African American romance

Chances are you never connected Bill Clinton’s reading habits with the emergence of African American romance novels in the 1990s. Find out what Gwen Osborne, who works at a law school and studies the history of African American romance, says about the subject. . .

Gwen talks about the history of African American romance, the books she’d like to read, and the two major factors that convinced the publishing industry in 1992 that they could make a profit selling African American romance novels.

Transcript

What sparked the rise in African American romance?

And in many instances throughout our history, African American women were encouraged to downplay their sexuality. And so when books about relationships between African American men and women became available, people gravitated towards them immediately.

At the time that I started reviewing for The Romance Reader there were not a lot of African American romances, and the editor asked me if I would mind reading other things and reviewing them so that kind of immersed me into the genre, and I started to study it in earnest to see what the different aspects on the different sub-genres were and really went into learning about the genre as opposed to just reviewing books that I read.

The first wave of African American romances were romances that were in the 19th century that were basically political in nature but the heroine had a relationship with a man that was political, social, and economic in nature as opposed to the sustainable relationship that led to courtship and marriage.

We were told that we were not lovable, loving beings in the 19th century or the 18th century, and here is a set of stories that countermands all of that.

Until the 1990s, romance publishers did not think that they could sell African American romance.

So what really changed things was the publication of Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale and the June 1992 appearance of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Terry McMillan on The New York Times bestsellers list. And particularly Terry McMillan, because Alice Walker and Toni Morrison were seen as academics. They had a crossover following. But Terry McMillan was relatively unknown and there were African American women who were actually buying her books.

Another thing that led to this was actually President Bill Clinton, who during his campaign for president mentioned that Walter Mosley was one of his favorite mystery writers.

This wave in interest in what African Americans were writing and reading stemmed from those two things, I believe.

What would you like to see next?

I would love to see more ethnic romances. I would love to see more romances geared towards women of a certain age, because particularly if writers are going to tap into that baby-boomer market. . .

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