Historical Fiction Through the Lens of Black, Queer Love

Written by
Collin Riggins, Department of African American Studies
Nov. 16, 2021

An event recap of A Conversation with the Son of Baldwin hosted on November 11, 2021 at the Carl A. Fields Center.

On Thursday evening, author Robert Jones, Jr. and African American Studies Professor Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. sat down to discuss Jones’ new and freshman book, The Prophets. The material Jones traverses in his novel is formidable to say the least. Set on a slave plantation aptly referred to as “Empty”, two enslaved men named Isaiah and Samuel become unlikely lovers. And as their love faces resistance on the grounds of white supremacy, religion, and western constructions of gender and sexuality, they beautifully shake and transform the harmony of the plantation, nonetheless.

book reading

Photo by Collin Riggins

The evening began with a brief, yet moving, book reading by Jones. Pulling from the chapter Amos, he conveyed an integral theme of the novel: the tension between queer love and western doctrine. Jones noted that prior to the forced exodus of Africans from the continent, conceptions of gender and sexuality were drastically different than those today; without any categorization denominating so-called straightness and queerness, love is what defined relationships. However, in Amos, a character named Amos grapples with understanding Samuel and Isaiah’s deep desire for each other despite the dogmas of western manhood. “He knew it was wrong”, Amos broods. After all, heterosexual love “wasn’t just Christlike, that was sensible, right?” Nevertheless, he reaches a poignant conclusion: “They were bodies. They were in bodies. They just had no authority over theirs.” 

Posing these searing questions for listeners to ponder, the audience was left stunned. Soft hums of resonance and “amens” floated around the venue, culminating in a great round of applause that spoke to Jones’ ingenuity.

Following the book reading, Professor Glaude. then took the stage to ask a few questions. Glaude did not waste any time getting into the thick of conversation. Right off the bat, he asked “who are your people?”, to which Jones traced his genealogy, grounding his work in a tradition much bigger than himself. Jones reflected on how his earliest family had roots in Senegal until being uprooted and transported to England. Then, after the looming abolition of slavery, they were resultantly brought to America. However, one family member, Robert, did not survive the arduous journey. Jones explained that every man in his family thereafter has been named Robert to honor his legacy. To Jones, he not only embodies “his people'' in blood, but also all the way down to his name. 

conversation

Photo by Collin Riggins

Needless to say, the significance of the past, which is to say a collective black memory, seeps into the core of his work. In fact, it explains his reasoning for embarking on this project to begin with. To him, it only makes sense to pay homage to those who made him, a queer black man, being able to write The Prophets possible.

The conversation eventually pivoted to discuss some of his literary influences. Jones immediately pointed to the late writer, scholar, and Princeton Emeritus Professor Toni Morrison. With a passionate zeal, Jones spoke on his admiration for Morrison’s ability to take the English language and make it unequivocally black—or as he called it: “blacklish”. This influence rings abundantly true throughout The Prophets. As Glaude added, “there are echos of Morrison everywhere.”

Though beyond Morrison, he also mentioned the influence of James Baldwin and, above all, Black women writers in general. From Zora Nora Hurston to Octavia Butler to Ntozake Shange, Jones argued that the work of Black women authors does something that no other tradition has or can do: it speaks a truth that nobody wants to hear. That is precisely what drives Jones’ work and explains his courage to forge a genre of Black historical fiction that is centered in queerness beyond perversive instances of sexual assault. 

Glaude and Jones evidently could have talked until the crack of dawn. After assuring the audience that “this question is my last before opening the floor for Q&A”, Glaude could not seem to resist asking one more question, and then another, and then another. “I’m selfish”, he jokingly chided, to which Jones wittily responded, “He’s a Virgo.” This joyous dynamic that these two cultivated and maintained throughout the duration of the event spoke to them as thinkers, pioneers, and visionaries; just as Jones infused a raw, queer love into a plantation of terror, Glaude and Jones infused love and affection in their discussion of content inherently rooted in a history of pain. 

signing

Photo by Collin Riggins

 

To round out the discussion, Jones talked about what he wants his revolutionary work to do. Despite the complexity of The Prophet, his vision was simple. Jones wants folks to “stop creating artificial barriers to loving one another.” Moreover, he wants readers to understand the continuity of the systems of oppression that his work examines; just as there were mistresses, Jones remarked, “today we have Karens”. Both speak to the endless importance of The Prophets—a work that bears the potential to reconstruct ideas of what Black love has been, what Black love is, and what it will inevitably be. 

Indeed, it is bold, it is multidimensional, and it is queer.

To round out the evening, Jones fielded questions from the audience. After a series of generative exchanges about topics ranging from his religious upbringing to what makes him happy, Jones stuck around to sign and inscribe copies of The Prophets. It was only after everyone who wanted a signature got one that Jones left the Carl A. Fields Center. 

It goes without saying, an indelible mark was left on the Princeton community following this fruitful discussion. And it is safe to say that Robert Jones was equally moved. As he would later post on his Instagram, “Speaking with Dr. Glaude was an absolute blessing...[s]hout out the Black students of Princeton who in addition to being super-smart, are the epitome of grace and accomplishment against all odds.”