Robert Jones Jr. liked to jump double Dutch outside the Brooklyn home he grew up in. But his grandfather, a staunch follower of the Nation of Islam, forbade it. He wasn’t even allowed to be afraid. Men don’t fear, his grandfather believed.
“He presented a very particular and stringent type of masculinity that did not have a lot of room for me,” Jones, now 49, said. And the Christians in his family “told me that my homosexuality was a sin ... and that I needed to change who I fundamentally was.”
When he studied creative writing and Africana studies at Brooklyn College, these experiences informed his search for Black queerness in literature, particularly during the age of enslavement. He didn’t find much, but Jones thought there had to be Black queer people living in 19th-century America.
“Oftentimes, from the heterosexual point of view, queerness is something traumatic that happens to you,” Jones said. “The truth of the matter is queerness is just a natural state of being, and in the words of Toni Morrison, ‘If you can’t find the book you want to read, you must write it.’”
In his debut novel The Prophets, Jones follows the romantic relationship between Isaiah and Samuel — two enslaved men on a Mississippi plantation. The book took Jones 14 years to complete and has been praised by the Washington Post, O Magazine, and Publisher’s Weekly, among others.
Jones is a New York native and has written for the New York Times, Essence, OkayAfrica, the Feminist Wire, and The Grio. He is the creator of the social justice social media community Son of Baldwin.
Jones will discuss the novel Monday in a virtual talk with Philly author Kiley Reid hosted by Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books. The event starts at 7 p.m. and can be streamed at crowdcast.io/e/theprophets. Ahead of the conversation with Reid, Jones spoke to The Inquirer about his motivations for writing the book and how his upbringing shows up throughout.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Well, when I was in undergrad, I was an Africana studies minor, my major was creative writing. And in all the text that I had come across, very few really dealt with Blackness and queerness until around the Harlem Renaissance where you have Wallace Thurman, a few others, and then later on you have James Baldwin. We have it in the Harlem Renaissance, but where were they before this? How far back does this go? So I started looking through slave narratives and other things to try to find any evidence or any clues about where the Black queer people were.
Of the books that I read, and there might be others that I didn’t read, there were two that made mention. One was Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, which had a scene — just a sentence or two — talking about how a slave master raped a male slave. And then in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, there’s a scene where the character Paul D is sexually assaulted by an overseer. And I thought, “OK, got it. But what about love?”
I grew up in a house where religion was the fabric and culture of my household and the community that I grew up in. On my mother’s side, they were Nation of Islam, and on my father’s side, Southern Baptist. I gravitated more toward the Southern Baptist because I enjoyed so much the music and the singing and the rhythm, and the getting lost in the Holy Ghost. All of that stuff was really appealing to me.
Part of my reason for excavating that in the novel is because I learned in my research that homophobia begins with the Christian missionaries who forced their way into African society. It begins with European colonialism of Black spaces. So I wanted to investigate that in the writing. How did we go from a society that didn’t see queerness as anything separate or different or undesirable to one in which we look at it sideways and say that not even God can love a Black queer person?
I think I read that review and I thought, “Ok. That’s your opinion.” But I’m curious as to the race of the reviewer because a lot of metaphors they found confounding are deeply steeped in Black cultural references. So if there are Black people who have a certain upbringing, meaning deeply rooted in the church, or have deep Southern roots, they’ll recognize a lot of that stuff that some reviewers see as complicated, convoluted, confounding, unclear.
When I was writing this book, I was writing for a particular audience. In my mind, the audience was totally Black and mostly queer and likely in America, if not American themselves. So in writing to that specific audience, there’s bound to be people who come to it and see it as confusion rather than clarity.
Yes. Someone asked if there would be a sequel to The Prophets, and I said no because I can’t go back to that time period again. The work of writing about our ancestors in that time period is more than writing, it’s a witnessing. And because you’re witnessing these things happen — and they did happen — you feel them. I was often oppressed by the writing and in pain from it. It was part of the reason why, for every act of ugliness, I tried to include an act of beauty to counteract it so that the reader could make it through. I’m asking Black people to relive this trauma, I have to give them a balm, or some sort of shield so they can be prepared.