Maiysha talks with New York Times Best Seller author and Son of Baldwin creator Robert Jones, Jr. about his book “The Prophets.” Robert explains how he came up with the concept of a novel about Black queer love during slavery, and how his identity influences his writing and the writers that influenced him.
You are now listening to theGrio’s Black Podcast Network, Black Culture Amplified.
[00:00:05] Hello, I’m Mayisha Kai, host of theGrio’s Writing Black Podcast. In West African tradition, to be a griot is to be a storyteller, one who carries and communicates the experiences and legacies of a people. As theGrio’s lifestyle editor, I’ve always been fascinated by how we tell our stories. That’s why we launched Writing Black, to explore the myriad ways Black writers craft stories and communicate our experiences. Thank you for joining us. Here’s an excerpt from this week’s guest.
The Prophet [00:00:38] The first mistake you made was to trying to reason with it. Do you hear us? You attempted to understand the source, hear the beat, find the rhythm for something that sprang from chaos. Never, never look into the heart of that which has no heart to speak of foolish. You sought the nature of something that occurred by accident. So has no nature at all. Things without a nature always seek one you see, and can only obtain one through plunder and then consumption. They have a name. They all have a name. Separation. You have been warned.
Maiysha Kai [00:01:13] Robert Jones, Jr, thank you for joining us here on Writing Black. How are you?
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:01:20] I am doing well and I feel so privileged to be on your show. Thank you so much for having me.
Maiysha Kai [00:01:28] Well, it’s such a treat for us as well. You know, this is a new podcast for theGrio, where we’re really talking to writers about the craft of writing, about what inspires them, and especially what it means to be writing while Black. So, you know, I couldn’t think of anybody better to kind of, you know, dig into this anyone than you actually. Your book, “The Prophets” was an instant bestseller when it came out last year, and now it’s out in paperback. So people can enjoy it. They can take it to the beach this summer. They can take it wherever they want to go. It’s phenomenal. And is also in in the year and changed since it debuted become a National Book Award finalist in addition to any number of other accolades and etc. it’s an acclaim to so much acclaim, pages and pages of it. Has it has it all settled in for you yet. Are you are you has it hasn’t settled in your soul yet what you have accomplished here.
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:02:29] You know what? Now it’s it feels like it’s happening to some guy named Robert Jones Junior over there. And I’m watching it happen. It does. I have not yet internalized it. And I’m wondering how much of that has to do with being Black in this country, because you know how hard it is sometimes for Black people to receive and accept joy. We’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop because it’s our joy is always so fleeting because of whatever is going on in the in the culture. So I don’t let myself hold on to joy very long. And I know that’s terrible. But so when the good things happen to the book, I feel it for a split second and then I’m back to the worries and I got to fix.
Maiysha Kai [00:03:18] How we arm ourselves, right? Isn’t that kind of how we protect ourselves by never listen to it, never leaning too much into the triumphs unless they, you know, lest they go away quickly. And I think, you know, I mean, oddly well, not so oddly since you wrote it. I mean, this is also the dichotomy that you are exploring in “The Prophets”, you know, this idea of. This incredible, intense love, you know, love for community, love for another human being, even a love of self. And trying to figure out if that can exist in a place that is determined to make you nothing right. Can we talk about that for a minute? Like, how are you trying to balance the scales there in terms of writing “The Prophets”?
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:04:04] You know, when I took up the endeavor of saying, okay, I’m going to write a book about a Black queer couple in a time period I had never seen them in. And this time period is going to be antebellum slavery. I had to say to myself, what’s going to counterbalance this idea that slavery was the defining feature of our ancestors? And the only answer for me was love. That is where I found that I could give these enslaved characters dimension, humanity, life that was defined separate from the degradation. I didn’t want to shy away from the fact that this was a very dehumanizing period and that slavery is a horrific enterprise. But I also didn’t want that to be the trait that I attached to these characters. I wanted to find the human in them because in so many stories you find that slavery is the thing that makes the enslaved, that animates the enslaved. I wanted them to be animated by other things like laughter and getting their hair braided by their best friend and love.
Maiysha Kai [00:05:17] Mm hmm. Well, I mean, you know, listen, the book is arresting. It is it deserves every accolade it’s gotten. Even returning to it a year after the fact, I was like, you know, you’re finding new things. And that’s always a joy when you’re reading a book to, like, find new things and be like, Oh, I hadn’t really thought of it like that. You name this book, “The Prophets”, and you’ve given, I think, every single character, if not most of them, a biblical name.
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:05:49] Yes.
Maiysha Kai [00:05:50] And I really want to talk about that because, you know, we have we have the Bible in scripture. We have the Bible text. Right.
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:05:57] Right.
Maiysha Kai [00:05:58] Depending on who you are and what you believe. Or maybe you believe both. Right. So. What was the impetus for you to kind of ride that theme through this novel?
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:06:12] Well, I knew that if I was going to tackle, Black queerness during the antebellum slavery period that I was going to have to address the elephant in the room, which is how did we, as enslaved Africans removed from my home and put into this new place to work as beasts, learn to look at queerness or transgenderness or what have you as something ugly and sinful. And all of the research pointed to a before time in Africa or a pre-colonial time in Africa, in which that was not the case, where queerness and transgenderness or the things that we call queerness and transgenderness now had a place in those pre-colonial societies. And not like a separate place, but a place in the community. It was not considered something wrong or sinful or bad. It was just considered a normal part of the human experience until European colonization and Christian missionary work.
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:07:21] So I had to pointedly say Christianity is the start of homophobia and transphobia, and I had to show the ways in which these Europeans used Christianity to divorce us from our our histories and our traditions and our culture and our understandings and our languages and our names. And one of the first acts that an enslaver would do is snatch away your given name at birth and give you a Christian name to exert a kind of power over you, to say whatever you were before ends now and your dehumanization begins with this name. And so that is why I had to look at Christianity from a critical point of view.
Maiysha Kai [00:08:14] Yeah. And I think we should. I mean, I think we should look at everything with the critical point of view. You even named, you know, your your white characters, biblical names. I was like, oh, this is interesting, you know, and they are fascinating characters. They really are. And, you know, they are. It to me is such a gift and a talent. When we talk about the craft of writing, I think one of the hardest things is character development, right? You know. At least in my experience.
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:08:46] Yes. Yes.
Maiysha Kai [00:08:47] It’s it’s developing these characters. It’s one thing to tell your own story. Right. But you hear telling myriad stories. You know, you have this cast of characters and people are getting their own chapters. And, you know, we’re getting these, like, you know, condensed histories, but these really poignant tellings. I have a feeling I know the reason why, but I want to know the how of it all.
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:09:16] I actually started writing “The Prophets” or what became “The Prophets” from the point of view of one character. It was going to be Isaiah’s story at the time he was named Hannibal and that the novel was entitled Seeing Hannibal Bear Witness. And it was going to be basically Isaiah relaying his story to a historian who was writing it down for posterity. But then I quickly realized the limitations of Isaiah’s point of view. I needed to say and do things that would have been outside of Isaiah’s purview. So I said, okay, well, what I’ll do is instead I’ll have a conversation going back and forth across distance and maybe across time between Isaiah and his lover, Samuel. But that too was limiting until I realized that what this story was really about was their love. And that love needed witnesses. And so I would need a cast of characters to tell me their points of view about what they thought Samuel and Isaiah were, what they were doing, how they felt about the love between them, whether they were inspired by it or disgusted by it. I wanted a full view. And then because of a dream I had, I decided that the ancestors also needed a voice in the book. And I said they will act as the guide for the reader to pull them through this story and then eventually pull them through time so that we could link certain pathologies back to their source. And that is sort of how it came together, and that it didn’t just come in like a couple of months or a couple of years. I don’t think I got to that structure and so maybe I was maybe nine or ten years in on writing this manuscript.
Maiysha Kai [00:11:20] So I love that you talked about time. I love that you talked about it. You know, because I think whatever kind of writing you do, I was having this conversation with somebody the other day and they were talking we were talking about songwriting, which is something I’ve done a lot of.
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:11:34] Oh, wow.
Maiysha Kai [00:11:37] I was just saying offhandedly, I was like, Yeah, I have songs that I’ve taken minutes to write and I have songs I’ve taken years to write. And, you know, with “The Prophets”, I mean, it’s. It’s obvious, like the tremendous amount of research. Like actual, factual things that you had to kind of excavate to create this fictional world.
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:12:00] Yes.
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:12:04] What was the genesis of this project?
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:12:07] I was an Africana studies minor in undergrad and was reading all of these glorious works by anyone from Zora Neale Hurston to Wallace Thurman to Alice Walker to Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. And I was just overwhelmed by the brilliance, but was made starkly aware of the absence or the minimization of Black queer figures, particularly prior to the Harlem Renaissance. And I wanted to know why. So I was going through the canon, and I was looking for examples of the existence of Black queer people in these time periods. And I found an “incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” by Harriet Jacobs. A scene in which she describes how an enslaved man was chained to his master’s bed and that his master would use him for sexual purposes. And then also in Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”, she has a character named Paul Dee, and Paul is sexually assaulted by a male overseer in one part. And I thought to myself, Yes, these things probably did happen. But here’s my question. What about love?
Maiysha Kai [00:13:19] Right.
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:13:20] And because Morrison herself said, “if you cannot find the book you wish to read, then you must write it.” I said, Doggone it, I have to write this book.
Maiysha Kai [00:13:31] This book that has garnered you a lot of comparisons to Morrison. So you obviously pulled that off. And you do something. I mean, I think it’s worth saying and I don’t think it’s a spoiler that, you know, Isaiah and Samuel aren’t even the only queer characters in the book. Right. So it’s like it’s really I mean, I love that. I loved it personally in terms of the sense of really firmly establishing the fact that this has always been. And you do something really gorgeous with gender too, in that discussion, where in reaching back to that ancestral line and that ancestral sensibility, you talk about this idea of not identifying a person as a gender until their nature reveals themselves, I guess is maybe my condensed way of saying it.
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:14:23] Yes.
Maiysha Kai [00:14:23] Way less elegant than you said it. But this idea of you know, and that then when you did identify yourself or you were identified, you know, it could be it wasn’t on a binary. You know, it could be woman, it could be man. It could be free. It could be all. Correct? Did I get that right?
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:14:39] Yes, you did. Yes, you did.
Maiysha Kai [00:14:42] And I just thought that was so stunning. You know, was that something that you conceptualized for yourself as, like an ideal that you would love to see as accomplished? I mean, I would, but. Or was it something that you read and picked up and just really wanted to bring back into our present day consciousness?
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:14:59] You know, I thought it was something that I was just hopefully imagining, but then I discovered that there were indeed at African societies that did not give their child a gender and that the child, at a certain point in their development, decided what they were. I don’t know if the choices were man, woman, free or all, but I know that the child had the choice. So in some ways I felt like, wow, maybe this is blood memory in some way that I just knew on the inside that this had to be the case based on the things that I already knew about African societies and that I was learning about African societies. So that was just one of those wow moments.
Maiysha Kai [00:15:46] I mean, it was a wow moment reading the book as well. I, you know, I think any of us who. You know, whether you’re queer or not. I think anybody who seeks to see a world in which that’s not, you know, a huge thing, you know what I mean? I think I loved it. I thought it was so I thought it was such a great device and such at the point that it came in the novel, I felt like it was really what you kind of need as a reader to kind of expand your your thinking, to kind of move forward. I thought that was really gorgeously done and I had to just let you know, well, I can’t wait to hear more. Stay tuned for more from the Writing Black podcast.
[00:16:31] TheGrio Stars Stories with Turay coming soon on theGrio’s Black Podcast Network.
Maiysha Kai [00:16:43] Welcome back to the Writing Black Podcast. So you were writing this book for over a decade. In that same time, you had a very popular online presence as a Son of Baldwin. You were wearing a Baldwin t shirt as we speak. So I know that’s how I came to first know you. In fact, I’m going to be perfectly honest. When “The Prophets” came out and I realized.
Speaker 4 [00:17:10] It was, you know, like.
Maiysha Kai [00:17:12] Oh, oh, okay, you know, and a lot of people have leverage. I mean, obviously, there’s a lot of people who have leveraged, you know, their social media identities into bigger things, you know, like have garner book deals from their social media presence. Is that what happened with you or were these two separate things?
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:17:35] They were two separate things as far as how I got my book deal, which really didn’t matter to my agent or really my publisher. And they thought maybe afterwards that I would have this large platform and I can then promote the book to this large platform. But what what the industry is discovering is that large platforms or social media don’t translate to book sales because your audience is used to free content. And then if you are trying to now pitch them something to buy, they kind of skeptical and they’re like, Oh, you know, I don’t I don’t want to do this. So they’re not seeing the correlation that they thought they would see. So really, it’s separate. And I, I like that it’s separate because that the stuff that I do on Son of Baldwin and while it does inform and help develop my craft as a writer is different and it requires a different part of my brain than when. I’m Robert Jones Jr, the author writing these fictional stories and trying to imagine these lives and make them feel as authentic as possible.
Maiysha Kai [00:18:47] I mean, yeah, because, I mean, social media isn’t authentic. That’s the weirdest part. That’s the irony of social media.
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:18:55] Right?
Maiysha Kai [00:18:59] It’s a another performance platform, you know, like we are performing our emotions. We are performing our lives.
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:19:07] Right.
Maiysha Kai [00:19:08] You know, the enjoyment or scrutiny or empathy or whatever it is we’re trying to achieve.
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:19:14] Yes.
Maiysha Kai [00:19:15] Well, on on Freedom Day, otherwise known as Juneteenth, you kind of made a bid for your, I took it as a bid for your own freedom. And you made the announcement that the beloved Son of Baldwin would be no more. There is an essay online, people can read it. But I would love to hear from you personally. Why you felt that it run its course? Like, why you felt that now was the time to kind of exit that arena that really had brought you this tremendous platform and tons of friends and associates and so on and so on, kind of hanging on your every word. Why was it time to let that go?
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:19:59] And you’re right, in a lot of ways, Son of Baldwin was a blessing because if not for some of Baldwin, Kiese Laymen would have never heard of me. And if Kiese Laymen would have never heard of me, he would have never introduced me to his literary agent and I probably never would have been published. Kiese Layman is the first person to give me my first publishing job. I published an essay on Gawker through Kiese. So in many ways it was a blessing, not just personally, but just being able to have the kinds of discussions I was having. But what I discovered lately is that I was recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and I was noticing a correlation between my flare ups of the illness and my engagement on social media, particularly if the engagement had a negative tone. So I said, okay, I got to really pay attention to my health if I want to be around. And second, I began to notice the ways in which social media has been co-opted by the 1%, by the right conservatives, GOP to be used in ways that are oppressive and dangerous. And I’m I started to realize this is not the transformative space, but at least it’s not transformative in the way that I had hoped. Like I thought it was going to be in the beginning when we were seeing, you know, this galvanization of these forces, of people who were trying to do away with oppression and make the world a legitimately better and freer and more equitable place. Now we have the Elon Musk’s and the Mark Zuckerberg’s these billionaires set to be trillionaires on the ways they’ve coded these systems to focus on the negative and focus on the divisive and profit from it.
Maiysha Kai [00:22:05] I think we can all agree Trump would not have become president without social media. Right?
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:22:09] Come on. Come on somebody.
[00:22:11] He got The Apprentice. I mean, The Apprentice is one thing, but like, you know, social media was that was a social media driven campaign.
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:22:18] Oh, yes, it was.
Maiysha Kai [00:22:20] So are you doing away with all social media? Are you just saying like I’m on a social media free diet, or are you doing away with this particular platform which attracts so many people, both positive and seriously negative?
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:22:33] I am doing away with social media entirely. Like even my non Son of Baldwin personal Robert Jones accounts. I’m getting rid of it completely so that I could focus with all of my capacity on perfecting the art form. I want to be the best writer I could possibly be, and social media was interfering with that.
Maiysha Kai [00:22:55] Well, listen, I totally support your bid to be an analog boy in a digital world. I love it. I love it. I think we could all do with more of that. I say that as a fellow writer who’s like, Yeah, I don’t do that enough. I watch way too much TV. Yeah, I’m on social media too much. I’m so much more interested in everybody else’s stories. Right? So what are you working on?
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:23:19] I am working on the second novel is really not much I can say about it yet, but I can tell you that it takes place in Brooklyn and probably during the early to mid nineties.
Maiysha Kai [00:23:34] That was the Golden Time, I was there.
[00:23:37] Me too. Me too. You know, I just turned 51. That was my time.
Maiysha Kai [00:23:43] So we’re not that far apart in age. I’m I’m a few years younger, but that was the time. That was the time I used to live on Biggie’s old block. So, you know, just to let you know.
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:23:53] Come on, come on, Brooklyn.
Maiysha Kai [00:23:56] So, yeah, it was it was a time it was a time to be alive.
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:23:59] Yes, it was. So much was happening in that time period. It’s ripe for exploration.
Maiysha Kai [00:24:05] It really is. You know, it’s I saw something yesterday that was so interesting to me. You know, we talk a lot about how and I know you’ll relate to this, you know how Gen X gets skipped a lot whenever they talk about generations. Right. And yet Gen X is the genesis for so much other stuff that happens now. Everybody from who your faves are, you know, it’s like Jay-Z is Gen X, right? You know?
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:24:26] Yes.
Maiysha Kai [00:24:27] Jennifer Lopez is Gen X. You know, all these kind of people who are still stars are Gen Xers. And then, you know, when you talk about, you know, Elon Musk, if that’s how you get down. You know. Like this generation. It’s quiet and it’s small, but it was intensely productive. And I think, like, you know, somebody made the point that 9/11 overshadowed a lot of the really dramatic events of the nineties, some really serious things, including, you know, obviously the first bombing of the World Trade Center.
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:24:59] Right.
Maiysha Kai [00:25:00] You know, it was this tremendous time of really intense change and threats to humanity and threats to democracy. Like that was kind of this wave of of that that we knew, I guess as I guess. How do you what do you make of that? Like, what do you make of like. Where. Where do we fit in? You know, I need to know. The nineties are back. So I want to know where do we fit in? That was our era.
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:25:33] Look, everything that you said is part of the reason why I want to explore this time period and remember things that have been forgotten. You know, one of the quintessential things I remember about the nineties is Janet Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” video and how that kind of and that that was us. We were, you know, smooth and neo just beginning to get neo soul.
Maiysha Kai [00:26:00] I had a chocker. I was there. I was ready.
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:26:19] Go back to that video because one of her backup dancers is Jennifer Lopez.
Maiysha Kai [00:26:22] I know, I know.
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:26:24] Come on. That was like that video says so much about who we were. And then we gave birth to D’Angelo and Erykah Badu.
Maiysha Kai [00:26:35] Jill Scott. Yes. The Roots.
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:26:36] The Roots.
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:26:38] Come on. And all of that gets forgotten because like you said, it’s overshadowed by the other things that were happening during that time period. Particularly later we get to 9/11. Aaliyah’s death. Left Eye’s death. All of those things make you forget that Gen X yo. We we kept it poppin.
[00:26:57] And we are still holding it down. We really are.
[00:26:59] And we’re still holding it down. Yes.
Maiysha Kai [00:27:04] I love that so much. I actually can’t wait to hear how you plum into that era. Because when I look at what you did with “The Prophets”, you know, and how much love and research you put it, I mean, you really feel the love that you have for us as a people even. You know what all of us know to be the ugliest chapter of our existence here in America. You know, as horrible as things are now, obviously, it does it doesn’t even touch it. Right. So, you know, I feel that love for me. I can’t wait to to see what comes next. Any takeaways we should take, you know, “The Prophets” out now on paperback, in paperback, rather. And as more people are picking up, I hope, and handing it out. What do you hope people are taking from this incredible first novel of yours?
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:27:55] Oh, my. I hope that, like you alluded to, that the people who read this feel the intense love that that I have, in particular for Black communities, Black people all over the diaspora. And maybe and hope that some someone internalizes that love and passes it on. That is that is my greatest hope.
Maiysha Kai [00:28:21] All right. I love that. And you mentioned Kiese Laymon. And I got to say, for those people who are not familiar with Kiese, he, first of all, is an incredible writer, but also it’s kind of like this has become something of a godfather, I would say. As young as he is, he’s the best kind of writer, which is a writer who loves other writers, you know? He’s not territorial. He loves other writers and he loves Black people. But in addition to him, are there any other authors you would recommend?
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:28:52] Oh, yes, there’s so many. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw.
Maiysha Kai [00:28:57] Yes.
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:28:58] My, my goodness. My goodness. Shouting in the Fire An American Epistle by Dante Stewart. The Final Revival of Opal and Nev by Dawnie Walton. My goodness. That was my favorite book of 2021.
Maiysha Kai [00:29:14] Definitely one of my favorites.
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:29:17] I adored it. And then, of course, Kiesa Laymon’s Long Division, like his work is fantastic. Oh, and one more. Patriarchal Blues by, Patriarchy Blues by Fredrick Joseph.
Maiysha Kai [00:29:30] That’s a good list. I love it. And I adore you. And I will not be seeing you in the social media stream. So I’m going to make sure to get your email so I can harass you in other ways.
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:29:41] Yes, I will. I will gladly give you my information.
Maiysha Kai [00:29:44] But thank you so much for joining us on Writing Black and helping to kick this podcast off right. You were one of many incredible voices that we’ll be featuring here, and I am just so thrilled that you came and blessed us with your presence. You’re so lovely to be around. Thank you, Robert.
Robert Jones, Jr. [00:30:02] Thank you, Maiysha. It’s such a pleasure. I’m so glad you have this show. Thank you so much for doing this work.
Maiysha Kai [00:30:09] Thank You. So here we are at the part of the episode that I tend to favor, which is my favorites. You know, we were talking this week with Robert Jones Jr, who is one of my favorite writers right now. I just think and it has been for a while. Son of Baldwin, if you haven’t checked it out, check out the archives. He did some of the most. Provocative, incisive discussions of the last few years. And whether or not you always agree isn’t really the point. The point is that somebody was willing to have those discussions in a way that was not intended to do anything other than make us think. And unfortunately, there’s a rarity of that these days. You know, “The Prophets” is a remarkable, remarkable novel for many reasons, groundbreaking.
[00:30:57] But I do not want to leave out another novel that is also another historical fiction novel that came out last year called The Sweetness of Water. This is part of Oprah’s Book Club, just like Roberts 2021. And this is by Nathan Harris, who another incredible writer. This is another book that touches on a theme that we’re not always so familiar with, which is the era of reconstruction in the United States. Like you talk a lot about the period of enslavement, and we talk about civil rights movement. You know, we even talk about Black arts, you know, Black Panthers. But the era of reconstruction is one that I think is largely untouched and misunderstood. Maybe I’m wrong there, but Nathan does something really gorgeous here. His use of language is gorgeous. Hopefully, we’ll have him on the podcast to discuss. But the Sweetness of Water is a really, I think, pertinent discussion about how you had freely, you know, newly freed people navigating a white still white dominated world. And I loved it. I hope you’ll love it and check it out.
Maiysha Kai [00:32:20] Thank you so much for joining us for another episode of Writing Black. As always, you can find us on theGrio app or wherever you find your podcasts.
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