Every once in awhile, you will come across a book that just upends you. A tome that you know is the work of a deft hand and talented mind telling a truly unique story that possesses depth and emotion and, for lack of a better term, a truth within its words. Such a revelation is not subject to any specific genre or style or time. These books aren’t always the most popular or profitable or prolific, but you can feel that it will be a narrative that sticks with anyone lucky enough to come across it. The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr. is such a book.
The Prophets tells the story of Samuel and Isaiah, two Black men enslaved in the South during the period before the Civil War. These two young men are in love, and their love for one another and the few others they care about is the catalyst for a narrative of trust, struggle, life, betrayal, and, ultimately, a matter of choice. It is one of the key factors and conversations for both men individually and the relationship they carve out for themselves amid the inhumane treatment and struggle that is their life on the plantation. This theme is carried out to the other characters, both Black and not, within the story and how the choices they make, born out of necessity and enterprise, carry ramifications for themselves, their connected circles, and for so many others throughout time and space.
Jones Jr. expertly manages to weave life on a plantation in the antebellum South with events in an African village that seem to be a potential genetic or cultural memory that preceded the trans Atlantic slave trade. Through various perspectives of many characters, we see an explicit, straight connection between past, present (by the novel’s events), and, some insight, into the future (our present). While this is a work of historical fiction, the exact location and time of the story’s events are not fully necessary to know as that information is secondary to bearing witness to the unfolding of the lives of Samuel, Isaiah, and the other enslaved people.
As expected, the lives and stories of most of the characters found in The Prophets are bittersweet at best if not outright tragic and harrowing. However, those descriptions underscore one of the more important themes of this work: being a witness to these events and using that knowledge to heal, grow, and, ultimately, change, in all aspects, for the better. It also does the difficult and necessary work of reconciling and reconceptualizing the history and story of enslaved Black people to show the complexity and humanity that has been, and continues to be, actively erased from out collective memory and history.
I won’t say that this book is a comforting or easy read, but it is certainly enthralling and engaging. And, as difficult and uncomfortable as it may be, it is a text worth reading. Many times.