it’s always a good time to read Black History

I wanted to post this review earlier, as a recommendation for Black History Month reading, but since we’re nearing the end of the month I’ll share a reminder instead that Black History is well worth reading year-round; Robert Jones, Jr.’s new historical fiction novel The Prophets was one of my most anticipated reads of the year, and let me assure you that you can believe the hype with this one!

The Prophets

In the novel, Samuel and Isaiah share a close bond after finding each other in childhood and growing into their shared job tending the animals in Empty’s barn (circa 1830’s). Empty is what the Black folk call the Deep South plantation where they live and labor- Empty because it is a heartless place. When one enslaved man decides to ask the master for a favor, he turns to Christianity as a means of convincing the white man of his worthiness and sincerity. The master prides himself on his religion, and through the power of his new disciple’s sermons most of the enslaved are swayed to the side of the Christian gospel, where they begin to see Samuel and Isaiah’s love as a grievous sin, paving the way for further animosity.

“Empty was another thing. It was the deepest. It was the lowest. It was the down and below. It was the bluest depth. It was the grave and the tomb. But briefly, ever so briefly, you could still come up for air. Despite the blood and the screams and the smothering hot, here, too, was where Essie sometimes sang in the field and made the picking less monstrous, if not less grueling.”

The Prophets is a beautiful, nuanced book that addresses many injustices faced by enslaved persons in antebellum US, taking its narrative a step farther than other popular fiction on this topic by centering LGBTQ+ experiences. At the center is, of course, the relationship between the two gay main characters, but they are not the only characters defying heteronormativity in one way or another. Though quite a few of the atrocities doled out to Black people on plantations in this time period are details I’ve come across before, they are used here not as individual shocks but rather as incremental weights steadily increasing the burden of homophobia on the shoulders of our main characters and their allies.

I found the prose style artistic enough to be a little challenging in places- the story itself is easy enough to follow, but Jones’ structure and wording bears enough poetic weight that what you get out of the writing will probably be proportional to the effort you put into parsing it. If you’re here for the plot alone, you’ll be just fine, but the brilliance of Jones’ prose is that it holds up to much closer scrutiny as well. Likely some of the cultural meaning went over my head, but as a white reader and reviewer I didn’t necessarily feel that all The Prophets has to offer was meant for me, which is fair. I’d call The Prophets light literary fiction with a high level of commercial appeal.

“Everyone got a turn, at some point, to be on top or on bottom. It didn’t matter how good you were or how evil you were. All that mattered was that you were alive and, therefore, unsafe. Subject to His will in the here and, likely, the hereafter. And His will was as brutal as it was arbitrary.”

Another key feature here is the examination of religion. The Prophets is structured similarly to the Christian bible, the chapters in roughly chronological order but each exploring a different perspective or facet related in some way to a greater narrative tapestry. Many of the chapter titles directly echo bible chapter titles, playing on and often critiquing how white folk have used various biblical stories and themes for their own benefit, by reframing it all to centralize Black history and culture.

The entire novel is a commentary on religious bigotry and the toxicity of patriarchy, but the best part is that it’s delivered in a measured way that condemns the bigotry without falling into the simplistic maneuver of bashing Christianity as a whole; it also condemns white supremacy, duly calling out those who cause harm, without falling into the simplistic maneuver of labeling all white people as inherently villainous. The white characters are the villains here, of course, and Jones doesn’t go easy on them. But he lays out their actions and motivations in such a way that the reader can see how white supremacy ultimately fails everyone, even those it serves to uplift- a message that retains its value today and proves the continued relevance of the book’s themes and topics in contrast to many modern Americans’ belief that US slavery and all its accoutrements is a thing of the past.

“There was no such thing as monsters. Every travesty that had ever been committed had been committed by plain people and every person had it in them, that fetching, bejeweled thing just beneath the breast that could be removed at will and smashed over another’s head before it was returned to its beating place.”

It’s an ambitious book and there were occasional moments when I wondered whether The Prophets might be taking on a little too much; the cast of characters is large and the list of grievances endured by those enslaved runs the constant risk of feeling like a checklist of horrors, but Jones manages to link every moving piece of this story successfully, using its broad scope to show how very widely and negatively the effects of homophobia and religious bigotry can spread throughout an entire community, reaffirming that the side of acceptance and allyship is worth standing on even for cis-het folks who might want to think themselves safe in the choice of holding on to homophobia or even neutrality.

The only area where The Prophets was a little less successful for me was in its episodic nature, and this is more a reflection of the type of reader I am than any fault with the book. Much like the bible, each chapter of The Prophets is separate enough that it could probably stand alone fairly well, and possibly the pieces could even be read out of order without losing the overall affect. Jones times introductions to character histories brilliantly, but he also gives those characters secondary roles in chapters that highlight other perspectives so that the details are layered together in such a way that it’s impossible to pick up on everything at once- it’s a book that would make for a rich reread, I’m sure. But because the book is something of a patchworked piece, I did find it easy to put the book down at any point and harder to get back into the flow of the story when picking it up again.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I can absolutely see why this book has been making waves, and I hope it’ll continue to do so. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it faring well with the book prizes this season. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for future work from this author.

The Literary Elephant

13 thoughts on “it’s always a good time to read Black History”

  1. Your interest in how the author twisted together black history and Christianity makes me think you would like Moses, Man of the Mountain by Zora Neale Hurston. I just read it recently, with a review coming in March. It was cool to see one style laid over the narrative of a different story.

    Another book that uses books of the Bible as chapter titles and themes for each chapter is Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, which I think I’ve recommended to you before. It’s a novella, so it doesn’t take long to finish.

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    1. To be honest I’m not often drawn to books about religion and might not have picked this one up if I had known beforehand how much it focuses on Christianity as a main theme. But I was definitely impressed with how the author handled it, and will look forward to your review of Moses, Man… in March! And yes, I think you were the one who recommended Oranges to me as well, which I started when I had a Kindle Unlimited subscription and was enjoying but didn’t manage to finish before my subscription expired. I still want to come back to it at some point! I remember the narrative focusing on religion but had forgotten the bible chapter titles. Perhaps that’s a more common trend than I was aware of.

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      1. Author Angela Flournoy came to my virtual book club early in the pandemic, and she talked how she had TWO classes at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop that focused on the Bible: Old Testament one semester and New Testament the second. Why? The professor fully believed that all stories we tell now are influenced by Biblical stories, and I can see how she is totally right. Flornouy talked about how those two classes were the most important in her time at IWW.

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      2. Ooh, I wonder if the ‘all stories are influenced by Biblical stories’ stance is related to the ‘there are no new stories, only new ways to tell the old stories’ stance. I do remember there being at least one Bible-related lit class I could have taken as an undergrad student at Iowa which sounded like it took a similar approach to the Bible via storytelling, but it didn’t fit in my schedule at the time so I never got further than reading the class description. Interesting to see that someone found a related class so influential!

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  2. I’m glad to hear this lives up to the hype! That quote about there being no monsters is particularly striking as I think that’s one way we try and distance ourselves from things like racism and homophobia – denying that it is ordinary people who have committed atrocities. I’m also interested in how the author ties in Biblical references and format.

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    1. That quote really stood out to me as well, for the same reason. It’s easy to tell ourselves that evils like slavery have happened at the hands of especially cruel or uncivilized people, all while looking past acts of racism that still occur today as a result of the same sort of mindset. Jones really does a great job of showing abuse of power as a slippery slope that’s all too easy to lean into.
      The use of religion as a framework here was especially interesting, I thought. I’m not as knowledgeable about the bible as I once was, but I’m sure there are parallels between these characters and their namesakes that went over my head, and there is more direct commentary around a few specific bible stories as well (Sodom and Gomorrah, Adam and Eve, etc). I think it’s presented thoughtfully enough to be of interest to Christians and non-Christians alike. I’d definitely be interested in your take on it if you were ever to pick this one up! 🙂

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