In the past year or so, several books have been compared to the masterworks of Toni Morrison. I’ve read at least two of them–The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Conjure Women by Afia Atakora–and it’s been easy enough to see where the comparisons come from–both have been novels about enslaved people and the toll that slavery exacts upon the humanity of oppressors and oppressed–but none of those books has been as deserving of the accolade as Robert Jones Jr.’s The Prophets.
The novel deals with the love between two enslaved men on a Mississippi plantation in the late 1700s or early 1800s (no clearer assessment can be made regarding the time period; it seems likely that it’s before Britain ceases to participate in the transatlantic slave trade, since the master’s long-lost cousin, now an overseer on the plantation, works his passage over from England as a deckhand on a slave ship.) These two young men, Isaiah and Samuel, share a love that every slave on the plantation recognizes as nourishing; it seems to light them up from the inside, and their movement through the world is evidence of their love’s power. What it renders difficult, however, is the forced breeding programme run by the plantation’s owner, Paul. When one of the boys not only refuses to rape a fellow slave woman but is actually physically unable to, Paul turns to another slave, Amos, who wants to preach. Giving Amos the power of literacy via the Bible and the license to talk about Jesus on Sunday mornings, Paul hopes to convert his whole slave population to Christianity, foment hatred of Isaiah and Samuel as sodomites, and keep potential rebellion unfulfilled by dangling the hope of eternal heavenly reward for patient earthly suffering.
One of the most interesting things about The Prophets is its integration of African religious and spiritual practices into the lives of its characters. Because it’s set at a point in history when Christianity has not yet become a default worldview for Black enslaved people living in America, Jones can explore blood memory, which lives in many of the enslaved women whose perspectives litter the book. (Almost every named character gets a point-of-view chapter; it’s fortunate that Jones generally leaves each perspective behind him once he’s used it, or things would get unwieldy. However, the skill with which he inhabits the subtle distinctions of each character’s thoughts and feelings about their position in the world makes such a proliferation feel less superfluous than it usually does.) Maggie is the gatekeeper of blood memory on the plantation (which, though named for Paul’s mother Elizabeth, is known by a more colloquial, and more telling, name: Empty). She brings other women together to perform healing rituals with herbs and recitation when Isaiah and Samuel are whipped. She sees shadows move. She feels the presence of ancestors. She knows there were other ways. Some of the other women also have this ability: in particular, Puah, a teenage girl in fruitless love with Samuel, and Sarah, a woman who once loved another woman as Isaiah and Samuel love each other.
Perhaps the aspect of traditional religion as Jones portrays it that will surprise the greatest number of readers is its acceptance of queer sexualities. Intercut chapters show life in a pre-slavery Kosongo village ruled over by a female king, Akusa. Akusa has six wives, some of whom are women and some of whom are men. There are more than two possibilities, anyway: you can be woman, man, free, or all. When Akusa’s village first encounters a white person, a “skinless” Portuguese missionary named Brother Gabriel brought to them by an emissary from a neighbouring village that has turned quisling, he is invited to participate in a feast celebrating the marriage of two warriors, Kosii and Elewa. His inability to understand the nature of the celebration is grounded in the fact that they are both men. To King Akusa, Gabriel’s incomprehension is proof of idiocy:
“Two men?” These colorless people had the strangest system of grouping things together by what they did not understand rather than by what they did. He could see bodies, but it was clear that he could not see spirits. […]
“Impossible,” she said with a laugh. “They are bonded. Do you not see?”
“I think your people would benefit from our religion,” Brother Gabriel said.The Prophets, Robert Jones Jr., p. 208
This has not quite been destroyed by the time Isaiah and Samuel are living in Empty. Amos, the aspiring preacher, himself thinks of a slave he knew named Henry who would answer only to Emma, and is able to absorb this: Henry/Emma is clearly a woman inside. Jones’s thesis is very clear: the damage wrought on cultures that functioned perfectly, indeed better than contemporaneous white culture did, was perpetrated not merely with guns and shackles, but with Bibles.
There are also interlaced chapters in which the voices of the ancestors speak. Unattributed, lyrical, often contradictory and confusing, impossible to pin down, these polylogues are simultaneously the most “difficult” aspect of The Prophets and the aspect that elevates it to greatness. Jones is not content to tell a simple historical story of love and struggle and failure and death. The ancestors’ voices are what make that struggle both a source of rage and a source of pride. I am not Black and have (as far as I know) no Black ancestry, and these sections were not written for me, but I can see in them the harnessed artistic expression of fury and dignity, of people whose past, present and future is channeled through shared memory and tradition. If I’m waxing unbecomingly lyrical myself here, it’s because the power of these sections renders commentary somewhat presumptuous. Jones taps into a voice that speaks down generations, through centuries. The shivers that he’s able to raise on the back of the reader’s neck with this voice are the clearest indication that his book truly does approach Morrisonian heights.
The Prophets was published by riverrun on 5 January, 2021.