October 16, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Review: Robert Jones Jr.’s “The Prophets” on enslaved lovers

On the Shelf

The Prophets

By Robert Jones Jr.
Putnam: 400 pages, $27

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Homosexuality, being a human behavior, has existed in every culture, ancient and modern. Its visibility and acceptability vary, however, depending on each society’s values and attitudes toward same-sex love and desire. It stands to reason, then, that queerness (to use the current term) was extant in the antebellum period, not only in white society but also among slaves. Robert Jones Jr.’s striking debut novel “The Prophets imagines how Isaiah and Samuel, two enslaved young men, create a space for mutual affection in an American era that suppressed not only their freedom of sexual expression but their right to be human altogether.

Life on the Elizabeth Plantation, referred to as Empty because of its remote location in rural Mississippi, is summed up by Isaiah in two short sentences: “Anybody with a whip gone use it. And people without one gone feel it.” Rule by fear keeps order. Isaiah and Samuel’s ascribed roles as stable workers, however, allow them to remain inseparable. Their cohabitation in the dark barn enables moments of undisturbed intimacy.

Isaiah and Samuel navigate their bodies quite differently. Externally, they’re perceived respectively as “always one smiling and always the other with his mouth angry and ajar,” but their private conversations (and arguments) over timeless questions about agency, freedom and survival resonate even with the present moment. If sex was made possible by circumstance, their emotional bond is forged by intellectual interactions that range from the passionate to the philosophical.

The young men’s romantic partnership is somewhat of an open secret among the more observant slaves, like Maggie the wet nurse and cook, who sees it as self-preservation: “There were many ways to hide and save one’s self from doom and keeping tender secrets was one of them.” Not only does she draw happiness from knowing about the young lovers, she also enjoys peeping in on them at night.

For his part, Paul Halifax, the plantation owner, doesn’t take much notice of the closeness between Isaiah and Samuel until he decides to “multiply them through the strategic use of their seed.” But as studs the young men prove deficient. Time for Plan B: “What the whip couldn’t remedy, Jesus could.” Paul props up the enslaved Amos as a plantation preacher, one who holds a dim view of the pair: “If they had cared at all for any of the others, they would have, at the very least, masked their strangeness.” Displeasing the master, Amos knows, will incur his wrath upon all of them.

To complicate matters further, Timothy, a closeted gay man and the only surviving Halifax heir (many of the others met their end during infancy, courtesy of Maggie’s penchant for poisons), begins to fancy the young men. A sensitive artist who sympathizes with the abolitionists, Timothy believes his clandestine liaisons with Isaiah and Samuel will allow them to transcend, if only briefly, the master-slave relationship. “Together we can be set free,” he proposes, albeit fully aware that he keeps the upper hand. Samuel sees the unequal transaction for what it is: “Giving them pleasure while all they give in return is grief.”

Jones sets the stage for a startling climax, though readers will wonder, given the historical period, if any other outcome were possible for two young slaves in love. The author teases a more promising conclusion by flashing back intermittently to a mythical land in Africa, where the Kosongo people celebrate same-sex unions and are ruled by a fierce woman warrior, King Akusa, who “vexed some of the other kings that [she] should call herself such.” But will this open-minded paradise survive the arrival of the patriarchal and religious white outsiders?

The overriding message of “The Prophets” is difficult to pin down if it’s not the transparent one: that Black queer love is not meant to thrive within the confines of Western paradigms. Or perhaps it’s in Samuel’s assertion that “[white people] needed his people for one thing and one thing only: to be his words. Ink-black and scribbled unto the forever, for they knew that there was no story without them, no audience to gasp at the drama, rejoice at the happy ending, to applaud, no matter how unskillfully their blood was used.” But this sentiment too sounds familiar. In fact, it’s the premise of Toni Morrison’s critical masterwork, “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.”

In the end, it’s not the lessons that will endure but the exceptional storytelling — the powerful experience of reading this novel. There is no minor character in “The Prophets,” which delivers a dazzling gallery of unforgettable portraits. Jones imbues even the brief players, such as Adam, the cart driver fathered by Paul, with rich interior lives and complex histories that energize the slow-paced plot. And by highlighting lives over plantation life—the humanity of the slaves over the inhumanity of slavery—the narrative remains centered on a Blackness with an imagination that doesn’t need whiteness in order to exist, breathe or even be free.

González is a distinguished professor of English and director of the MFA program in creative writing at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey.