Book review: Homosexuality and slavery intersect in ‘The Prophets’

Robert Jones Jr. is also the brain behind the social justice social media community Son of Baldwin
Courtesy of Alberto Vargas

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Robert Jones Jr. is also the brain behind the social justice social media community Son of Baldwin Courtesy of Alberto Vargas

In the Bible, Isaiah and Samuel are prophets, men considered to be proclaimers of the will of God. In Robert Jones Jr.’s bewitching literary debut “The Prophets,” these names take on a new significance. In this story set on Halifax plantation in Mississippi, not far from the Yazoo River, the pair are intermediaries for another supernatural source: African ancestors whose knowledge did not survive middle passage.

At the center of the story is Samuel, who takes every moment to contemplate freedom and rebellion, and Isaiah, who believes that maybe this something-like-love is enough for the moment. The pair meet as adolescents when Isaiah is brought to the plantation informally referred to as Empty by those enslaved on its grounds. Samuel gives him water, becoming his first friend. Over time the two foster what others in the community eventually call an “unnatural closeness,” and their resolution to stay true to themselves sets the narrative in motion.

The novel, with its biblical gravitas (most chapter titles and character names stem from this source), gets off to a slow start, but it does have its intrigues. A third of the way through, Jones gives readers reasons to keep turning the page.

A love like Samuel and Isaiah’s is not without consequences. The couple refuse to participate in the plantation’s capitalistic structure by creating babies the master can then sell. Their defense of their way of life, and by extension their sexuality, is seen as selfishness by those around them. When Ruth, the mistress of Halifax plantation, breaks the safe space spell that protects the barn where the pair lives, things quickly get complicated, and the main characters are forced to make desperate choices.

Amos, the plantation’s preacher, holds the keys to Isaiah’s fragmented memories about his upbringing. Cloaking his deceptions as “God’s will,” Amos is willing to withhold information and manipulate the youth’s emotions to keep what the elder values safe.

“It jumped from one face to the next, like lanterns being lit in quick succession. Instead of too much resistance, Amos found a frightening commonality between toubab and his own people that could be exploited quite easily ... they were seduced one by one. People began avoiding Samuel and Isaiah. They would deliberately walk the long way, past the overseers and through the weeds, to dodge them on the common path to and from the field ... the fruit from the tree of knowledge had been plucked, bitten into, and savored. Bliss had gone away, gone away.”

Amos uses his sermons to get the community to deride the lovers. When the violence begins, it comes from somewhere other than the big house.

This trope of religious malfeasance has been used before, and in this case Jones’ choices are reminiscent of those at the center of Afia Atakora’s debut novel, “Conjure Women.” The intended target of scorn is different, but the distrust of the community is what breaks the already strained bonds. Jones’ use of the choir of ancestors is redolent of another author’s literary debut — Brit Bennett’s “The Mothers,” which uses an omniscient female chorus during alternating chapters. Both books have a spiritual lyricism to them.

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Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Credit: Handout

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Credit: Handout

Combined ShapeCaption
Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Jones’ strength lies in his ability to build interior worlds so imaginative and lush that it would be dreamy if it weren’t such a nightmare for the enslaved people tethered to it. It is a place where enslaved women split themselves in two — Beulah, the community comfort woman, is also Be Auntie when she must be. And Puah, a young girl paired with Samuel in a breeding arrangement, creates an alternate reality for herself.

Readers come to care about the characters, which means they cannot look away from the daily violence and humiliation the slaves receive. The brutal depictions make the moments of openness more sensual. Delicate, indomitable spirits become well-rendered human beings.

The author’s use of recollections and flashbacks are elegant and lithe when they function. In this way, he fills in the voices of the plantation, with its willow trees and wildflowers, but leaves the wilderness beyond it, filled with swamp maples and pines, a haunted place that lingers just out of frame for much of the story.

The spell on the reader’s suspension of reality is broken when the writer makes his way back to Africa to tell the story of King Akusa, a woman warrior with six wives, some of whom identify as male. In the modern age we have heard more than once the phrase, “sometimes the king is a woman,” but the new setting and quick introduction of a new cast of characters is unmooring. Jones’ through-line on gender and sexuality is enterprising — he is working to widen the reader’s perspective beyond gender dynamics in America, but it ultimately feels forced. These disruptive moments are part of a mashup of scenes and interior moments that stray a touch too far from the main action to be stirring in the way the author intends.

By making real a type of literary imagining that historical fiction often leaves out or at best relegates to the margins, even with its missteps, Robert Jones Jr.’s “The Prophets” is an important new work and an integral addition to this period’s literary canon alongside works such as Charles R. Johnson’s “Middle Passage” and Marlon James’ “The Book of Night Women.”


FICTION

‘The Prophets’

By Robert Jones Jr.

G.P. Putnam’s Sons

400 pages, $27