Robert Jones Jr
Quercus Publishing, 2021
Efemia Chela for The JRB: Thanks so much for writing The Prophets. I loved reading it and taking in its expansive views. What made you want to create a Black queer love story about two enslaved men on a plantation in the Antebellum South?
Robert Jones Jr: As an undergraduate, Africana studies was my minor and as part of that I got to read incredible pieces of literature, including some of the slave narratives written by enslaved people themselves. Through all of the texts that I read, something stood out to me as missing—and that was the Black queer character in a time prior to the Harlem Renaissance. So, I searched and searched to see if there was any evidence, or any record of it, and the only thing I personally encountered was in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. She talked about how a plantation master raped one of the enslaved men. Then, in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the character Paul D is sexually assaulted by an overseer.
The question for me was: Alright, but what about love? And since Toni Morrison herself said, ‘If you cannot find the book you wish to read, then you must write it,’ I knew that this was something that I would have to write. It terrified me because I didn’t have any foundation and it would require imagination work. Also, I was afraid of the backlash such an idea might receive from people who find the romantic love between people of the same gender or sex offensive and would scoff at the idea of it existing during antebellum slavery. Too, I imagined that people might be tired of the examination of this particular period—Black people because it is too painful; white people because it reveals their disgrace.
But in my first month of graduate school, I was given an assignment where I had to find material objects that a character I was thinking about for a novel or story would possess. I found a pair of shackles on the streets of Brooklyn, near a pile of garbage bags, and knew immediately that the character floating around in my head (who would eventually become Isaiah) was asking me to share his testimony. That gave me the courage I needed to proceed.
The JRB: What an image! Shackles on the street, with that sign alone, writing The Prophets must have felt extremely urgent.
As more and more Black people appear in media and books, discussions about representation have been polarising. Questions about who Black (and also queer) art is for and what is good queer (and also Black) representation, proliferate. When writing your debut did you grapple with any of these questions? If so, do you think you resolved them, or not?
Robert Jones Jr: Yes, I did indeed grapple with these questions. When I write, I start from character. Character comes before plot, before language, before anything else. My goal is always to render character with as much depth and understanding as I possibly can. I knew that when I was creating Isaiah and Samuel, it was important that they be fully rounded, dimensional human beings. That meant that they needed joys, sorrows, laughter, flaws, fears, and hopes. I knew from the start that I didn’t want them to be stereotypes, which is another way of saying superficial. However they showed up in the novel, whether that was in ways we already associate with queerness or not, they had to show up with depth of humanity, which eliminates stereotypes. When I wrote this book, the audience that was foremost in my mind was the Black queer one. Then, it was Black people in general, then everyone else after that.
Whether or not I was successful at producing ‘good representation’ and ‘good Black queer art’ are not really questions for artists. That’s for audiences to decide. Artists create art because we have to; truly, we have to—irrespective of how it’s interpreted or received. Otherwise, we might wither away and particular truths would have gone unnoticed. We’re already seeing the consequences of truths going unnoticed given the violence that’s gripped our reality, such that rape, war, and murder are made to seem commonplace, normal. The job of the artist is to shake us back to our senses, which is why, I imagine, the artist is so despised. James Baldwin told us that.
The JRB: The palpable magic oozing from the pages of The Prophets brought to mind one of my most cherished Toni Morrison quotes. She says in a 1983 interview with Nellie Y McKay, ‘I want my books to reflect the shrewd, day-to-day functioning Black people must do, while at the same time they encompass some great supernatural element.’ Could you speak a bit about how you wove magic into the events that take place in Empty and why?
Robert Jones Jr: I am the descendant of enslaved Africans. My family can literally trace our roots back to enslavement (and, in at least one case, back to the African continent). A lot of my family’s traditions survived. These things we call ‘magic’ are really just the normal ways in which my family has functioned for centuries. My mother still burns any excess hair that is left in a comb or brush (to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands and being subjected to curses or other manipulations). My grandmother Corrine kept a glass of water under her bed (to draw out disease and prevent nightmares) and salt and a bag of dirt at the front door (to keep out evil spirits and people with negative energy). My great-great-grandfather Lawrence was a healer who used various plants, herbs and other things he foraged for in the wild as remedies for everything from headaches to possession. I couldn’t imagine writing any story that did not treat ‘magic’ as intrinsic to the way in which Black people understand and interpret reality.
The JRB: That’s truly fascinating. I’m Ghanaian and hair is still viewed at home to have that power, and cut hair must be prevented from falling into the wrong hands. It’s amazing how resilient these traditions are and their power to survive across centuries of displacement.
As much as this is a book about Blackness—Black love, Black history, Black pain, it also casts whiteness in a particularly nuanced light. I found Ruth, mistress of the plantation and her son, Timothy, to epitomise different notches on the belt of white supremacy, both wielding corrosive desires. He, the good white liberal who deludes himself about his benevolence, and she, brandishing a destructive white womanhood that feigns innocence. Could you speak a bit about how you see the interplay between their actions, and its links to contemporary whiteness?
Robert Jones Jr: One of the fascinating things about writing characters like Ruth, Timothy, and even James, was in seeing what they revealed about the nature of power. What I learned was that there is a difference between power (dominion over others) and empowerment (dominion over oneself). The former will always—always—lead to abuse or violence of some kind. The latter is, I think, where true liberation is found. But human beings, being what we are in our current state of evolution, crave the former believing it to be identical to the latter when they are two entirely different things. The late great Octavia Butler talked about this in her Parable series. Human beings not only love hierarchy, we love to ensure that there is always someone beneath us in the hierarchy.
While Ruth, Timothy, and James are not at the pinnacle, they ensure they are not at the nadir by asserting their wills over the enslaved people on the plantation. That dynamic is at least as old as humankind, I imagine. So that we continue to see this behaviour play out in contemporary times isn’t really surprising. In the States, we give it cute nicknames when white women weaponise their womanhood to penalise Black people (‘Karen’), but honestly there’s nothing cute about it. It’s horrifying. And deadly. That’s the thing about whiteness—and I define whiteness as the false idea that a particular brand of human being is superior to all others and therefore has the right to do whatever they so choose (manifest destiny)—it’s seductive and successful and has been remarkably consistent. Thus, when we speak about whiteness in antiquity and contemporary whiteness, we are in fact talking about the exact same thing. It has never changed. And it can’t change. It can only be undone. ‘How?’ is the question I don’t have an answer to.
The JRB: I love the joyousness of this book, the way it comes at you in unexpected places, Samuel and Isaiah’s barn with the starlight flooding in; the warm community of Maggie, Be Auntie, Essie, Puah, coming together to heal with ritual and herbs; Essie sneaking sweet treats from the Big House to Samuel in the barn. Do you think there’s a link between joy and resistance or rebellion?
Robert Jones Jr: Oh, yes! There is a link. Morrison once said, ‘You can’t only hone in on the crisis.’ I believe that to be true. I don’t think human beings are soldiers or labourers by nature. We’re soft. We’re weak. We’re vulnerable. Our flesh is easily pierced. In the grand scheme of things, we are delicate creatures. All of the chaos we wreak comes from our attempts to deny these facts. It is because of this unnecessary chaos that we have to resist or rebel in the first place. And since we do, we need something opposite to chaos and violence to recharge and remember what it is we’re resisting or rebelling for or against. That’s what love is. Love is the only space where healing is possible, where humanity is possible, where accountability is possible, where peace is possible. So we have to return to it as often as we can, find it wherever we can. Love is the only thing that will ever save us and it is also the thing that people most want to destroy. Ain’t that terrible?
The JRB: As queer people we often find ourselves orphaned, queer elders are few and far between and often not as visible as their straight counterparts. Yet in The Prophets, in epic fashion, you reach back to Samuel and Isaiah’s ancestors, precolonial Africa and the Kosongo people, and their acceptance of diverse sexualities. What was your research process like for that thread of the novel?
Robert Jones Jr: I found great comfort in the oral histories of continental Africans, such as the ones passed down to playwright and political commentator Esther Armah by her Ghanaian forebears, that explained that Black queer people did, indeed, flourish on the African continent prior to both colonisation and antebellum slavery. I learned this from Malidoma Somé as well with his discussions of the Dagara people of what is now Burkina Faso. So many ancient Indigenous African peoples had such wise and modern understandings of gender, gender identity, and sexuality, but their stories and existences were erased by the colonising peoples and religions—the same peoples and religions that seek to suppress Black queer people today.
I took everything I learned, everything that distinguished these African understandings from European ones, and merged them into the fictional Kosongo people for the express purpose of revealing the origins of anti-queer and anti-trans hatred as a European, not an African project.
The JRB: How long did it take you to write The Prophets, and what do you think was the hardest part of it to write?
Robert Jones Jr: I started writing what would eventually become The Prophets in my first semester of graduate school in September/October 2006. I think I finished the first draft in about 2011. And I kept revising and revising until my US editor Sally Kim at Putnam said we were done in 2020. So, the entire process has been about fourteen years.
The hardest part to write was trying to understand the origin of the motivations for a character like Paul, the plantation owner. It escapes me as a human being how a person could debase themselves so thoroughly by believing they have the right to not only own other people, but to declare those people subhuman and thus available for the worst horrors imaginable. To even be able to imagine the horrors themselves and put them into practice without compunction or regret, sometimes with glee or worse, as a means of profit—that is a state of being so different and foreign from my own humanity that it often makes me feel out of place on the planet of my birth. Allowing Paul to tell me his story, his reasoning, his motivations required opening myself up to receiving those things. That made me feel vulnerable in a way that I didn’t expect. It also made me feel like I was betraying my own ancestors by allowing him to explain or justify his position. But I felt it was important for Paul to be present because I wanted to ensure that the sin of antebellum slavery was placed in the hands of those who actually committed the sin. Sometimes in stories, we can make slavery sound and feel like it is Black people’s shame. It is not.
It is white people’s shame, on so many levels: moral, legal, economic, spiritual, human, existential. And would you believe that today, in the United States of America, there are white people, millions of them now, at least 75 million and counting, who feel no shame at all, feel no connection whatsoever to the crimes against nature their ancestors committed, while simultaneously celebrating that heritage as a source of great pride and rejecting any evidence of how the relatively abundant, privileged and safe lives they lead today are a direct result of their ancestors’ inhumanity? An inhumanity, by the way, that they inherited and continue to exploit while denying any wrongdoing. Power (dominion over others) gives them the ability to do this, gaslight their victims and control the narrative. Which is why, I imagine, they cling to it so desperately. That’s part of their legacy, too.
Yes. Putting myself in those blood-soaked shoes was the most difficult thing to contend with in The Prophets.
The JRB: It is their shame, as much as they might deny it, and I think in making them confront the ugliness of their actions you risk being despised (à la Baldwin). Risk is an integral part of the best work.
I would be remiss not to ask you about James Baldwin, in the light of your Twitter handle (@SonofBaldwin) and online community. Which of his works speak the most to you as a reader? And is it the same work that speaks to you most as a writer?
Robert Jones Jr: James Baldwin’s life, work and legacy had such a profound impact on me that I created the social justice social media platform ‘Son of Baldwin’ as an homage to all that he’s contributed. I decided to create it after I watched a documentary in 2007 where Baldwin’s brother was talking about Baldwin’s final days before he passed away. Baldwin said to his brother, ‘I just hope someone finds me in the wreckage.’ It felt like he was speaking directly to me, because here we are, both Black and queer, both writers, both growing up in New York City. He was such a brilliant writer and at that particular time his work was not yet enjoying the renaissance in the public sphere it is currently enjoying. At the time, I thought, ‘No one’s talking about his work or the impact of what he’s writing. No one’s talking about the subject matter that he was writing about. Maybe I can start some sort of platform where we can have these conversations?’ Son of Baldwin grew out of that.
Of all of his works, Go Tell It on the Mountain, his debut novel and a lyrical masterpiece, is the one that resonates with me most because of how it wrestles with how religion seeks to make Black queer people as microscopic as it possibly can. The number of sublime passages in this book! Have mercy. The entire section called ‘The Threshing Floor’ takes my breath away every time I read it. Pure genius. And honestly, Isaiah and Samuel in The Prophets would not have been possible if not for John and Elisha in Go Tell It on the Mountain.
The JRB: Finally, what are you enjoying reading at the moment?
Robert Jones Jr: You know, my TBR (to be read) stack is about a hundred books tall! LOL!
The JRB: I too am a victim of a well-meaning but staggering TBR pile.
Robert Jones Jr: I’m not exaggerating. There are at least one hundred books that I would like to read and that’s somewhat daunting because I’m a very slow reader. But the books that I have most recently read and found brilliant in a multitude of ways are:
- These Ghosts Are Family by Maisy Card
- Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour
- The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw
- The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton
- Long Division by Kiese Laymon
- Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez
And the books I’m looking most forward to reading are:
- The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You by Maurice Carlos Ruffin
- Shoutin’ in the Fire by Danté Stewart
- Everyman by M Shelly Conner
- Punch Me Up to the Gods by Brian Broome
- The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
- A River Called Time by Courttia Newland
The JRB: Thanks for a wonderful conversation Robert.