Review: Vivien Horler
The Prophets, by Robert Jones Jr (Riverrun/ Quercus)
This powerful novel starts with a slave woman whispering a love letter to her son, the toddler who was ripped from her arms and sold. She tells him she remembers every curl on his head and every fold on his body, down to the creases between his toes.
But Massa Jacob sold him off, even though he had told the mother she was a part of his family. Is this what whites do to family, she asks.
She is whispering to the ancesters, hoping they will get a message to her son, who is half grown now, that she loves him and misses him. She can’t always understand what the ancestors are saying, because they often use the old (African) words “that are half beat out of me”.
Plantation owners didn’t want their slaves remembering the old ways, the old days, so stopped them speaking their languages and changed their names.
The mother called her son Kayode, but on the Mississippi cotton plantation where he grows up, he is known as Isaiah. Only one person on the plantation knows his true name, and he isn’t telling.
Sometimes Isaiah thinks about his mother, looks into the river in the hope of seeing her face in its dark depths, tries to snatch at the dim memories. But little comes.
However Isaiah has had some luck – ever since he came to the plantation he has been friends with Samuel, another slave boy. The two work with horses in the barn, where they sleep. And over the years the friendship has grown into something deeper, a spiritual and physical love which provides a measure of warmth and solace.
In the view of their owner, Paul, the two young men are fine specimens, and he wants to breed from them. But he’s not having much luck there, and thinks he may have to sell them.
The young men have also caught the eye of Ruth, Paul’s wife, and the reader knows no good can come of this. Life on the plantation is in no way easy for the slaves, but it is clear it could be made much worse.
And there is Paul and Ruth’s beloved son, college-educated in the north, who has dangerous ideas.
Amos, a slave who has Paul’s ear, persuades Paul to allow him to conduct church services on a Sunday for the workers. Amos is worried about Isaiah and Samuel, because they are sinning, and because their stubborn refusal to help make slave babies goes against Paul’s wishes. And an angry owner can wreak havoc on everyone on a plantation.
Isaiah tries to make the best of his situation, but Samuel is fuelled by rage. Isaiah tells him he wants to live, and this is where Samuel figures Isaiah is wrong.
There is a devastating passage which will resonate with many South Africans. “To survive in this place, you had to want to die. That was the way of the world as remade by toubab (whites), and Samuel’s list of grievances was long: They pushed people into the mud and then called them filthy. They forbade people from accessing any knowledge of the world and then called them simple. They worked people until their empty hands were twisted, bleeding, and could do no more, then called them lazy. They forced people to eat innards from troughs and then called them uncivilised. They kidnapped babies and shattered families and then called them incapable of love. They raped and lynched and cut up people into parts, and then called the pieces savage. They stepped on people’s throats with all their might and asked why the people couldn’t breathe. And then, when people made an attempt to break the foot, or cut it off one, they screamed ‘CHAOS!’ and claimed that mass murder was the only to restore order.”
The reader’s sense of mounting dread is realised in a devastating climax.
Robert Jones Jr masterfully handles his major themes of slavery, homosexuality, cruelty, power, a yearning for identity, and love. He creates a terrible world where people live or die or suffer, solely at the whim of others. We know slavery was – and is – an evil, but Jones opens our eyes to the dreadful detail.
He dedicates the book to the people who have gone before him, “who are now with the ancestors, who are now, themselves, ancestors, guiding and protecting me, whispering to me so that I, too, might share the testimony.”