The Prophets Centers Black Male Love to Illuminate America’s Soul
Author: Sarah Schulman
January 20, 2021
The American soul is rooted in slavery, though the realities of slavery elude full knowledge. It has taken this long for Black artists, historians, story-tellers, dreamers, and creators to undo the domination of the white point of view. It has taken equally as long for corporate newspapers, publishers, and screen producers to embrace this immersive Black vision and for awarding bodies to recognize and value Black artists’ interpretations of their experiences and imaginings. The process has just begun, and each month it seems a new revelation is born. Now Robert Jones Jr., whose prose is filled with lush descriptions, emotional landscapes, and bold juxtapositions, adds to this unraveling. Jones complicates our national imaginary by centering the homosexual love and desire between two enslaved Black men as the centrifugal force in his highly praised first novel The Prophets.
In his 1993 novel Crossing the River, the great writer Caryl Phillips also approaches the question of male desire and slavery. Phillips’ book tells the tale of a slave owner so in love with an enslaved man that he frees him to live in Liberia. Soon the white man finds that he cannot live without his love object and literally reverses the crossing, traveling to Africa to find the man he adores, who is indifferent. This story leaves homosexuality in the hands of whiteness, using it as a plot point that remains emotionally irrelevant to the lives of its Black characters. The historical anthology Slavery and Sexuality: Reclaiming Intimate Histories in the Americas, edited by Diana Ramey Berry and Leslie M. Harris was published in 2018, by University of Georgia Press. Using archives and documents, the anthology’s contributors could not find black-men-loving-black-men, which Joseph Beam called “the revolutionary act of the 80s”, as part of enslaved life. Of course, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. It just means we have to look somewhere else to find it.
The place Robert Jones Jr. goes is within. Fortunately for him, there is fiction, and fortunately for us, Robert Jones Jr. is a novelist. Fiction does not need to be historically accurate, rather, it needs to resonate emotionally with the reader. Jones skillfully brings us to a deep place of imagining and uncovers a discarded memory of two young men in love that transcends time. And Jones uses every ounce of his craft to telegraph the hope of the imagined and the depth of the loss. For example, in some places, the narrative voice is in the second person, in other places a close third, and in other places, the voice is entirely omniscient. Who is telling the story? The answer: the wind, everyone, you. At times the narrative voice is traditional rich, deep, gorgeous, descriptive, familiar: “…cotton had a smell. Not pungent or insulting, but something remotely sweet like a whispered song.”
We don’t know much about how enslaved people spoke, and how that shifted by region, year, or individual experience. So Jones imagines transcendent tropes of conversation. The characters’ way of speaking continually shifts throughout the novel, from a modified dialect to contemporary syntax and cadence. What is conveyed by this? The multiple perceptions of an enslaved character narrating, interpreting, and speaking to the present in a language we can understand create multifaceted, historical figures legible to the contemporary reader. And in this way, we are positioned by our past.
Jones gives us insights and projections of the present into the lives of the enslaved. Survival inside slavery is a scheme. This is not a community of pure, clean, higher-purposed innocents. Characters must scheme–sometimes for the collective and sometimes to assert the self. One woman can pick extra cotton so that a pregnant character, Eloise, doesn’t get whipped, but then that same woman will sleep with Eloise’s husband, Amos, when her back is turned. Amos can scheme for Puah, a 16-year-old girl, to be the slave owner’s new sex object, to get the pressure off of Eloise. There is a constant positioning, re-positioning, looking for the breath, and any wisp of control. The daily lives of enslaved people include endless restriction, punishment, often longing, and anger, and require submission and restraint. But Jones also creates dimensions of normalcy: gossip, special friendship, sharing, chatting, collectivity, and communal norms. Many of Jones’ characters theorize their own condition, sometimes in very contemporary ways. One woman feels that whites and men share characteristics. Many analyze survival itself: “Some people pain is eternal. Some people worship they pain. Don’t know who they are without it. Hold on to it like they gon’ die if they let it go.”
In this way, without making claims to historical realism, Jones uses contemporary modes of self-awareness, politics, and psychology. Jones builds depths of consciousness for today’s readers to learn from and pursue. When the author looks to his own heart to find the details of his characters’ lives, he relies on a code derived from somewhat modern situations. Two men, Isiah and Samuel, discover each other’s bodies and act out in highly cinematic romantic ways, forming what looks like a modern gay male couple. Their homosexuality is entirely unknown to the other enslaved people with whom they make their lives, although some, like Eloise, befriend the couple, in that historically special relationship between straight women and gay men that may seem 20th century but here is held eternal. In order to protect his wife, Eloise, from a slave owner’s continual rape and impregnation, Amos feigns Christianity to win some kind of shelter. He chooses the male lovers, Isiah and Samuel, as the object of religious wrath, not sincerely but strategically, to better position himself to save his wife from escalated white cruelty. Very, very modern. Very much a similar tale to one we read in contemporary Black gay drama, film, and literature. Were the dynamics the same on the plantation? It doesn’t matter, that is not what this novel is about. The past is the metaphor that produces the present. This novel is sophisticatedly constructed; it offers deep introspections and projections onto the screen of the modern world.
Jones builds his characters’ sexual and emotional tropes through identity and moral concepts from our own time, which makes the book easier to read. However, there were places at which I wondered what exactly was being said. Clearly, homosexuality is being resurfaced in every aspect of African-American life, bravely asserted by Jones as an integral part of enslavement. And he clearly situates male love in African life by having two male African characters celebrate their marriage before capture, reflecting the author’s trope of homophobia as a white imposition. Opening the door to gay love between enslaved men produces treasures for the future. Sometimes, though, Jones also embeds self-concepts about homosexuality, heterosexuality, and monogamy that help with story-telling and character motivation but may be too contemporarily defined. Ultimately, Jones does revisit Caryl Phillips’ trope of the white male owner whose only true sexual self can be expressed through its imposition on a Black enslaved man; in this case, Isaiah, who–while aroused–thinks of Samuel, his true lover. It matters to repeat that white people project desire onto Black people as part of the supremacy apparatus and in fact new scholarship ranging from Thomas A. Foster’s book Re-Thinking Rufus: Sexual Violations of Enslaved Men to Jeremy O’Harris’ Slave Play has been bringing into relief the sexual abuse of enslaved men by both male and female white owners.
The Prophets is a bold leap forward that will make new literature possible in its wake. We cannot wait another thirteen years to find out what else this young writer has to offer. My wish is that Jones creates work set in our contemporary world, so that we can draw the connections and juxtapositions between the present and the future his writing will undoubtedly help create.
The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr. G.P. Putnam's Sons Hardcover, 9780593085684, 400 pp. January 2021