The Prophets: Book summary and reviews of The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr.

The Prophets

by Robert Jones Jr.

The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr. X
The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr.
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Book Summary

A singular and stunning debut novel about the forbidden union between two enslaved young men on a Deep South plantation, the refuge they find in each other, and a betrayal that threatens their existence.

Isaiah was Samuel's and Samuel was Isaiah's. That was the way it was since the beginning, and the way it was to be until the end. In the barn they tended to the animals, but also to each other, transforming the hollowed-out shed into a place of human refuge, a source of intimacy and hope in a world ruled by vicious masters. But when an older man--a fellow slave--seeks to gain favor by preaching the master's gospel on the plantation, the enslaved begin to turn on their own. Isaiah and Samuel's love, which was once so simple, is seen as sinful and a clear danger to the plantation's harmony.

With a lyricism reminiscent of Toni Morrison, Robert Jones, Jr., fiercely summons the voices of slaver and enslaved alike, from Isaiah and Samuel to the calculating slave master to the long line of women that surround them, women who have carried the soul of the plantation on their shoulders. As tensions build and the weight of centuries--of ancestors and future generations to come--culminates in a climactic reckoning, The Prophets masterfully reveals the pain and suffering of inheritance, but is also shot through with hope, beauty, and truth, portraying the enormous, heroic power of love.

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Media Reviews

"Brims with so much confidence and artful flourish that it's hard to believe it's Jones's first book. Following a line of esteemed authors, he explores the story of enslavement in America and makes it his own….Jones's expertly drawn characters have depth and purpose, and the writing is beautiful despite the subject matter. A work that will resonate with those moved by Charles Johnson's Middle Passage and Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad." – Library Journal (starred review)

"An ambitious, imaginative, and important tale of Black queerness through history." – Kirkus Reviews

"What a rare marvel this book is. The Prophets fashions an epic so rich in erudition, wisdom, clarity, and power, so full of hard-earned yet too-brief joys, that it reaffirms for me literature's place as both balm and scalpel for the mind and soul. You can feel the decades of thinking embedded not only in these sentences but in how they question and build a world shamefully amputated from textbooks. Rarely is a book this finely wrought, the lives and histories it holds so tenderly felt, and rendered unforgettably true." – Ocean Vuong, author of On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

"The Prophets easily the most superb tutorial in writing and loving I have ever read. I'm convinced Morrison, Baldwin, and Bambara sat around sipping wine one night, talking about the day we'd read an offering like The Prophets. Robert Jones, Jr., is a once-in-a-generation cultural worker whose art thankfully will be imitated for generations." – Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy: An American Memoir

"I've loved the writing of Robert Jones, Jr., for years, and The Prophets is an absolute triumph, a symphonic evocation of the heights and depths of pain, joy, and love." –R.O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries

"In The Prophets, Robert Jones, Jr.'s lens is at once epic and microscopic, equally capable of evoking historical crises and interpersonal ones. Painfully harsh and painfully tender, this inventive, kaleidoscopic love story is a marvel." – Helen Phillips, author of The Need

This information about The Prophets shown above was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's membership magazine, and in our weekly "Publishing This Week" newsletter. In most cases, the reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author and feel that the reviews shown do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, please send us a message with the mainstream media reviews that you would like to see added.

Any "Author Information" displayed below reflects the author's biography at the time this particular book was published.

Reader Reviews

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Ann B. (Kernville, CA)

An epic novel giving clear voice & vivid characters to a buried past
I'll start with the cover of this remarkable debut novel. Its design is on trend, for sure, but it's also perfect for The Prophets, a book that will transcend trend. Look at the silhouettes and the layers and the shades of color. The silhouetted faces indicate bodies down, prone and separated, yet the faces ascend, as if forming the foundations of mountains, and they look up. Robert Jones Jr. has written novel as testimony, with its central question: Did Black queer people exist in the past? Of course they did, but where are they in the historical record? Jones imagines their history, from ancestral Africa to the antebellum South. This is a book worthy of a deep-dive exploring its layers, inciting meditations and conversations about love and beauty and strength amid horrendous brutality. I'll end by emphasizing that at the heart of this book is Love.

Danielle M. (East Greenwich, RI)

A Truly Stunning Debut
Let me start by saying there's no way my words will do this book justice. Robert Jones Jr.'s The Prophets is a heartbreakingly beautiful and remarkable book that's both historical and literary fiction. Set on a plantation in the Deep South, slaves Isaac and Samuel find comfort in each other despite the cruelty of their violent owner. Jones' lyrical language transports you to the time and place and despite the difficult subject matter, I didn't want to put the book down. Isaac and Samuel's story shows that hope and love can take root in even the darkest of places. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Marianne D. (Crofton, MD)

This is a book meant to be read more than once...
Thank you, Robert Jones, for sharing your brilliant story-telling in a skillfully woven and written tale. Back in June, I helped form a racial justice task force at our church. Over the past many months, I have read books and articles, listened to podcasts and watched movies related to race and race relations. I will add this amazing novel to the list that I will recommend to others. Its many layers unravel through chapters named for biblical books and characters, which makes it of interest to book groups that are faith-based. Those readers are not the only ones "The Prophets" will appeal to. Many groups are now reading books related to race relations, and not many works written recently fit that bill. It is multi-layered and invites further research and exploration—perfect for a serious book group. Since it takes place more than 150 years ago and also reflects on much earlier times, the room for discussion is expansive. I highly recommend this book and thank BookBrowse for giving me the opportunity to read it.

Rosemary C. (Golden, CO)

A book of both beauty and horror
Reading this book was an intense experience, but it was mesmerizing. The writing is lyrical and beautiful while telling a story about the horrors of slavery as well as the great love between two slaves. This would be a good book club selection, allowing for much discussion of not only the story and the characters, but also the literary techniques the author uses to create a vivid world where hatred, love, desire, self-loathing, loss, and other emotions are raw and on full display.

Linda S. (Cranberry Township, PA)

Living on "Empty"
In The Prophets, we the readers are transported to the Antebellum south and invited into the lives of Samuel and Isaiah, two young slaves who live on the plantation known as "Empty". Robert Jones, Jr. clearly loves language. Lots of language ---- lots of descriptive sentences that are sometimes overwhelming. I felt as though I knew most of his characters very well by the book's conclusion.
When I consider the book in its entirety I can't help but wonder the motivation for writing this particular story. We all have had our appetites fed with many books about the south and the terrible conditions the plantation owners imposed upon the slaves.
This book is different. It explores the relationship between two young male slaves who have fallen in love and look to each other for tenderness in excruciatingly ruthless surroundings. Imagine these two young men who take care of the animals in the barn and work together with such rhythm and clarity. Now place them and their tender natures under the thumb of their owners who do not believe they are human. Owners who actually have conversations about how to even categorize these black people from Africa. They do not believe these properties have souls. They are simply property. Quite a contrast of characters.
In this book, we have a look at the belly and bowels of the ships that transported the stolen Africans and delivered them to, in this case, a plantation. Jones' words place you directly on the rows of pallets where men and women are stacked with just inches separating them from the person lying above, chained together and unable to do so much as gather enough saliva to swallow as they relieve themselves where they lay.
We experience the brutal punishments meted out for the smallest infractions, real or manufactured. We gather with women in secret as they gather what they can find - herbs, scraps of rags, river water, so that they might soothe the backs of Samuel and Isaiah after a severe whipping.
Add to that, the women on the plantation who are repeatedly raped, and expected to 'produce' future slaves for the betterment of the operation. The children running around are various shades of black, and not very black and almost white, and all shades in between. Many don't know who their parents are because they were stolen or given away at some point in their young lives. Some know that "Massa" is their father.
An older slave wants to gain favor with the 'Massa' and asks for permission to learn the Bible and preach. This leads to questions about the gay relationship taking place under all of their watchful eyes.
But throughout the book, despite the vicious treatment they endure, Samuel and Isaiah cling to each other and are ultimately faced with a decision that affects everyone ---- literally every being who lives here on Empty.


Astounding writing and superb storytelling
The author claims that he is picking up where Toni Morrison and James Baldwin left off. His writing proves him to be correct. The writing is superb even if the vernacular was sometimes difficult for me to understand.
The subject matter is so relevant in today’s world. Nonetheless, it is difficult reading. Enlightening about issues of enslavement in the United States that I had not considered before reading this book. The concerns among the enslaved people were so real. The entanglements between the slaves and the slave owners were well described.

...7 more reader reviews

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Robert Jones, Jr., was born and raised in New York City. He received his BFA in creative writing with honors and MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College. He has written for numerous publications, including 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 was recently featured in T Magazine's cover story, "Black Male Writers of Our Time." The Prophets is his debut novel.

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