You could skip the ten-page Acknowledgements section of Robert Jones Jr.'s debut novel The Prophets if you find it daunting or mundane; no one's likely to give a pop quiz. Yet this small-type, densely spaced ode to all of Jones' major influences—musical, cultural, literary, personal, people he knows intimately and people who have affected him from afar—feels as much like a part of the story as the narrative chapters that precede it. Literary critics will no doubt find the homage to James Baldwin and Toni Morrison most significant, but it is the overall effect of Jones' implied affirmation: "I am who I am because of all these people who have been, breathed, created, and continue to do" that resonates deeply with The Prophets itself.
The novel revolves around the story of two slaves, Samuel and Isaiah, who have grown up orphans on a plantation and grown, too, into a profoundly loving relationship with one another. Their love is so strong as to be luminous even to the plantation owners and white workers who encounter it, and the narrative shares their intimacy, the tension that at times grows between them due to their situation, and the effect they have on those of all races and genders around them—this sense that they can make everyone within their orbit question rigid ideas of religion, happiness, power, and satisfaction. Of course the story is not one of effusive joy; any reader would approach the novel knowing the odds of a happy ending for two Black men wanting to share their bodies and lives in the time of slavery. Despite their luminosity, Isaiah and Samuel are made to live as part of a land that is itself complicit in the violence and oppression experienced by slaves. In a moment toward the end, Jones breaks into verse, declaring: "It is difficult / to be among the trees / that have been complicit in the destruction / of so many people; / every leaf, every crack in the bark, every drop of sap, every twisted root: / guilty." The lovers marvel at the stars, but the land and water that surround them are part of their condemnation.
Part of the strength of The Prophets is its ability to tell a story that is at once individual and collective. The story trails through the perspectives of Samuel, Isaiah, and many of the strong enslaved women on the plantation, as well as the plantation owners and their overseer. It's not quite sympathy for the white family that pervades but rather a sense that there are layers to the actions we deem abhorrent in these characters, as well as to the slaves. The multiplicity of perspective is not limited to the historical moment; ancestors speak in a plural voice in sections (with titles of the Bible such as "Genesis" and "Romans") interspersed throughout the novel, creating a sense that the current Black experience on the plantation is part of a much larger story. These voices make demands of strength on the addressees, crafting an empowering aura. Through the collective voices of the prophets, Jones interrogates and finally condemns the way that the white supremacist culture tries to shape ideas of home to their own detriment: "That is why you try to make home a paradise instead of a place where life can take root. Yes, well. Home is not frozen. It is not some insect trapped in amber. Neither is it soft like clay for you to mold to whatever shape suits you. It is bigger than you. Do you understand?"
But back to that slightly unwieldy acknowledgments section. Is Jones the next James Baldwin or Toni Morrison? It's not quite fair to ask that of him. His debut novel, however, certainly makes a mark as it embraces its own message of being both individual and part of a collective narrative. In his acknowledgment of so many different people who have both loved, supported, and inspired him, Jones seems to say,"This is how we echo through the ages."