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Out in the Bay: 'The Prophets' unveils Black queer ancestors

by Eric Jansen

Robert Jones Jr.'s search for queer Black ancestors inspired him to write "The Prophets." Photo: Alberto Vargas, RainRiver Images
Robert Jones Jr.'s search for queer Black ancestors inspired him to write "The Prophets." Photo: Alberto Vargas, RainRiver Images  

[Editor's note: This summer, Out in the Bay is airing a mix of previously recorded shows and new content. This week is a rebroadcast.]

In his debut novel, Robert Jones Jr. describes the tragic romantic relationship between Samuel and Isaiah, 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.

The New York Times described the instant bestseller as "a lyrical and rebellious love story" and the New Yorker called it a "panoramic vision of love and cruelty." Beyond its love story, the novel poignantly and viscerally connects the dots from slavery to today's racial injustices and from Missionary Christianity to the slave trade, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny.

Jones told Out in the Bay — Queer Radio that his quest for queer Black ancestors is what inspired his challenging 14-year journey to write "The Prophets." In academic research while at Brooklyn College, Jones found citations of non-consensual queer sex in U.S. slave days — mostly masters dominating the enslaved — but no loving Black queer figures like those that appeared in the Harlem Renaissance.

"What about the love? Could not find any examples of it during those 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 said he was "terrified" as he embarked on the project, partly because he had scant source material, and: "I was afraid of how people might receive the very idea of Blackness and queerness being put together in a historical context like this, especially on a plantation." For many Black people, said Jones, "the antebellum slavery period is sacrosanct and also very difficult to confront because there's so much pain."

So he researched further back in time, unveiling gender fluidity as the norm in many pre-Colonial African societies. "For example, 'King' was simply a title," said Jones. "Whoever held that title was king, irrespective of their genitals."

In Jones' book readers encounter a female African king who has many wives — male, female and nonbinary. Heteronormativity is a "Western construction" buoyed up by conservative Christianity, he said, "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," Jones told Out in the Bay, "taught by our enslavers." The February conversation re-airs this Friday, August 20, at 5 p.m., Out in the Bay's new time on radio station KALW, 91.7 FM throughout the Bay Area.

"The Prophets" may be a difficult journey for readers, too. Jones keeps us on the path — in the midst of horrors — by painting small beauties and, yes, love along the way.

Hear Jones read from "The Prophets" and elaborate on his discoveries on this week's Out in the Bay.The program airs 5 p.m. Friday, August 20, on KALW, 91.7 FM throughout the Bay Area, and re-airs 9:30 a.m. Saturday, August 21, on KSFP, 102.5 FM in SF only. It is available anytime on Out in the Bay's website.

Eric Jansen hosts and co-produces Out in the Bay — Queer Radio from San Francisco. Learn more and listen at https://www.outinthebay.org/


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