Robert Jones Jr.’s remarkable first novel, The Prophets, accomplishes the exceptional literary feat of being at once an intimate, poetic love story and a sweeping, detailed and excruciating portrait of life on a Mississippi plantation.
One of the most outstanding things about this novel is its artistry, both in its language and its use of multiple perspectives. Jones excels at ensemble storytelling, treating each character with compassion while also being brutally unsparing. From one point of view, certain actions seem perfectly reasonable, but another storyline may reveal their harm. In particular, two of these stories are on a collision course. The most important and sympathetic thread involves Samuel and Isaiah, two enslaved boys who grow up as best friends and eventually become lovers. The other involves an older enslaved man, Amos, who decides to take on the role of preacher as a way to attain power for a worthy goal: He wants to protect his female partner from the plantation owner, Paul. Amos negotiates with Paul and offers to use his role as a religious leader to help run the plantation and keep the peace.
Like James Baldwin or Toni Morrison, Robert Jones Jr. gets to the root of some of our culture’s thorniest problems through specific, accurate storytelling.
Those sound like reasonable objectives given the constraints Amos is under, but the exercise of power is never that clean, and a multitude of betrayals, cruelties and tragedies arise from that Faustian bargain. Amos’ new responsibility means encouraging his fellow enslaved people to cooperate with Paul’s plans to force them to have children in order increase his workforce. Samuel and Isaiah’s love violates these plans because they only want to be with each other, but that kind of love doesn’t produce offspring. Thus Amos’ religiosity and Isaiah and Samuel’s love are inherently at odds, and as religion takes hold of the plantation, it makes outcasts of two young men whom the community had long embraced.
Jones grounds his story in history while making it remarkably relevant to life today. The Prophets traces the origins of a host of social ills, such as the use of religion as a tool for social control. Likewise, observations about the intersection of race and gender within this brutal system will sound familiar to contemporary readers. For example, Puah, a teenage girl who must fight every day to protect her body and soul, feels frustrated by the favor that Be Auntie, an influential older woman, extends to the boys and men in their group. Puah concludes, “Men and toubab shared far more than either would ever admit.” The men she refers to are her fellow enslaved people, and “toubab” is a Central and West African word for white people. These are observations about Black men and white patriarchy that Black women still struggle with in the 21st century.
Similarly, Puah grieves for the way that Auntie and other women cast her as being “grown” before her time. That’s another modern-day problem: Black children are judged as adults, and young Black women are sexualized and blamed for their own abuse.
These disparate elements of history, myth making, social observation, criticism and storytelling don’t always fit together as well as the author may have intended. However, what is most notable about The Prophets is that, like James Baldwin or Toni Morrison, Jones gets to the root of some of our culture’s thorniest problems through specific, accurate storytelling, drawn with insight and great skill. Though this is his first book, Jones is already a master stylist, writing gorgeous, lyrical and readable prose about some of the ugliest things that human beings feel and do to one another. Sometimes the prose reads like scripture. At other times, it’s poetry.
This is a beautifully wrought, exceptionally accomplished queer love story about two men finding extraordinary connection in the most hostile and difficult of circumstances. This debut will be savored and remembered.