America: We Owe it to Ourselves to Read This Book
Hey, America. Let’s turn off the television, postpone our Twitter fix, ignore for a time political diatribes, and read The Prophets, the National Book Award finalist novel by Robert Jones, Jr. Let’s read it slowly, because that’s the only way it can be read. Every time I opened the book, I felt that I, too, was lifting a burden and walking with it a long distance under the hot sun. Let’s read it page by page, no matter the anguish and the horrors we encounter there. Let’s read it in our homes and book groups, in our libraries and jails, in our universities and Walmart aisles. And having read it, we (most of us) won’t wonder any more why or how slavery affected our country and our society—from the beginning—and how or why it continues to affect us now, only a few generations past the end of the atrocities carried out in its name. We won’t wonder because we ourselves will have a small taste of what the institution of slavery was like, and what it did to people—to slaves, slave-owners, bystanders and those who inherited their lived reality. Because those inheritors are: us. Black and white. Straight and gay. Indigenous and immigrant. Northerner, Southerner, Westerner. Not one of us is untouched by slavery’s long, long grasp.
Let’s read this novel because Robert Jones, Jr. doesn’t just write, he testifies. It’s not for nothing that many of his chapters are named for books in the Old and New Testaments, as are the characters. This book blisters in the same way the Biblical book of Isaiah blisters in its rage against sin, foretelling of ruination, and promise of—somehow, maybe, conditionally—healing. But the prophets of the title are not the Jewish or the Christian prophets of the Bible. They are the ancestors of people stolen from their homes on the African continent. “Yes, we too have been punished,” these female prophets say, speaking like a chorus of a Greek tragedy. “We all have. Because there are no innocents. Innocence, we have discovered, is the most serious atrocity of all” (2).
Innocence, by this definition, is a willful unknowing, a refusal to look, a forgetting, a denial. So America, let’s read this book. There is no tranquility—no innocence—in not knowing what we must know about our communal past, and about ourselves.