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Young, black, queer—and enslaved, in Robert Jones Jr.’s debut novel

William Burton
 |  Wicked Local

In his highly praised debut novel “The Prophets,” Robert Jones Jr. has created an epic tale, a love story that is stunning both in its beauty and its cruelty. It is an imagined history of black queerness that journeys from its African past into the bonds of slavery in the South. Jones may be better known to readers as the creator of the social justice media community blog, Son of Baldwin. He will be one of the featured authors at Castle Hill Author Talks at 6 p.m. on March 17.  

Samuel and Isaiah, two young slave boys, “one black, the other purple; one smiling, the other brooding,” grew up together on the Halifax plantation, better known as Empty, sometime in the 1830s. The two fall in love, and their relationship has set them apart from the other slaves. Their master, Paul, has envisioned another future for the pair, since they possess all the physical attributes that make them ideal for breeding with females. Paul forces his slaves to procreate since it is in his economic interest to increase the size of his chattel. 

When Isaiah fails to impregnate a slave girl named Essie, Paul rapes her. Essie gives birth to a son, whom she can’t bring herself to love. Amos, a slave who loves Essie, is angered by the situation and assigns blame to Isaiah. Amos then ingratiates himself to Paul, asking the plantation owner to teach him the Bible in order to preach the gospel to the other slaves. 

Spying on Samuel and Isaiah one night when the boys are in the barn, Amos sees them doing something he considers unnatural: “There was no suitable name for whatever it was that Samuel and Isaiah were doing.” Little by little, Amos turns the other slaves against the two boys. To Amos, his disloyalty to Samuel and Isaiah was a way to protect everyone else on the plantation. Amos believes that Samuel and Isaiah are putting everyone at risk with their refusal to mate.

The story goes back and forth in time between the plantation and Samuel and Isaiah’s African past, as descendants of the Kosongo people in an unnamed part of Africa. The Kosongo are notable for their adaptable notions of gender and roles. Readers are introduced to Kosii and Elewa, who grew up together and fell in love, like Samuel and Isaiah. Readers witness the brutal capture of the Kosongo people, including Kosii and Elewa, by slave traders, and their horrific voyage to America. Here Jones examines the breach of genealogies and the creation of the American slave, contrasting the different worlds and belief systems that the African world and the enslaved came from with that of the pre-Civil War South.

It isn’t any wonder that Jones titles his book “The Prophets” and populates his book with characters and chapters named from the Bible. With some of the characters speaking on behalf of a divine being, Jones charts a story of the oppressed and the oppressor, in the history of slavery and black queerness.

An impressive cast of characters tells the story in the book. There is Maggie, who works in the main house as a cook and housekeeper for Paul and his wife, Ruth. Maggie is a fascinating and complex character: She has the ability to see events before they transpire. James, the overseer, who is not really much better off than the slaves, deeply despises them for his station in life. Adam, the master’s coach driver, is also the master’s bastard son, the product of slave rape. Adam, with his white skin, is neither accepted by the slaver nor enslaved community, neither a Black man nor a white man. Ruth lives amid her own fantasies, and her only son, Timothy, becomes sexually drawn to Samuel and Isaiah. His desire becomes a catalyst for the story’s dramatic climax. 

Jones has written a complex and compelling story of a dark chapter in American history. Jones depicts this time with realism, presenting the nature of human desire, compassion, and depravity. It is a study of the human character, both of the oppressed and the oppressors.  It is a story that crosses generations, and it is at times loving and tender as well as heartless and inhumane. The writing is so realistic one can picture the plantation, experience the violence, the scenery, as well as the passion and love. The story reaches a climatic and violent ending that is shocking, and will leave you breathless. It is a reminder of what it took for Black people to survive during that era, the fortitude and perseverance that was required to live and survive during that terrible period in history, and also for today.





By Robert Jones Jr.

G.P. Putman’s Sons, 375 pages, $36.00    

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