The history of Black people in America, typically omitted or whitewashed, often requires extra labor from Black people to retell the narratives, add vital context and infuse ancestral wisdom to understand present-day conditions.
It is this narrative that Robert Jones Jr.’s advances in his debut novel, “The Prophets,” which embodies this practice of reclamation.
Jones, who is Black and gay, researched precolonial African societies, including their oral histories, to understand how Africans thought about gender and sexuality.
He found that European colonization and Christian missionary work imposed homophobia and gender binaries onto indigenous populations in Africa.
Genders and sexualities beyond heterosexual or cisgender were present and integrated in those societies, Jones said, even though they didn’t use the language that describes those identities today.
“Often when you see books or other forms of media that deal with this particular period in our history, the most you get out of the Black people who are suffering is their suffering. You get their labor, but you don’t really get to know who they were as people,” Jones said, adding that he chose to make slavery the backdrop without minimizing it, especially given the resulting generational trauma.
“I wanted to ensure that the sins were put into the hands of the people who created them,” he said, because he wanted to convey a specific message about (and to) Black people. “I want readers to know that these burdens — homophobia, transphobia and slavery — they are not ours. They do not belong to us.”
Jones said he hopes that “The Prophets” encourages people outside the Black community to reflect upon whiteness as a tool of hierarchy that must be dismantled and to move beyond viewing it as skin color, which he said is the typical understanding of what it means to be white. It shouldn’t be the burden of Black people, he said, because they didn’t create whiteness in the first place.
“Whiteness calls upon you to look at other people as inferior — which the conundrum of that is, when you’re looking at other people as inferior, you are actually announcing that you, in fact, are inferior,” Jones said. “Until white people make that realization, we’re going to continue to have these problems” unless they confront it and fix it, he said.
Through “The Prophets,” he said, his wish is for Black people to understand their glory and that no matter what white people say, do or have tried to do to the community, Black people are greater than whatever has been devised to degrade them.
“What I really want Black people to take away from this is simply to look at one another with a renewed sense of humanity. To say to your trans-sister: ‘You are valuable. You belong. I love you, and I respect your right to be,'” he said, highlighting the epidemic of deadly violence against Black transgender women and gender-variant femmes and how it stems from a long arc of oppression.
“I want us to be able to look at the manifold ways in which Blackness shows up in the world and love each and every one.”