The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr.
Though we’re only at the start of 2021, Robert Jones Jr.’s debut The Prophets already feels like one of the big books of the year. Set on an antebellum plantation in the deep south of Mississippi, The Prophets is Jones’s answer to the question: ‘did Black, queer people exist in the distant past?’ The answer is of course they did, and in this exquisite imagining, he explores what that existence could have been like.
The novel is told from the perspectives of several characters, principally Isiah and Samuel, two young enslaved men whose relationship grants them an almost Edenic sweetness against the daily terrors of slavery. Their love is a quiet rebellion, a deliberate choice in which they can, however briefly, escape the physical and spiritual deprivation the White slave owners inflict on them.
How Isiah and Samuel’s relationship unfolds is seen through the eyes of a sprawling cast, including the other slaves on the plantation, who respond in different ways to this relationship in their midst. One of them, Amos, has newly found Christianity and sees Isiah and Samuel as people to be saved. The slave owners also get their own point-of-view chapters, and their careless cruelty is chilling; you’re constantly tense with dread at what their every capricious whim could mean for the people they control. Readers should be aware that Jones’s writing, while rich with feeling and metaphor, is unflinching at cataloguing the dehumanising effects of slavery. Jones has described the writing of his novel as an act of witnessing, and no matter what your knowledge of this era is, witnessing the reality of slavery through fiction – an empathetic medium – is by necessity hard.
However, Jones also finds power in the small details. Every act of tenderness and care, every decision people choose for themselves is magnified. And there are moments of beauty and defiance in the novel where I felt fiercely elated. The Prophets feels like Jones’s attempt to reach across history, to create a link in a narrative of love and resistance led by Black queer people and Black women. This is an ever-shifting, polyphonic epic that leaves you shaking with rage, love and a desire for justice and freedom. It is an astonishing achievement that lives up to the enormity of its subject matter.