Love in the Time of Slavery

American literature is vast. Under its umbrella are several genres and subgenres. Also under its all-encompassing umbrella is a plethora of themes and subjects that capture the American experience. Despite its vast vast ambit, there are a few subjects that stand out. These are the subjects that have become essential in understanding the contemporary American experience. One prevalent subject is the migrant experience which was often coupled with the exploration and pursuit of the proverbial American dream. Politics is also an integral part of the quotidian American tale. It is ubiquitous. Among works of historical fiction, one subject remained prominent despite the passage of time. Several works have vividly captured the pains and horrors of the slavery era.

The slavery era is a dark phase of American history but despite its bleakness, it is a seminal facet of the contemporary American story. The experiences of African Americans during this era transcend time. Through literary works like Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, the rest of the world gets to read about these nightmarish times. It is also through them that we pick up lessons from the past. Adding his voice to this collection of critically acclaimed works is Robert Jones Jr. who made his literary debut in 2021 with The Prophets. Jones Jr. has long been part of the literary scene, with his stories appearing in prominent publications such as New York Times and The Paris Review.

Robert Jones Jr.’s debut novel is set in the antebellum Deep South at a Mississippi cotton plantation named Halifax, owned and run by Paul and Ruth Halifax. They also have a son named Timothy. For slaves working at the plantation, Halifax goes by another name: Empty. It was a nickname that suited a plantation where the unfortunate and those who were uprooted from their homeland end up in a place akin to the bottom of the pit. With its cruel, brutal, and manipulative owners who showed nothing but brutality and not even a trace of humanity, Empty is the last place that anyone would want to find themselves stuck in. It strips you of everything you possess, from your freedom, your peace, and even your dignity. It leaves you empty: “Yes, we too have been punished. We all have. Because there are no innocents. Innocence, we have discovered, is the most serious atrocity of all. It is what separates the living from the dead.”

“But he did think about the ways in which his body wasn’t his own and how that condition showed up uniquely for everyone whose personhood wasn’t just disputed but denied. Swirling beneath him were the ways in which not having lawful claim to yourself diminished you, yes, but in another way, condemned those who invented the disconnection.”

~ Robert Jones Jr., The Prophets

These atrocities that abounded on the plantation were captured through the story of two of the slaves. Samuel and Isaiah were in their late teenage years: “one black, the other purple; one smiling, the other brooding.” Growing up together in Empty made them cognizant of the atrocities that surrounded them. In each other, they found comfort and were inseparable since their childhood. They tried their best to not attract any attention their way. But there is a deeper reason why they wanted to stay out of the owners’ line of sight: they were involved in what can only be perceived as an illicit relationship, at least by the standards of the time. Being in each other’s company since childhood made them develop feelings for each other.

Among their peers, their relationship was silently accepted but they still needed to keep it from their masters lest they suffer from their wrath. They cannot afford discovery for it will only upset the entire plantation. They performed their tasks well and stayed out of the owner’s line of sight. Every move they made was calculated. Will these precautions be enough to ensure their survival in the inhuman world of Empty? But their precautions were for naught as their virility was seen by Paul as an opportunity to create the prototype of the ideal slave. He wanted to capitalize on them by using them as breeding machines and produce more slaves who can be of use to the plantation.

The Prophets is a multilayered narrative that grappled with a plethora of subjects. The most prominent subject the book tackled was the legacy of slavery in the Deep South and in America as a whole. It is a dark part of contemporary American history that still resonates in the present. Jones Jr. vividly captured all the nightmares and the horrific scenes that have come to characterize this era. We read of the abuses and all of the other forms of inhumanity that the slaves have to go through on these plantations. Every misstep had an equivalent punishment. Every loss in profit was tantamount to torture. The men were beaten and whipped on the spot. It comes as no surprise that the horsewhip is one of the grimmest representations of the time. The women, on the other hand, were subjected to sexual abuse, worse, rape. The slaves were walking on a tightrope and they were not treated worst than animals.

Meanwhile, the Halifaxes of the world lived in comfort. They lorded over their plantations as though they were their own piece of kingdom. They were crass and had no reservations about profiting from the hard labor of their slaves. They shed not one ounce of sympathy for their slaves. They considered them their properties as they paid a price for them. They expect nothing less but subservience from them. These are just among the many forms of cruelty that a group of people who only wanted to survive had to face. The power dynamics were against them and they had no other recourse but to do what they were told. There were some, tired of the injustice, who tried to escape but their owners were often one step ahead. Lucky were those who were able to evade the defenses. These images of inhumanity were appalling.

“When they approached, she had figured out something that had been like a splinter in her foot: the easy thing to believe was that toubab were monsters, their crimes exceptional. Harder, however, and even more frightening was the truth: there was no such thing as monsters. Every travesty that had ever been committed had been committed by plain people and every person had it in them, that fetching, bejeweled thing just beneath the breast that could be removed at will and smashed over another’s head before it was returned to its beating place.”

~ Robert Jones Jr., The Prophets

As the story moved forward, another storyline emerged and provided a peek into the origin of the slave trade. The story flashes back to the past as it built the ancestry of the main character. Samuel and Isaiah, the readers learn, came from a tribe known as Kosongo in an unnamed part of Africa. We see how the Westerners, hidden under the guise of spreading religion, have subjugated the Kosongos. The slave trade virtually eliminated the Kosongo people, with the majority brutally and forcefully shipped across the Atlantic. While the Kosongos were fictional, their story was not. The slave trade has inundated and even demolished several kingdoms that once thrived across the African continent. The novel subtly underscored the relationship, albeit ruptured, between genealogy and the slave trade.

Slavery has long been abolished. However, offshoots of slavery still permeate the contemporary. The proverbial white privilege only grew bigger. Inequities and injustice are still prevalent as the current American society still favors the whites. Racism remains a major societal concern. Discrimination still inhabits the boardrooms, courthouses, office places, and even the streets. With the advent of social media and the development of technology, it doesn’t take a lot of searches to encounter videos of discrimination and racism perpetrated toward people of color. We have made strides towards inclusivity but it will still take time to fully embrace our differences. It is this ongoing discourse that makes novels like The Prophets relevant and timely.

However, in this sea of injustice, hope still flourished. The slaves, in their small ways, resisted the ugly realities surrounding them. For Isaiah and Samuel, their relationship was one of the biggest forms of resistance. They leaned on each other when times get tough. Their love for each other helped ease the harshness of the realities they had to deal with. Their love illuminated through the darkness. It is the novel’s romantic overtones that rendered it a different complexion. The exploration of a homosexual relationship in a different era provided a distinct reading journey.

The novel contained several Biblical references. Some characters, for instance, were named after biblical characters. Some chapters also had biblical names such as Judges, Proverbs, Psalms, Deuteronomy, Genesis, and I Kings. Ably supporting the main characters is an equally fascinating cast of characters. The female characters, such as Maggie, Sarah, Aunty B (previously known as Beulah), Puah, and Essie, in particular, were beautifully and vividly portrayed. Their polyphonic voices moved the story forward. The vastness of the novel’s cast of characters further gave life to Empty, providing other perspectives into the actions happening within the plantation. They not only dream of survival but surviving while keeping their dignities intact.

“But everyone had to begin there: girl. Girl was the alpha. Even in the womb, the healers had said, the start was there before anything might change. Circles came before lines; that was what had to be honored. When the babies arrived, they were girls irrespective of whatever peace blossomed between the legs. Girls, until after the ceremony where you could then choose: woman, man, free, or all.”

~ Robert Jones Jr., The Prophets

Jones Jr. is also the creator and curator of the social-justice, social-media community Son of Baldwin. , named after one of his favorite writers, James Baldwin. It comes as no surprise that Baldwin – and Toni Morrison as well – was credited as one of the author’s influences in writing his debut novel which he started working on as early as 2006, completing it in 2020. Despite these influences, The Prophets was still its own distinct voice. The writing was lyrical and reels you in, absorbs you and moves you. For underneath the layers of monstrosity is hope beaconing. The quality of prose was scintillating to read and it comes as a surprise that this is Jones Jr.’s debut novel. Rather than a work of historical fiction, The Prophets was a powerful evocation of emotions.

While the writing was one of the novel’s most riveting facets, it was also one of its undoings. Jones Jr. had the tendency to be repetitive, resulting in a melodramatic story. The story was also overwrought, leaning heavily on the tell rather than the show. This does not provide the readers enough space to build their own images as everything was already provided by Jones Jr. The metaphorical language, at times, made the story a challenge to unspool. The result was an abstract tapestry. The constant shift of perspectives was effective in providing other insights that are seminal to the story of the two main characters. However, this undermined their abilities to connect with the readers.

Flaws are expected, even in the world of literature. However, these flaws did little to dim the powerful message The Prophets carried. More than being a work of historical fiction, the novel is a moving and vivid portrait of a dark but important phase of American history. The story of two men falling in love and finding comfort in each other in a plantation barn was sweeping, a form of resistance amidst the sea of cruelties. Despite the atrocities, we read of a group of people’s indomitable will to survive and their refusal to remain manacled to the ground. They find love and remained as hopeful as ever, keeping their dignities intact. Nominated for the 2021 National Book Award, The Prophets is a promising debut novel, one that has a deep message that transcends time.

“You are not lost so much as you are betrayed by fools who mistook glimmer for power. They gave away all the symbols that hold sway. The penance for this is lasting. Your blood will have long been diluted by the time reason finally takes hold. Or the world itself will have been reduced to ash, making memory beside the point. But yes, you have been wronged. And you will do wrong. Again. And again. And again. Until finally, you wake. Which is why we are here, speaking with you now.”

~ Robert Jones Jr., The Prophets
Rating

67%

Characters (30%) – 21%
Plot (30%) – 
20%
Writing (25%) – 
16%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
10%

It was while researching for books to add to my 2021 Books I Look Forward To List that I first came across Robert Jones Jr.’s The Prophets. The premised piqued my interest. Unfortunately, there were too many good books I looked forward to in 2021 and, in the end, I had to cut off The Prophets. However, it had piqued my interest enough for me to add it to my reading list. Thankfully, midway through 2021, I was able to obtain a copy of the book. I was supposed to read it towards the end of the year but there was too much cramming for different reading challenges that I had to skip the idea. Nonetheless, I resolved to read it in early 2022 as part of my 2021 reading catch-up. There are so many layers to the novel that I quite appreciated, the most interesting of which is the exploration of homosexual relationships during the slavery era; it is not a subject that one commonly reads about. It is for this alone that the book held my attention. However, I found the execution overcooked. There was too much melodrama happening. It was overwrought and this undermined my overall appreciation of the story. Still, it had its bright spots and it still contains a story that needs to be told.

Book Specs

Author: Robert Jones Jr.
Publisher: Putnam
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 378
Genre: Historical Fiction

Synopsis

Isaiah was Samuel’s and Samuel was Isaiah’s. That was the way it was since the beginning and the way it was to be until the end. In the barn they tended to the animals, but also to each other, transforming the hollowed-out shed into a place of sanctuary, a source of intimacy and hope in a world ruled by vicious masters. But when an older man – a fellow slave – seeks to gain favor by preaching the master’s gospel on the plantation, the enslaved begin to turn on their own. Isaiah and Samuel’s love, which was once so simple, is seen as sinful and a clear danger to the plantation’s harmony.

With a lyricism reminiscent of Toni Morrison, Robert Jones Jr., fiercely summons the voices of slaves and enslaved alike. As tensions build and the weight of centuries – of ancestors and future generations to come – culminates in a climactic reckoning, The Prophets masterfully reveals the pain and suffering of inheritance, but is also shot through with hope, beauty, and truth, portraying the enormous, heroic power of love

About the Author

Robert Jones Jr. was born in 1971 in New York City, USA. It was also in the Big Apple that he grew up, completing his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree at Brooklyn College. He graduated with honors. He completed his Masters of Fine Arts in Fiction from the same institution.

While studying in graduate school in 2006, Jones started working on the manuscript of what would eventually be his debut novel, The Prophets. He completed the finishing touches in 2020 and the book was published a year later, to critical acclaim. The book was a finalist for the 2021 National Book Award. Prior to publishing his first novel, Jones Jr.’s writings appeared in prestigious publications such as The New York TimesEssence, OkayAfrica, and The Paris Review. His works also appeared in critically-acclaimed anthologies Four Hundred Souls and The 1619 Project. He is the creator and curator of the social-justice, social-media community Son of Baldwin.