Black history in America, typically omitted or whitewashed, often requires extra labor from Black people to retell the narratives, add vital context and infuse ancestral wisdom to understand present-day conditions.
Robert Jones Jr.'s debut novel, "The Prophets," embodies this practice of reclamation.
Jones' offering, an instant New York Times bestseller, centers on Samuel and Isaiah, two enslaved Black teenagers who fall in love on a Mississippi plantation. Samuel and Isaiah carve out a relatively safe space between each other, even as they live through the horrific violence and degradation wrought by a white slave owner and his arbiters. Their bond also resists the forced procreation — sexual violence — imposed on the enslaved as a "business" investment for future labor.
Among the other enslaved people, "the two of them" are an open secret, and the relationship is generally accepted; Samuel and Isaiah are held in positive regard. But when another enslaved man tries to curry favor with the master and gets his permission to use Christianity and the Bible to wield control and influence over the others, Samuel and Isaiah become targets. Their love is considered "sinful" and a liability encouraging even more brutality from an angry master who craves newborns as capital.
For more than a decade, Jones has been known for having created the online social justice community Son of Baldwin, which engages issues from Black LGBTQ+ perspectives. A New York City native who majored in creative writing and minored in Africana studies at Brooklyn College, Jones, who is Black and gay, researched precolonial African societies, including their oral histories, to understand how Africans thought about gender and sexuality. He found that European colonization and Christian missionary work imposed homophobia and gender binaries onto indigenous populations in Africa. Genders and sexualities beyond heterosexual or cisgender were present and integrated in those societies, Jones said, even though they didn't use the language that describes those identities today.
From his fact-finding mission for the book, along with other influences and moments of reflection during the 14-year span of conceptualizing and crafting "The Prophets," Jones — who also received his master's degree in fiction writing from Brooklyn College — decided to incorporate the history into his story.
"One person in particular sealed the deal for me. I was listening to Esther Armah," a British-born playwright of Ghanaian descent, who participated on a panel. "She said to the audience, 'If you had asked my great grandparents "What is a homosexual?" they would have said: "I have no idea. We don't have that."' But if you had explained to them what you meant by homosexuality, they would say, 'Oh, you mean love,'" he recalled Armah's saying. The takeaway, Jones said, was that for the tribes she descended from, queerness wasn't defined as some separate other or as despicable or strange; it was just part of the landscape.
With prose that's equal parts profound, poetic and revelatory, Jones invites readers to explore the inner worlds of characters enslaved on the plantation — including how they carried their pains, little things that gave them comfort, relationships to one another, regard for knowledge from their native lands and the covert ways they tried to resist their oppressions.
For example, Sarah, an enslaved queer woman born in the native land, longs for the lover torn from her by captors. She clings to the sayings, traditions and experiences she remembers, even if most others who were born into slavery are much too traumatized to hear about them.
Jones centers the perspectives of the enslaved, as well as their ancestors, who make their presence and stories known through chapters that he weaves in as necessary digressions.
Instead of making slavery the primary focus, Jones shifts the reader's perspective by not reducing Black characters to enslaved objects or by viewing them through the lens of white people.
"Often when you see books or other forms of media that deal with this particular period in our history, the most you get out of the Black people who are suffering is their suffering. You get their labor, but you don't really get to know who they were as people," Jones said, adding that he chose to make slavery the backdrop without minimizing it, especially given the resulting generational trauma.
"I did want to give [white characters] their complexities, as well, but I didn't want them to be the main characters in this book," he said. "I didn't want any white saviors. I didn't want anything of the sort in which white people somehow become the heroes of a story in which they are the sinners."
Initially, white characters weren't going to be in "The Prophets." But Jones had compelling reasons to change his mind.
"I wanted to ensure that the sins were put into the hands of the people who created them," he said, because he anted to convey a specific message about (and to) Black people. "I want readers to know that these burdens — homophobia, transphobia and slavery — they are not ours. They do not belong to us."
Jones said he hopes that "The Prophets" encourages people outside the Black community to reflect upon whiteness as a tool of hierarchy that must be dismantled and to move beyond viewing it as skin color, which he said is the typical understanding of what it means to be white. It shouldn't be the burden of Black people, he said, because they didn't create whiteness in the first place.
"Whiteness calls upon you to look at other people as inferior — which the conundrum of that is, when you're looking at other people as inferior, you are actually announcing that you, in fact, are inferior," Jones said. "Until white people make that realization, we're going to continue to have these problems" unless they confront it and fix it, he said, adding that perhaps the book will "lead them to something that might look like healing."
Jones will continue conversations about "The Prophets" throughout his virtual book tour, with two dates set for February, including a dialogue with the author Maurice Carlos Ruffin hosted by Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C. The book — which is also available in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — will be published in South Africa this month.
"The fact that these words are going to be in the motherland ... really, I can't tell you how much it means to me that indigenous Africans will be reading this work," Jones said. "That means more to me than anything in the world."
Jones, 50, said that above all, he wrote the story for Black people, but especially for Black queer people. Through "The Prophets," he said, his wish is for Black people to understand their glory and that no matter what white people say, do or have tried to do to the community, Black people are greater than whatever has been devised to degrade them.
"What I really want Black people to take away from this is simply to look at one another with a renewed sense of humanity. To say to your trans sister: 'You are valuable. You belong. I love you, and I respect your right to be,'" he said, highlighting the epidemic of deadly violence against Black transgender women and gender-variant femmes and how it stems from a long arc of oppression. "I want us to be able to look at the manifold ways in which Blackness shows up in the world and love each and every one."