Why does it matter?

Why does popular historical romance matter? Darlene Clark Hine, a professor of African American studies and history at Northwestern University, shares her thoughts, including her insistence that the encyclopedia Black Women in America include an entry on popular romance.


Why is popular romance important?

Well, first of all as a historian I want to make it perfectly clear that professionally trained historians do not own the history. The stories, the individual stories that deserve to be told, will probably never make it into most professional history books. So we need many venues to disseminate the stories, and I personally believe every story needs to be told. We should have even more life stories out here, and to have a person like Beverly Jenkins and Brenda [Jackson] to go back and take these episodes and these events and these ordinary examples of courage and adventure, if you will, and then to convey them to modern-day readers is really a good thing.

There were in fact black Buffalo Soldiers, and they were very important. The black Exodusters who created these towns—there were hundreds of communities and towns in the West, in Oklahoma, in Kansas, in Nebraska. We can’t convey what was going on in all of these towns, but a novelist can zero in on a composite character, a fictional composition of hundreds of people, and pull them together into a compelling story with love in the center of it and an arch that makes you want you to keep going—an arc rather—and reading. That’s a good thing. I’m excited about that! And that’s why I love them so much! Because they make the history accessible, and they do research, and they tell stories that are grounded.

When I was doing the encyclopedia of black women, editing that, I insisted that an entry be included on popular romance and the writings of people like Brenda and Beverly, because I think it is an underappreciated genre of storytelling and that professional historians often ignore or scoff at. But any medium that can be used with such great skill as exemplified in their artistry to convey the history and the stories of black experience in ways that will excite, and titillate, but educate audiences is a very good thing.

The readers can share this experience and share their reaction to it when they go to places like the Old Slave Market together, or they go out to Fort Huachuca or other historic landmarks and what-have-you that appear in these romance novels. It helps to build community, it helps deepen the understanding and the appreciation, but it also—as far as African American history and culture is concerned—lessens the pain. Because at some point people did become a little bit angry when they read what Beverly’s telling them; even if all the facts are correct, they still become a little bit angry that they didn’t hear about this before, that these things were not in the history books when they were in school. So you have to applaud people’s desire to learn their history and to search for it in creative ways and to use the mediums at their disposal that are near to them. So she’s doing a really good thing of making. . .  and most popular romance writers, I think, are trying to be very accurate, I don’t think its just Beverly. They try to have some historical grounding in the facts, in their creativity.

Download a transcript.

Share this