simply “the people”), Samuel and Isaiah work in the barn, where they tend to the animals. While this seems like a reprieve from the back-breaking work of picking the cotton, it serves the toubab’s (the white plantation owner’s) purpose of strengthening them up so they can be bred – working bodies being the most fundamental currency of this warped economy.

Sam and Zay’s relationship, although tolerated by the people and toubab alike, is an obvious hurdle to this breeding system, and various complicated dealings are made to force them to perform their task. But to others – like old Maggie who works in the kitchen – their relationship comes to symbolise something greater. She watches them at night (it’s not as creepy as it sounds) and delights in their freedom:

She watched them from underneath ladders, behind stacks of hay, or through the back walls of horse pens. She had no desire to interrupt or even discuss what she saw; simply bearing witness was treasure. For they were as frisky and playful as crows and her proximity made her feel as if she were in the dark sky, suspended upon the surface of their wings. Oh so black. Oh so high. Up there, where there was safety and glow.

Despite their core position in the narrative, the story is mainly told through the perspectives of others, such as Amos, something of a leader of the people who has earned the trust of plantation owner Paul, or Paul’s son Timothy who has been away at boarding school in the north, developing his own dangerous ideas. It has the neat effect of simultaneously centring and decentring Sam and Zay’s relationship.

The Prophets is in the end a simple story. If you’re familiar with even a few narratives about slavery and its legacies you will find similarities in many of the plot points and ideas. 12 Years A Slave, Django Unchained, Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Black Is King, Toni Morrison’s Song Of Solomon, Black Panther – I’ve listed mostly movies because this is a strangely cinematic novel. That is not to say that this story is unoriginal, just that it bears repeating, ad nauseum if necessary. The elements that Jones, Jr. adds – queerness; a chorus of spirit guides and a divine war – are beautifully integrated. Like the greatest stories, The Prophets surges from quiet beginnings until it overwhelms, building to a paroxysm of violence and revelation that is well-earned by the hard yards that come before. It is an incredibly rich evocation of Antebellum America, even when some of the brushstrokes are broad.

It’s also a wonderfully queer story, not just because it’s about two guys in love, but because of the reverence with which it treats their relationship, as if it is a rare sacred object, the hotly-beating heart at the centre of a cruel world. Jones, Jr. lingers over the skin and muscles of his protagonists, insisting on beauty and eroticism in a hopeless place. Chapters set in so-called Africa trace this queerness to precolonial societies ruled by female kings who had male wives, and said that people were born “girls until the ceremony where you could then choose: woman, man, free, or all”. There is little scholarship around queer life under slavery, but as with all queer history, absence of evidence doesn’t mean evidence of absence.

It also of course a story about race and Blackness and the way white people contrived to see dark skin as a mark of beastliness and servitude. I think the “you” in the book’s opening and throughout must be African-Americans today, the inheritors of this legacy. As such it’s not really a story for me, but still I found power in its insistence on living truly and without fear or apology. There are warnings aplenty to heed too.

I loved that this is not really a realist novel. In its matter-of-fact way of dealing with the spiritual world it leans towards fantasy, although I’m sure part of what Jones, Jr. is up to is erasing the boundary between the two, indeed arguing that part of the brokenness in the Christian world is our estrangement from the spiritual reality around us. The novel draws its Black spirituality from Yoruba, particularly the concept of àṣẹ, something like life force. Titling each chapter after the Bible suggests the old religion can be smuggled inside the new, like a Trojan horse.

Then there’s that writing. Jones, Jr’s sentences take a moment to read in full and wrap your head around, but they are so carefully honed that nearly all of them are revelatory, showing a new way to look at ourselves and the world. Yes, it reminded me of Toni Morrison, who pulls off the similar trick of seeming complicated but actually being startlingly clear. I found it tremendously rewarding and likely to reward many future readings too.

Gay rating: 5/5 for queer protagonists and minor characters and queer themes throughout.

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