The reality of Black gay love in the time of slavery is explored in a heart-stopping new novel that’s already won praise from Mariah Carey and Oprah Winfrey.
The Prophets is a gripping tale of two enslaved men, Isaiah and Samuel, who live as lovers on a plantation in antebellum America.
Their forbidden love blossoms in spite of the brutality that engulfs them, and together they find a small haven where they can be alone – until a fellow enslaved person grows suspicious and reveals a truth that threatens to rock the entire plantation.
The unforgettable story that follows marks the blinding debut of Robert Jones Jr, a Black queer author who felt “cut off” from his lineage. The Prophets is his answer to a simple, burning question: “Did Black queer people exist in the distant past?”
“Of course they did,” he says, “but it’s often the way of a traumatised people to erase the past, shun excavation of it, deny it ever existed, or pretend that it looked some other erroneous, but glorious way.
“This is understandable. Who would want to explain the horrors of yesteryear with no way of stopping the pain from returning?”
The sheer weight of this subject made Jones hesitate at first, as he feared it was too heavy to dredge up and was uncertain he was the right author to do it. But the “pleas of the dead” wouldn’t leave him, and so he went searching.
“I read every book about the pre-colonial African societies and the American antebellum period I could get my hands on,” he says.
“In pre-colonial historical data, queerness was often presented clinically, as convenience in the absence of the opposite sex, or as custom or ritual. In the antebellum period queerness was mentioned briefly at most, and always as something despicable or synonymous with rape.
“This prompted another question: What about love?”
This love in all its permutations is the discovery at the heart of Isaiah and Samuel’s story; a story that summons the voices of slaver and enslaved, masterfully revealing the pain of inheritance and the power of hope.
“How devastating and glorious this is. Epic in its scale, intimate in its force, and lyrical in its beauty,” said Marlon James, author of the Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings.
“The Prophets shakes right down to the bone what the American novel is, should do, and can be. That shuffling sound you hear is Morrison, Baldwin, and Angelou whooping and hollering both in pride, and wonder.”
The Prophets is out in hardback, and as an audiobook and ebook on 5 January, priced £18.99.