RACE AND ROMANCE
When Beverly Jenkins started reading romance, she recalls in this clip from Love Between the Covers, “there was nothing for somebody who looked like me. There were articles back then that said Black women couldn’t do historicals, couldn’t do romance fiction. But you know, they’ve been telling us that for two hundred years about just about anything.”
When does the story of African American romance fiction begin? How has the genre evolved, both separately from and in dialogue with, other varieties of American women’s writing? How have characters of color shaped the history of popular romance, from 19th-century sentimental heroines to E. M. Hull’s scandalous Sheikh Abdul ben Hassan, the character who made Rudolph Valentino famous? How have women authors of color used the romance genre to reimagine love and desire, history and resilience, the challenges of the present and hope for the future?
Popular Romance Project scholar Darlene Clark Hine says that the “backstory” of African American romance begins before emancipation, when enslaved Black women faced “the ever-present reality of sale, of disruption, of losing these children and these husbands—the rupture of the family, which was the biggest threat of them all.” Listen to her account of how people “tried to be together, even if it was just for a moment” in the love stories told in the face of this threat reality—and sung, in the words of folk songs and blues. For fictional visions of romantic and familial love resisting the terror of slavery, check out Beverly Jenkins’s classic Underground Railroad romance Indigo and her pirate romance Captured, based in part on the actual multiracial crew of the pirate ship Whydah. Find out more about the Whydah with this timeline from National Geographic.
For decades after the Civil War, says Popular Romance Project scholar Darlene Clark Hine, there was “an obsession with family reconstruction”: with marriages that were finally sanctioned by law; with family gatherings; with the search for lost children and relatives. That obsession echoes in the themes of family-building and reconnection in Beverly Jenkins’s contemporary “Blessings” novels, which sometimes feature the descendants of beloved characters and settings from her historical romances.
So, from 1877 to the turn of the century, you have a period of increasing disfranchisement for African Americans. The gains of Reconstruction are being aggressively pushed back against throughout the country; but you have a whole set of African American women writers who write incredibly optimistic Victorian love plots, marriage plots.
As the civil rights gains of Reconstruction were rolled back from the late 1870s to the end of the 1890s, says project scholar William Gleason, African American writers wrote “incredibly optimistic” love stories, enabling middle-class Black women not just to escape, temporarily, the trials of the present but also to take heart and “reimagine the future.”
Conseula Francis spots one vivid exception to this rule: the campaign photos, anniversary videos, and other representations of Michelle and Barack Obama as a couple. You can also check out #BlackOutDay, a campaign to change perceptions of blackness.
But Black erotic romance author Zane works hard to shake off respectability for herself and her readers, without losing sight of love, according to Conseula Francis in herPopular Romance Project blog post “Zane and respectability.”
Gwen Osborne says that the current wave of African American romance dates back to 1992, the year that Terry McMillan’sWaiting to Exhale hit the New York Times bestseller list.
But, in her blog post “Romance in black papers” at The Popular Romance Project, historian Kim Gallon says that an important earlier wave has long been forgotten: the world of Black romance stories that filled newspapers and magazines in the 1920s-30s, full of millionaires, princesses, and thrilling tales of “Brown Love.”
Kim Gallon’s sleuthing turns up another forgotten bit of Black romance history: the tremendous popularity of interracial love stories in the 1930s Black press. Read an excerpt from “How Much Can You Read about Interracial Love and Sex without Getting Sore?: Readers’ Debate over Interracial Relationships in the Baltimore Afro-American.”
Although it ends on a bittersweet note, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God(1937) remains a favorite of Black romance readers—in fact, Kim Gallon calls it the Black feminist love story. Darlene Clark Hine agrees, and puts the novel squarely at the heart of the Black romance tradition.
In the 1950s, the Golden Age of comics, tales of Black love came to artful life in the pages of Negro Romance. Investigate the world of Black comics and click through the pages of one story, “Possessed,” with the PBS History Detectives.
Activist and philosopher bell hooks grew up reading Harlequin romances, she recalls in Communion: the Female Search for Love, and those stories of love’s “transformative power” still resonate in her essay “Love as the Practice of Freedom.” Marquette University philosopher Michael Monahan explores hooks’s theory and politics of love.
It’s easy to say this is a celebration of Asian masculinity and sexuality. It’s about time.
But then I also wondered, is this a desired outcome? Would Asian men feel they are getting some equal treatment in mainstream media now that they’re starting to be depicted as attractive romantic heroes who actually get the girl?
“You have a lot of people who may not have wanted to buy an African American book with an African American cover,” Beverly Jenkins notes in Love Between the Covers. Authors of other multicultural romances face similar challenges—but not identical ones. Historical romance author Jeannie Lin says that Asian heroes rarely show up on book covers—and when they do, is it a “a celebration of Asian masculinity and sexuality” or just a new form of objectification?