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The Prophets

Review

The Prophets

Isaiah was Samuel’s and Samuel was Isaiah’s. That was the way it was since the beginning, and the way it was to be until the end.

Robert Jones, Jr. delivers a tour-de-force of a debut, summoning Baldwin and Morrison to craft a spectacular, shattering, singular novel in THE PROPHETS. This is an intimate, epic, polyphonic evocation of Black queer love as a nurturing, unnamed power within the ceaseless torment that was a plantation. Jones lays bare the white-colonizer constructs of homophobia and cissexism, the devouring, ongoing choice of cruelty that was slavery, which continues to manifest its deep rotting roots in the foundations of this country. Above all, he devotes the heart of his novel to the glory of Black queer love.

THE PROPHETS migrates across time and space to proclaim a woven narrative of Black queer love violently interrupted by whiteness. Jones takes us to Kosongo, a place of woman kings and queer warriors, unconstrained by binary. A place of Blackness, Black joy and Black love, unfettered. Not a paradise, but a flourishing community, and when white men come, no one in Kosongo could have fathomed the cruelties they would bring. There had been no record, no warning, no language for the atrocity that would be slavery. The people of Kosongo had done nothing wrong. There was no crime they were called upon to answer. No reason. There was only slaughter, abduction, the crushing onto ships, and the intimate horrors and systemic monstrosity of American slavery. An unimaginable, ceaseless villainy upon which this nation was founded, its bloody consequences twined into every facet of America.

"This book is devastating, harrowing and true. Lyric, prescient and profound, it is sure to be one of the most beloved novels of the year."

The novel centers on the Halifax cotton plantation, otherwise known as the Empty. Two young enslaved men, Samuel and Isaiah, find resonance and solace in each other. They work together in the barn for the most part, and the other enslaved peoples of the Empty have a tenderness for them, because there’s a light and a peace to be found in love like theirs. They had no word, no language, for what they were to each other, no one around them did. They knew they knew each other, belonged to each other, in a way that felt right, natural and precious.

That is, until their master, Paul, who “breeds” the enslaved peoples on his plantation, starts to become suspicious. Until, trying to protect himself and his loved ones, an older slave, Amos, takes to Christian prayer to try and appease Paul. And within it Amos learns cruel, constructed words for the love between Samuel and Isaiah, and tensions heighten to a vicious, devastating climax.

Throughout THE PROPHETS, there is a throughline of voices that are not for me. They are the aunts of one of the murdered men in Kosongo, and they are many more voices. “To begin: remember,” they say. “But memory is not enough.” Later in the novel, Samuel will think, “And why would this be offensive? How could they hate the tiny bursts of light that shot through Isaiah’s body every time he saw Samuel? Didn’t everybody want somebody to glow like that? Even if it could only last for never, it had to be known. That way, it could be mourned by somebody, thus remembered --- and maybe, someday, repeated.”

Jones underscores the necessity not only of memory, but of restoration. Of bringing to light the love and courage that has been deliberately scourged from history, because the villains of this story are the founders of this country. Because it should never have taken the courage it did to love like this. Because these love stories should have existed clean of tragedy. But they did not, and they deserve a reckoning. Queer Black people have always existed, and the systemic injustice they face today is an unchecked extension of that colonizer abduction. Jones explores clearly how whiteness stole, brutalized, marginalized and interrupted Black life and love. He evokes how whiteness corrupted queerness into perversity and sin, crucially even when white people themselves have also always been queer. Jones explores how white entitlement couples with white insecurity and manifests through violence when it comes to Black bodies. This includes just as equally white women and queer white men.

Jones examines language as it intertwines with Black American history. The names that were stolen. The literally unimaginable, unnamed terror of slavery. How Black queer love can, does and has emerged, even without example. How it heals, and saves.

This novel is nearly impossible to review in a few words. And as a non-Black reader, I encourage you to also seek out coverage of this novel from Black voices. Entire courses can be taught on Robert Jones, Jr.’s THE PROPHETS, and I hope they will be. This book is devastating, harrowing and true. Lyric, prescient and profound, it is sure to be one of the most beloved novels of the year. At the core of this tour-de-force is a truth, and a reckoning: Black queer love as freedom, as future, as hope.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on January 15, 2021

The Prophets
by Robert Jones, Jr.

  • Publication Date: January 5, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons
  • ISBN-10: 059308568X
  • ISBN-13: 9780593085684