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‘The Prophets’ Unveils Queer Black Ancestors

Alberto Vargas
RainRiver Images

In his best-seller debut novel, Robert Jones, Jr., describes the romantic and tragic relationship between two enslaved young men on a Mississippi cotton plantation in the early 1800s. The Prophets explores gender and sexuality, race, power, toxic religion and masculinity, and viscerally connects the dots from slavery to today’s racial disparities and from Missionary Christianity to the slave trade, homophobia, transphobia and misogyny.

Jones’ quest for queer Black ancestors is what inspired his challenging 14-year journey to write The Prophets, which The New Yorker called a “panoramic vision of love and cruelty" and The New York Times described as “a lyrical and rebellious love story.” He told Out in the Bay that in research, he found documentation of non-consensual queer sex in the pre-Civil War South, mostly masters raping or otherwise dominating the enslaved.

“What about the love? Could not find any examples of it during these times,” Jones said. So he followed the advice of the late writer Toni Morrison: “If you cannot find the book you wish to read, then you must write it.”

Jones researched farther back in time, unveiling that in pre-Colonial Africa, gender fluidity was the norm in many societies. “For example, ‘King’ was simply a title,” said Jones. “Whoever held that title was King, irrespective of their genitals.” In The Prophets, we briefly meet a female king with many wives — male, female and non-binary.

Heteronormativity is a Western construction, Jones said, buoyed up by conservative Christianity, “not something that sprouted out of nature.” … “If we want to practice what we call pro-Blackness in current times, then we must realize that any bigotry toward LGBTQIA+ people is a form of anti-Blackness … taught by our enslavers.”

The Prophets may be a challenging journey for many readers. But in the midst of horrors, Jones paints small beauties and, yes, love along the way. Hear him read from The Prophets and elaborate on his discoveries on this week’s Out in the Bay radio show and podcast.