In a country where Black lives are consistently under threat, it is in some ways understandable that many of us are weary of revisiting America’s original sin, chattel slavery. The legacy of that painful history remains so evident in our daily lives that ruminating on its brutal beginnings is often too much bear—but for writer Robert Jones Jr., author of the antebellum-era novel The Prophets, it’s a legacy we can’t turn away from.
“I say if there were two million ‘slaves’ or two million enslaved people, there are two million stories to tell,” he tells us in this week’s episode of The Root Presents: It’s Lit! “If I, as a fiction writer, am documenting how it was, I can’t pretend that it was roses and daffodils for a Black person in this country we call the United States. Much of what we’ve experienced has been trauma,” he further notes, adding: “To this day, we experience trauma. Even if at the same time we’ve had our joys and our hopes and our dreams realized, it’s under the banner of trauma because this country, how it defines itself, is through its anti-Blackness. That is how America became America.”
Also known by his online entity, “Son of Baldwin,” Jones’ followers know the writer has never shied away from difficult conversations—about race, gender, queerness, colorism, mental health and ableism. His instant bestselling debut is equally confrontational and multilayered as it explores the dynamics of a community of enslaved people on a plantation aptly called “The Empty,” a narrative with lovers Isaiah and Samuel at its center, and a fictionalized, gender-fluid tribe in precolonial West Africa as its foreground as it drifts between eras.
“I was finding hope and liberation was in oral histories, particularly of continental Africans,” Jones explained of his extensive research for the novel, shouting out Ghanaian activist/artist Esther Armah for clueing him in to the fact that ancestral generations in her homeland didn’t make the binary distinctions about sexuality that are now so pervasive.
“Had you explained to them what you meant by homosexual, they would have said, ‘Oh, you mean love,’ because for them, for her culture, there was no need to separate queerness out from heterosexuality or transgenderness from cisgender,” Jones explained, adding: “And it was all a part of the landscape. It was all love. It was all sex. So precolonial Africans had a very expansive and quite contemporary, modern and advanced ideas about gender, gender identity and sexuality. And once I was exposed to that, it gave me the space to imagine the Kasongo people, which is a fictional tribe I talk about, as well as Samuel and Isaiah in antebellum Mississippi.”
While The Prophets may envision a foregone era, it’s more than relevant to our ongoing discourse about the intersections of sexuality, gender, race and indoctrination—a discourse Jones challenges everyone to reconsider.
“You were taught to be homophobic through Christianity as it was presented to you through the whip and through rape of the colonizer,” he says. “It is not something that is inherent to your African self because your African self had wildly different ideas about queerness, and transgenderness...about matriarchy versus patriarchy, and so on and so forth. When you participate in anti-LGBTQIA+ bigotry, you are promoting white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, period—the end,” he continues. “I hope we understand that this is the case, unless we’re willing to admit, well, we want to be white supremacist capitalist patriarchs...but don’t pretend you want to be pro-Black but anti-LGBTQIA+ because you can’t be both at the same time.”
Hear more prophetic moments from Robert Jones Jr. in Episode 31 of The Root Presents: It’s Lit!: Robert Jones Jr. Talks Baldwin, Black Queerness and Why Antebellum Slavery Must Be Remembered, available on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, Google Podcasts, Amazon, NPR One, TuneIn, and Radio Public. A transcript is also available for this week’s episode.