The Halifax Plantation is known as Empty by the slaves who work it under the pitiless gaze of its overseers and its owner, Massa Paul. Two young enslaved men, Samuel and Isaiah dwell among the animals they keep in the barn, helping out in the fields when their day is done. But the barn is their haven, a space of radiance and love – away from the blistering sun and the cruelty of the toubabs – where they can be alone together.
But, Amos – a fellow slave – has begun to direct suspicion towards the two men and their refusal to bend. Their flickering glances, unspoken words and willful intention, revealing a truth that threatens to rock the stability of the plantation. And preaching the words of Massa Paul’s gospel, he betrays them.
The first time I saw the proof last year June, I knew that it was going to my most anticipated read for 2021. I was lucky enough to receive a copy after attending Quercus’ Word of Mouth Bestsellers Virtual Event. Alongside the proof, I also got to hear Robert Jones Jr himself, talk about his research prior to writing The Prophets and how it took him thirteen years to write.
I knew, then, that this book would probably leave me speechless.
Speechless isn’t even the word. I was left in complete disarray. Robert Jones Jr took what I knew about slavery and revealed that I actually knew the bare minimum. There were parts of my history that haven’t been shown to me. Parts that I needed to know to have the full picture.
Can I really critique this book? It felt more like someone’s truth – a lost piece of history. This was the missing part of a puzzle finally being slotted into place.
This book combines the writing style of two huge literary giants in Black literature. There was the vivid writing of Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ combined with the lyricism of Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’. Both blended to create a narrative so deeply beautiful and profound that I was bearing witness to someone’s soul. Yet whilst this narrative felt so famailar, it was also new and powerful. This was a new voice emerging to create space for itself within Black literature. It was truly a privilege.
The narrative starts off slow and it does take a while to really get into this story. I felt the same way with Morrison’s Beloved as the writing, as beautiful as it is, can be very confusing. However, the pace of the book was exceptional. Every narrative…every chapter was carefully placed, positioned to tie all the narratives together and reveal the truth conveyed through these words. Robert Jones Jr ties in the degradation of the Black family, memory, christianity, power, pain with queer love between the pages of this exceptional novel.
As with most slave narratives, memory is at the forefront of this novel. It spins between each chapter and narrative, as it ties and dismembers history. It’s the part of the pain of each character and soaks the very ground of the plantation. Memory is binding as it is freeing.
The beauty of this novel came from Samuel and Isaiah’s scenes. Their love was the light and foundation of this book and the plantation. I’ve never seen love written so reverently. Every character that gets to witness their love conveys the awe and beauty that radiates from these two young men. They feel blessed to be able to witness it and consequently, the reader understands just how privileged we should feel to read about it.
Aside from their love, Robert Jones Jr also shows how homophobia spreads within the Black community. He conveys that fear, ignorance and underlying desperation to please those that own them is how it seemed to spread. Robert Jones Jr combines this with narratives of homosexuality of a few enslaved on a ship and a woman who is king with wives as men. The storytelling is dedicated to show that homophobia didn’t exist before slavery within the Black community. It was taught. But also, to show that the truth being revealed transcends time. These stories have always been there – small but vital pieces to history that were misplaced or simply missed out.
There’s something to be said about the biblical references. The majority of the characters and chapter names are named after people and books from the Bible. Whilst, I do believe there is a connection between the fact it is the way that Christianity was preached that taught the slaves homophobia. Robert Jones Jr draws on Christianity to remind the reader of the true message of the religion. God is love. It’s the foundation of Christianity and thus, why Isaiah and Samuel’s love in the novel is referred to with such reverence.
“At that moment, the sun revealed itself and, inch by inch, began to shine down on the standing Isaiah and Samuel, touched their crowns as though they were actually so consecrated, bright in a way that didn’t hinder sight…” -p.g. 299
God’s love transcends everything we know and feel to be true. That purity and devotion we feel towards God is exactly how Isaiah and Samuel are viewed by all the characters. Even those that seem to believe what they’re doing is wrong or twisted in some way. The reader is made to be aware that regardless of the forces working against them, their love is beautiful, precious and will persevere. A powerful sentiment.
The degradation of the Black family was explored in greater detail. It threads through this book alongside the love of Samuel and Isaiah. Every single character discussed is shown to have been broken and torn apart from their birth family in some way. Forced to make new ones and forge new relationships on the plantation. It’s how Samuel and Isaiah found each other. Their love was the beauty in the pain of not knowing their parents, which they discuss often.
“They kidnapped babies and shattered families and then called them incapable of love…” – p.g. 341
Additionally, Black women and their strength is conveyed alongside these themes too. Through every Black female character, we witness their strength and dedication to be the healer, the provider and the backbone of the community. Whilst Samuel and Isaiah’s love is the light of this book. Black women are shown to be the cornerstone. The spine and tree holding it together. Their roots hold deep.
“It seemed that it had always fallen upon the women to be the head or the heart, to throw the spear, to shoot the arrow, to clear the first path, to live the first life…” – p.g. 386
Whilst this book demands your entire attention in order for it to truly resonate with you, it is worth every second dedicated to it. These characters were crafted and moulded within the pages of this novel. Each serving it’s purpose to narrate this truth to us, the reader. I’m left in awe of Robert Jones Jr because this is more than just a love story. Please don’t ever think this is all it is. It’s a reckoning. An unveiling. It’s devastating whilst hopeful. Brutal but tender. It will tear you apart and then build you back up again. It’s completely unlike anything I’ve read before and the more I think about it, the more I’m unsure that I can ever do this book justice with my review.
It left me raw. Completely shaken by what I’d read. I desperately don’t want to give anything away. Especially, for those who want to read it. I know some people may be wary being that this is a slave narrative but this may just be one of the best I’ve read. This book has stayed with me days after I’ve finished reading it. It felt like such a powerful way to enter 2021.
I felt as if the strength of these characters, as little or powerful as it may be for some, were almost running through my veins.
Now that I know this truth, I feel stronger.