From the Desk of Chancellor Watson: The Prophets: A Novel by Robert Jones, Jr.

book cover of The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr.

The Prophets: a Novel by Robert Jones, Jr.

One in a series of reviews contributed by Chancellor Dwight C. Watson

As I read the description of this book in the Gay and Lesbian Review, I was taken by the fact that Robert Jones, Jr. was a Black, queer author who was compared to a modern-day James Baldwin.  I immediately asked the UW-Whitewater Library to order the book and put it on reserve for me.  I anxiously started reading the book and was mesmerized by the writing and spellbound by the ghostly, ghastly, passionate tales. In The Prophets, he has crafted a new kind of epic of queer love set against a brutal historical backdrop. The Prophets sets a tender queer romance on a harrowing plantation stage while tracking the action in lyrical, sensual detail.  Samuel and Isaiah are two Black teens that live in the antebellum South as slaves skirting the numbing terrors of their masters (Paul, Ruth, James, Timothy) and navigating the nuances of their community (Maggie, Amos, Essie, Bea Auntie, Puah, Sarah). They fall in love. They bring each other joy and comfort. And their bond ripples through the lives posed around them. 

The depiction of slavery makes for, at times, an excruciating read – his focus on abuse is unyielding. He writes about atrocities across humility and humanity as captured in the following passage:

To survive in this place, you have to want to die.  That was the way of the world as remade by toubab [White folk], and Samuel’s list of grievances was long. They pushed people into the mud and then called them filthy.  They forbade people from accessing any knowledge of the world and then called them ignorant. They worked people until their empty hands were twisted, bleeding, and could do more, then called them lazy. They forced to people to eat innards from troughs and then called them uncivilized. They kidnapped babies and shattered families and then called them incapable of love. They raped and lynched and cut up people into parts, and then called the pieces savage. They stepped on people’s throats with all their might and asked why the people couldn’t breathe.  And then, when people made an attempt to break the foot, or cut it off, they screamed CHAOS and claim that mass murder was the only way to restore order.

The Prophets’ dreamy realism pays tribute to the work of Tony Morrison with a penetrating focus toward social dynamics. It is a Black story and a gay story – one that reaches wide and far in its interrogation of trauma, connection, and coexistence. Some of the chapters carried the names of the books in the Bible, such as Judges, Proverbs, and Psalms, while others captured the depth of the characters who paraded the narrative in the chapters for which they were named; but the chapters that were the most haunting were those recounted with the magic realism of the African tribes in which the slaves were captured and the spiritual hauntings of the ancestors as the African became slaves in the new land. Some readers will find these chapters airy and distracting, but I found that these chapters were lyrical and cemented the story from the ancient to the past to the present.  Jones bring depth and feeling into the characters, especially his women characters.  One such capturing of the author’s skill is the depiction of Maggie, an older woman who works in the house and cares for Isaiah and Samuel since they have no family of their own:

With powdered hands, Maggie rubbed her sides, content with how her figure – not just her particular curves, but also how it never burned or turned red under a beaming sun – separated her from her captors. She loved herself when she could. She regretted nothing but her limp (not the limp itself, but how it came to be). The world tried to make her feel some other way, though. It had tried to make her bitter about herself. It had tried to turn her own thinking toward her. It had tried to make her gaze upon her reflection and judge what she saw as repulsive. She did none of these things. Instead she fancied her skin in the face of these cruelties. For she was the kind of black that made toubab [White] men drool and her own men coil. In her knowing, she glowed in the dark.

The author has embarked upon a difficult undertaking. He writes about same-sex love between enslaved people, attraction that undoubtedly existed but have so far been little explored by historians or fiction writers. It requires great deftness to place a gay couple in a time when the very word for their relationship had not yet been invented.

He was astounded by how obvious it was, by how easily it could be missed by those who weren’t curious enough to seek the answer right in front of them because the answer, even when revealed, remained unbelievable.

He had thought their kinship merely hazardous at first, never thinking it wise for any two people to be so close, not here anyway. It hadn’t occurred to him until the veil was lifted, and the world was clearer to him, what Samuel and Isaiah’s peculiar closeness meant.

In the absence of women, he understood the necessity of a hand or in a last-ditch effort begrudgingly and with falsehood intact, the uncleanliness of other men. But to not have a desire for women to begin with, to produce no physical response to them whatsoever, above all, to willingly choose a male to cradle you gently into sleep, even when women were as soft and abundant as cotton…  Nevertheless, by [carrying on as though] at least one of them was female, they threatened to only further diminish what Amos imagined was already diminished to death.

For Samuel and Isaiah to wear their sex this way—dewy, firm, trembling, free—even under the cloak of night, was folly. If they had cared at all for any others, they would have, at the very least masked their strangeness.  They were bodies. They were in bodies.  They just had no authority over theirs.

 “They don’t bother nobody round here.  Some of us ain’t got a lot of time no way. Might as well steal some kind of easy before the hard time comes.”

I don’t see The Prophets as merely a gay love story, but a challenge to slavery as the two lovers refused to multiply and give God the glory, and claimed authority over their own bodies.  I appreciate fully Samuel and Isaiah’s quest, ambition and imaginative richness. Jones created a world in which love spoke its name in the context of our greatest national shame — slavery.

About Ellen Latorraca

Reference & Instruction Librarian Liaison for the College of Education & Professional Studies
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