BOOK REVIEW

‘The Prophets’: A gay love story set in the hellfire of a Mississippi slave plantation

By Keith Bain 24 March 2021

With its summoning of ancestral and literary voices, debut novelist Robert Jones Jr has crafted a shimmering tale of love in the context of a world engineered by hate.

Can one actually – really, truly – enjoy a book about slavery? A book that unflinchingly details the traumas – acts of needless cruelty, the indignities, the murders and rapes, the indifference, the shaming, the hollowing out of another person’s dignity, the debasing and belittling and dehumanising.

A book that carefully conjures portraits of a class of people who measure their own humanity by the colour of their skin, stooping so low as to believe that another human being is less than human, that people can be treated like chattel, made to feel like lesser beings… Where is the pleasure in that? 

Yet, while there are numerous acts of wretchedness and hatred paraded here – more than enough to have made me feel shame, panicky at the thought of belonging to the same species as the perpetrators of such horrors – I really did love this book.

Because as much as it delivers a clear picture of a kind of hell that was created by human beings for the abuse of their fellow humans, it also offers up evil’s antithesis. It’s a kind of literary antidote in which love outlives them all.

So, while we are drawn into a toxic world controlled by racist bullies, it is clear that the story belongs to the lovers at its heart, Isaiah and Samuel, prisoners of the sick logic that prevails on the Mississippi plantation where they’re enslaved. They are physically at the mercy of a cruel white regime, lorded over by violent, whip-wielding overseers and treated as subhuman by a morally bankrupt landowner who keeps slaves not only to toil on his land, but to breed in order to produce a larger workforce.

Samuel and Isaiah are, nevertheless, free of spirit. And their souls belong exclusively to one another.

It has been more than two months since I read The Prophets, a scintillating debut by Robert Jones Jr., a studious, bow-tie-wearing New York writer.

Two months and it haunts me still. Whether it’s because it cares to tread into the unexpected terrain of a queer slave narrative, something that might never have occurred to me, or because of the vast sweep of history Jones calls upon to create a textured context for his story, ensuring that it is about far more than two men in love.

Or perhaps the book haunts me because the writing itself – with its ode-to-Toni Morrison lyricism – is a portal into a kind of reverie.

The prophets of the title are polyphonic voices from across time – they are Biblical, spiritual, literary.

And they invoke a sense of storytelling’s oral tradition.

The novel slips through gaps between this world and that of the ancestors, it floats between physical and ethereal realms. And, in this way, it mystically connects past and present, a sobering reminder that this fictional universe is based on a history that was very real and that has had echoes through time, and consequences that persist today. 

It took Jones 14 years to complete The Prophets, and you feel the weight of that endeavour in the writing. It’s often dense with metaphor and at pains to be original, to have its vision expressed uniquely, and with poetic complexity. There is deliberate colour and energy and spark in the words, such richness in the prose. 

Much of what it has to say about the cruelty of the slave project is amplified by the weight – the burden – of intimacy. Jones wants you to know that the men (and women) who commit such crimes against humanity are in fact real men, real flesh and blood ancestors to people who continue to profit from the toil of men and women who were subjugated on plantations just like the one in the story. 

It’s vital to remember that, in order to continue their unholy commerce, white slave owners used the Bible itself as an instruction manual for the perpetuation of racist values – an entire belief system flourishing out of Christian European hegemony. 

Religion, you notice, serves as a smokescreen for blunt hatred tethered in the service of capitalism’s bottom line. 

Jones’s critique of this sort of absurdly justified immorality is handled with a kind of bruising tenderness. There are scenes, for example, in which a slave named Adam grapples with the terrible knowledge that he is the plantation owner’s son. What Jones brings into focus is that this slave owner has – by raping Adam’s mother – helped create a fully-conscious human being who is capable of contemplating the confusing paradox of his own existence. 

Adam is thus part of a terrible equation: That with each successive generation, the horrors of the past become increasingly difficult to remember. And yet their consequences remain vividly in focus. 

Another part of Jones’s endeavour is to recover a legacy of queerness in Africa, and thereby to expand the canon of tales about same-sex and non-binary Black love. He achieves this with scenes set on the African continent prior to the onslaught of the European colonial project; in them, intimate relationships within a totally gender-fluid context are normalised and wholly accepted. Homophobia, Jones stresses, is a colonial construct. And a racist one. 

As rational observers, we somehow know that what they have has little chance of survival. Their illicit relationship must – necessarily – be extinguished, blotted out of existence. Because stories about the likes of them have for so long been erased from memory, left out of the history books, disavowed and gone unacknowledged. 

There is a link here, too, between the arrival of Christian colonisers and slavers in Africa and the proliferation of Christian names among the slaves on the Mississippi plantation. This application of Biblical names to people of African ancestry is more than merely symbolic – it is a kind of cultural genocide. It is the erasure of a people’s heritage, history, beliefs and memories. Their identities are effectively subsumed by names gleaned from the very book that the slave-owners use to confirm their own racial superiority.

The idea of the Bible as a tool of erasure is taken a step further in The Prophets, when the book and its teachings are appropriated as a means of disseminating anti-gay rhetoric. 

When an older slave named Amos determines that the queer romance that’s flourishing under his watch poses a threat to the status quo, he turns to the religion of the oppressor to rid the plantation of what he deems an unnatural relationship. 

Conspicuously worming his way into the plantation owner’s good graces, Amos undertakes to preach the master’s gospel, in the process spreading a message of homophobic hatred among his fellow slaves. As the Bible is thumped, he labels same-sex love sinful and sermonises that what Samuel and Isaiah do in the privacy of their barn is a threat to the prevailing harmony. 

Meanwhile, Isaiah and Samuel are tested on various fronts.

They’re tested by the plantation owner who is stymied by the inability – or unwillingness – of these two young studs to sire children.

They’re tested by the plantation owner’s wife, who covets a roll in the hay with one of them, presumably to make up for her own husband’s multiple indiscretions with female slaves. 

And, finally, they are tested by the plantation owner’s (white, legitimate) son – a reminder that homosexual desire exists on both sides of the race divide, and that same-sex rape also existed on American slave plantations.

Samuel and Isaiah resist these various assaults on their personhood, but something must eventually give. Some final, terrible reckoning must arrive. Surely?

To some extent you’re aware from the get-go that their love, their unbreakable bond, is something too beautiful for the world into which they’re born. Encoded in the very nature of their blissful companionship is a sense of its impending destruction; herein lies the tension that drives the narrative, the knowledge that the odds are stacked against our heroes.

As rational observers, we somehow know that what they have has little chance of survival. Their illicit relationship must – necessarily – be extinguished, blotted out of existence. Because stories about the likes of them have for so long been erased from memory, left out of the history books, disavowed and gone unacknowledged. 

Indeed, if I had not so fully felt their physical presence as living, breathing mortals, I’d have suspected that Isaiah and Samuel were angels, ghosts, shadows… That they were present in spirit only, a fabulous dream conjured by an impeccable author.

Because in some sense they are too good for the world in which we find them. Theirs is a pure, uncontaminated love, an otherworldly bond that spans time, stretches into eternity, and burns so brightly that its heat can still be felt long after the book is read. DM/ML

The Prophets is distributed in South Africa by Jonathan Ball Publishers; it is available on Loot, Takealot and Exclusive Books. You can read some of Robert Jones Jr.’s other writings at sonofbaldwin.com.

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