The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr

 Reviewed by Rod McLary

The Prophets is the debut novel by Robert Jones, Jr – a novel which at the same time explores the joy and the vicissitudes of love, the harsh cruelty of slavery and the significance of the wisdom and folk lore of ancestors.

Set in Mississippi on a cotton plantation during the 19th century, The Prophets is essentially a story of love and commitment but one which unfolds amid slavery, cruelty and, ultimately, tragedy.

Paul Halifax owns the plantation named Empty and, with the assistance of his cousin James, rules his kingdom with a harshness almost unimaginable.  The slaves are seen by the plantation owners and their overseers as less than human and no better than the farm animals they care for.

But within this harsh environment, love between two of the young slaves – Samuel and Isaiah – develops and is regarded by them both as a haven away from the blistering heat and the cruelty of the overseers.  Their love is beautifully and sensitively realised:  Isaiah turned on his side to face Samuel and all his soft parts were open and free, tingling without shame.  They looked at each other and then they were each other, there, both of them, in the dark.  [19]

Halifax’s wife Ruth and their teenage son Timothy share his disdain of the slaves but when Timothy – enlightened a little by his attending college in the northern states – refers to the slaves as ‘Negroes’, he is chastised by his mother who says ‘You mean niggers.  Call them as you see them.  There’s no need for pussyfooting’ [196].

But neither Ruth nor Timothy was immune to the sexual pull of the young male slaves.  The failure of Samuel and Isaiah to respond to Ruth’s sexual overtures resulted in both being whipped ‘for looking at her’; and Timothy’s desire to take Isaiah – and later Samuel – to bed is the catalyst for the tragic events which follow.

Interspersed between the chapters describing the trajectory of Samuel’s and Isaiah’s love towards their betrayal and tragedy are chapters describing the origins of the slaves.  One describes the first encounter between the tribe from which the Halifax slaves came and the white people ‘whose skin was like having no skin at all’ [84].  This meeting – purported to be in friendship – was no more than the vanguard for those who would do no less than capture the tribespeople and transport them in appalling conditions to America.  The captives are ‘chained together, trapped in spaces where there wasn’t even room to raise their heads or excuse themselves to pass waste’ [240-241] and in a darkness which ‘smelled of soul death’ [240].

The juxtaposition of the present experiences of the slaves and their history in their tribal lands in Africa emphasise the harshness and cruelty they suffer – and even more, the gradual destruction of their cultural memories, of how ‘the village thrived, populated by five generations of people upon whose faces the ancestors lived’ [84].  However, one or two of the women do retain the cultural memories and consequently are able to provide some comfort and reassurance to the others when tragedy comes.  Throughout the book, there is a sense of another dimension – one in which the spirits of the past dwell and is separated from the current world by only the thinnest of membranes.  The author has skilfully evoked a feeling of mysticism as if the spirits are travelling alongside each of the characters as they play out their roles.

The author has brilliantly created a world in which two stories are played out side-by-side.  The first is the world of slavery centred on the plantation Empty at whose heart is the love story of Samuel and Isaiah even though it is tempered by displays of wanton cruelty and malice towards the slaves; the second is the story of the tribe before the invasions of the slave traders.  Underpinning the two is the slaves’ cultural memories and their inhabitancy of the spiritual world.

The protagonists at the heart of the novel – Samuel and Isaiah – are finely drawn and the reader feels each lash of the whip on their backs, each harsh word directed at them and, at the same time, the tenderness of their love for each other.  Powerless to prevent the reality of their being slaves intruding into their relationship, they are inexorably drawn towards the tragic conclusion.

While not a straightforward read, The Prophets is nonetheless a powerful and moving story.  It is one to be savoured.  Highly recommended.

Robert Jones Jr is a writer from Brooklyn New York.  His previous writings have been featured in The New York Times, Essence, Gawker and Giro.  He is the creator of the social justice social media community Son of Baldwin and is currently working on his second novel.

The Prophets

by Robert Jones, Jr


Hachette Australia

ISBN 978 1 52940 572 9

$32.99; 388pp

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