TW: sexual assault
“I choosy with who pain I feel,” Sarah said. “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. I reckon some people want their pain to end, true. But most? It’s the thing that make they heart work. And they want you to feel it beat.”
The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr. is a book you have to be in the right mindset to read. You have to go through the words with a fine-tooth comb. Otherwise, the brutality of what is being described, the institution of slavery, will drown you, making you unable to see the beauty in the prose, the relationships between the characters, and the details in the plot.
When I read the first fifty pages of this book, I was not in the right mindset. It took me a second start to get into the story. I understand the people who see this book and think “not another slave narrative” following the relatively recent popularity of The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (this doesn’t even touch the movies).
What happened to Black people in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade is one of the most brutal events in human history. Fictionalized retellings of this event can be a form of reckoning and healing with the past, but for others it is a burden to keep revisiting. So I get the wariness - but I would still encourage those who can, to read this.
What I appreciated about The Prophets is what makes it different. It centers two enslaved Black men, Isaiah and Samuel, who form a beautiful queer relationship with each other, despite the forces on Mississippi’s Empty Plantation that attempt to drive them apart. One of those many forces is the introduction of Christianity to the enslaved by one of the enslaved men, Amos. This queerness, this criticalness of Christianity was brave and enjoyable to me especially given my own (now dissolved) relationship with Catholicism and my sexuality.
There are things I loved about this book and there are things I loved less, but there is nothing I would write differently per se.
Isaiah and Samuel, also known as the “The Two of Them,” are two Black enslaved young men on the Empty Plantation, land that is owned by the Halifax family: Paul Halifax, the patriarch; Ruth Halifax, the wife; Timothy, the white child (emphasis on white, since Paul actually has many mixed-race children on the plantation who he does not claim) who survived, surprising given Ruth’s many miscarriages; and James Halifax, Paul’s cousin and the plantation overseer.
On the Empty Plantation (a brutal, horrible place that has earned its name), Isaiah and Samuel have managed to cultivate a “reprieve” in each other’s love. Both relegated to working in the plantation barn, Isaiah and Samuel work together, alone, away from the other enslaved people. Though the other enslaved folks regard them as sharing a peculiar connection, there is no feeling that Isaiah and Samuel are doing anything wrong, yet.
This relationship between Isaiah and Samuel is not idyllic, and the two are different from each other despite their closeness. Isaiah is forthcoming with his love, described by another slave Sarah as something like a “woman” given his nature: “violence wasn’t his primary notion.” Isaiah is obedient, doing his work on time, in ways that Samuel can’t stand. Samuel, described by Sarah as “fighting against himself,” is more reluctant with his love toward Isaiah, though he needs it just as much. A couple of times when Isaiah touches him in public, Samuel says “Not in the light.”
Though not idyllic, however, this love is one of the bravest things two enslaved people can do on the Empty Plantation. One, because it is a connection not born out of obligation to breeding, economic purposes. But also, because it reminiscent of the ways before white colonization, when queerness was allowed to flourish in West Africa – as evidenced by the scenes in the book back in time with Elewa and Kosii, two men that were joined together just before they were captured by white “skinless” invaders.
Everything shifts when another enslaved man, Amos, gets it in his head that the condition of him and other enslaved folks is made worse by Isaiah and Samuel’s small defiance - because Isaiah and Samuel, both young and fit for breeding, refuse to give themselves to women. Amos is upset especially when Paul takes Essie, Amos’s wife, and impregnates her with a son, Solomon, whose skin is now lighter and who neither can look at without a reminder of what violence has occurred.
In his foolish strategy to sway Paul’s ire away from Essie and toward The Two of Them, Amos begs Paul to give him Christianity. I loved this line: “It was the first time Amos has ever used either word-nigger or Jesus-and had decided that the betrayals would be worth it...” This religion is what Amos will use to preach the word to other enslaved folks but also to accuse Isaiah and Samuel of “sodomy,” a new word enslaved folks had not known.
Some of the things I loved about this book besides Isaiah and Samuel: First, no one is referred to as white. Instead, white people are referred to as “toubab” throughout the book. Toubab is what people who currently live in The Gambia, Guinea, Mali, and Ivory Coast call those of European descent. Once, white people are referred to as oyibo, which is what my people (Igbo people – Nigeria) refer to white people. Or they are referred to as yovo by Sarah, which is how people in Benin refer to white people. The use of these African words to refer to white people really illustrated to me how new the political label “white” is but also how close the enslaved folks in this book still are to a time before colonization.
I loved the female characters in this book, specifically Maggie, Sarah, and Puah. They had interesting feelings about white people, but also children (Maggie hates children, and even poisons one of Ruth’s children) and men in general (Puah speaks about watching out for the violence even enslaved Black men could enact on her body). All three of them spoke to how distinct the Black female enslaved experience was.
I also loved Maggie’s pride in being dark-skinned, in being curvy, in being not like the white people. Maggie was the best character by far. In general, the descriptions in this book position dark skin as natural and white skin as unnatural – which is subversive in a good way I think.
Kayode (a Yoruba name) being Isaiah’s name but him confusing it with coyote speaks so much to the telephone effect that happens overtime. I appreciated that detail.
I think Adam’s perspective (the mixed raced child of Paul Halifax) was interesting. Adam, white-presenting except for his full lips which gives him away, has complicated feelings about how he fits in. There’s one moment where he stumbles in thought – does “nigger” refer to him or the darker one - “their (our?).”
Of the things I loved less: I thought it was brilliant to have chapters were the ancestors spoke to the reader. In some moments, they are amazingly clear: “We have names, but they are names you can no longer pronounce without sounding as foreign as your captors. That is not to condemn you.” But sometimes, their words were hard to decipher. And I actually wanted their parts to be longer.
I hate Ruth and Timothy Halifax. I know I’m supposed to but wow. In some ways, they are worse than Paul because they actually think they are better. Ruth is high on her belief that being a woman makes her mistreatment of the slaves an act of empowerment, and Timothy thinks going to school in the North and using “Negros” instead of “niggers” makes him better than his father. When you see them rape enslaved folks, you’ll stare in wonder how they could ever think themselves different.
I hear the people saying this book was overwritten. There are definitely parts I had to reread over and over again to get. Sometimes I wished things were more easily said. This book is dense, hard to read – so enjoyable isn’t always the read to describe it. It took a lot out of me at times. It is traumatic – no doubt.
But I thought this book was powerful. Placing queer people in history, even the worst of it, is a brave and powerful thing to read. I will return to reread this again.