In his 1985 essay “Here Be Dragons,” James Baldwin wrote: “At bottom, what I had learned was that the male desire for a male roams everywhere, avid, desperate, unimaginably lonely.” America’s attitudes toward sexuality, he added, are tragically, inextricably linked with its “ideals” of hyper-masculinity and racialized violence.
A few years later, a gay Black freshman at Brooklyn College named Robert Jones Jr. read that essay and felt a sense of relief. Here was the clearest statement of Black homosexuality and gender fluidity he had ever encountered in writing.
Out on Jan. 5, his debut novel, “The Prophets,” is in many ways a culmination of the homage he’s been paying to Baldwin ever since. At heart a love story, it centers on Samuel and Isaiah, two enslaved young men on a cotton plantation in antebellum Mississippi, and the consequences of their relationship for everyone else in their world, both Black and white.
In college and grad school, Jones read widely from the literature of the African diaspora. He struggled to find in it any instances of genuine attraction between Black men.
“Even when you get to the Harlem Renaissance, you have these Black queer writers writing very surreptitiously, very quietly about queerness, in between the lines,” he said in a video interview in November from the Bedford-Stuyvesant home he shares with his husband, Adrian Techeira, a lawyer, and their cat, Baldwin. “It’s not until you get to Wallace Thurman, and then eventually James Baldwin, that it’s more open.”
Before that, the passages Jones did find — in Harriet Jacobs’s “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” in Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” — all involved Black men being assaulted by white ones. “And I thought, OK,” he said, “but what about love?”
Morrison said that “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” The book Jones wanted to read, then wrote, dared to suggest not only that Black same-sex love exists, but that it has always existed.
“The Prophets” — with its passion between men, with its flashbacks to the African continent where a bisexual female king is confronted with a white slave trader’s violent misogyny — took 13 years to complete and publish, in part because Jones was afraid. “I had no template, and I knew the opposition I was going to face,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of pushback, because toxic masculinity is tied very deeply into this idea that homosexuality is the result of trauma.”
It frustrates him that there are still influential voices in the Black community saying that homosexuality is not natural, that it is a white conspiracy to further subjugate Black men. In this view, “you can only be a man if you are strong, dominant, heterosexual, cisgender,” he said. “And if you are not any of those things you are a white supremacist’s tool, being used to break up the Black family, to emasculate the Black man.”
Beneath Jones’s stately demeanor, his disarming humility and sense of humor, there is anger and sadness: at the injustices committed both then and now, to Africans and to African-Americans and to those who love whomever white men have told them not to.
In an effort to understand and combat those injustices, in 2008 Jones started the blog Son of Baldwin, a place for discussions of race, sexuality, gender and disability. Conversations he’s had with women and with brown and Indigenous and African people have complicated his ideas around oppression and privilege. “Yes, I am Black and queer,” he said, “but I am also male, educated, American. My job is to sit with that dissonance, and then do something about it.”
One post in particular — a YouTube video of a 2013 panel discussion on sexuality — gave Jones the proof he needed to feel that the novel he’d been working on was legitimate.
In the video, the British journalist Esther Armah explains that her Ghanaian father and great-grandfather always told her Africans had the same attitude toward sexuality that they had toward land: “There were just no boundaries.” Those came later, she said, and they were inherently political.
“If you said to my great-grandparents, ‘What is homosexuality?,’ they wouldn’t understand what you meant,” Armah continued. “It’s just love.”
“That was pivotal,” Jones said. “It gave me permission to believe and understand what I had known intuitively. But now I have evidence.”
Son of Baldwin helped Jones — who worked in the communications department at Brooklyn College for 10 years — make crucial connections in publishing. In 2016, the author Kiese Laymon, who followed both Son of Baldwin and Jones on Facebook for years, realized they were the same person. “I was like, wait wait wait, hold up, you’re Son of Baldwin?” Laymon said. “It was like when you find out who the superhero is.”
Laymon read his manuscript and immediately brought it to the literary agent PJ Mark. “I just knew that whatever he was working on was going to be fresh,” Laymon said. “But I did not think it was going to be, like, epically fresh. He created a new American book.”
Mark signed Jones, then sold “The Prophets” to Sally Kim, the editor in chief at Putnam who also edited Kiley Reid’s best-selling debut novel, “Such a Fun Age,” published in 2019. Mark said Jones was the first author he’d ever worked with who’d requested an in-person meeting before sending him pages.
“I think he felt vulnerable about releasing this book into the world,” Mark said.
There wasn’t just the public reaction Jones had to consider, there was also his own past. “I grew up in a house that was on my mother’s side Nation of Islam and on my father’s side Southern Baptist,” Jones said. “Where does a Black queer child fit into either of those territories?”
He came of age in 1980s Brooklyn, on the border of Gravesend and Bensonhurst, terrified. Of God, but also of the white kids who’d chase him and his Black peers home from school with bats and chains. He wasn’t far away from where Yusef Hawkins was killed by a white mob in 1989.
“People often talk about the South and their sundown towns,” Jones said. “I always tell them, in the North they don’t call them sundown towns, because they would do it in broad daylight.”
Nor did he feel safe to be himself even within his own family, who told him not to be gay, that homosexuality was a sin. “I had no role models to tell me what is the next step for a boy like me,” he said.
His mother, Joan Jones, was “considered the black sheep of the family because she bucked all the patriarchal norms,” he said, and “claimed atheism early on.” But her father, Alfred Benjamin, raised in Depression-era Hell’s Kitchen by parents who’d immigrated from St. Kitts, later joined the Nation of Islam, and in Jones’s words, “had very stringent ideas of what a man is supposed to be.” Jones and his grandfather never said they loved each other; they were only “as close as patriarchal masculinity allows men to be,” the author said.
But eventually something within him overrode the self-doubt. “There were these voices,” he said, “which I am attributing to the ancestral voice, that made me uncomfortable with that fear, and kept waking me up in the middle of the night to do it. And so I wrote it.”
Karen Maeda Allman, a bookseller at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle who identifies as multiracial and lesbian, called the result “the book we’ve been waiting for” — and she’s been in the industry for more than 30 years. “People like me knew being gay is not a new thing,” she said. “And yet where are the stories?”
There will be some people, Allman said, who “won’t want to go there.” She hopes they pick it up anyway. After all, as Laymon put it, “it’s one of those books that can change the world.”
Jones knows this kind of change is possible, because he’s seen it. One day in 2002, after he hadn’t seen Benjamin in more than a decade, he got a call from his 85-year-old grandfather out of the blue. “He goes, ‘Listen,’” Jones recalled. “‘I don’t exactly understand your lifestyle, but you are my grandson, and I love you.’” Benjamin died 11 years later.
“People can change,” Jones said. “That’s what it told me. It might take their entire lifetime, but people can change.”