There has been no shortage of recent fiction exploring the horrifying history of slavery, but few such novels have been as powerfully original as The Prophets, a debut by the African-American writer Robert Jones Jr...
With ancestral voices, the prophets of the title, acting as chorus to the main narrative, Jones constructs a deep, multilayered portrait of the world slavery created in antebellum America. Sometimes overembellished and lushly overwritten, The Prophets is nonetheless a fine achievement.
Robert Jones Jr brings Empty’s enslaved into the frame: Maggie, Essie, Amos, Beulah, Puah, Sarah, Adam, Isaiah and Samuel, imagined versions of the voiceless generations, whose strangled memories and complex selfhoods could not be shared among themselves, are shared with us. Though “not everything that is faced can be changed”, as James Baldwin wrote, “nothing can be changed until it is faced”. By reminding us of the grim foundations of a nation, the legacies of which are still playing out today, The Prophets serves up a timely antidote to what Randall Robinson calls “the memory-emptying salve of contemporaneousness”.
“The Prophets,” Jones’ debut novel, is a marvel, as much an extraordinary queer love story as a devastating and inimitable portrayal of the agony endured by slaves in the antebellum South.
Jones’ stunning storytelling crafts deep and powerful portraits of not only Samuel and Isaiah, but also the many others at the plantation. Alternating between perspectives, each chapter is its own work of art, delving deep into each character’s heart and mind and creating a rhythmic tapestry of profound love and unbearable pain. “The Prophets” vividly depicts the viciousness of slavery while simultaneously allowing space for the love between Samuel and Isaiah.
As each chapter focuses on a different character, from Paul’s illegitimate coachman son to his housemaid Maggie, we see the things that can make existing possible in the face of appalling inhumanity.
We also hear from a chorus of ancestral voices, while another, rather superfluous strand spins us back to a soon-to-be colonised African country.
Jones’s ambition comes at the cost of narrative fluency, but each lyrical, densely detailed paragraph is itself a transfixing journey.
I double-checked my wounds before I entered Jones’s novel, wanting to be aware of where I was numb and where raw. I wanted to be good to myself and hopefully fair to a book I arrived at with baggage and implications.
What I found was an often lyrical and rebellious love story embedded within a tender call-out to Black readers, reaching across time and form to shake something old, mighty in the blood.
The Prophets is indeed an outstanding novel, delivering tender, close-up intimacy, but also a great sweep of history. The novel names chapters after books of the Bible, but what really frames it are poetic sections written in the mysterious, eternal voices of seven ancestors, speaking out from the darkness. And while the bulk of the narrative takes place on the plantation, told from multiple characters’ perspectives, it is also interwoven with scenes set within a matriarchal African tribe. Their brutal enslavement and transportation to America grimly follows.