Zane and respectability
People are often taken aback when I tell them I’m writing about Zane as a romance author—including, and maybe particularly, other romance authors. For the uninitiated, Zane is a wildly popular writer of erotica, having carved out space for sexually explicit tales of couplings between black men and black women (and black women and white men, and black women and black women, etc). She writes unapologetically about sex, intends to get you all hot and bothered, and believes she is helping to free black women from inhibitions created by what scholar Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham calls “the politics of respectability.”
If this was all Zane did, she would be worthy of critical attention. Sociologist Shayne Lee calls her an erotic revolutionary, someone who challenges “traditional scripts that offer men greater space to indulge in a fuller range of sexual expression.” In fact, Lee asserts that “Zane arguably has more impact on black sexual politics than any other figure in contemporary American culture.” But, I would argue, there’s more going on in her work. Her books may promise sex and titillation, and indeed, you’ll find plenty of both. Yet as racy as Zane’s stories are, they are also, very often, love stories.
The Romance Writers of America list two requirements for the romance genre: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. To this definition Jennifer Crusie adds an explicit discussion of the ways in which the romance genre “often directly contradict[s] patriarchal common wisdom” and provides a space for women to speak about their lives—their desires, their frustrations, their fantasies—without apology or explanation. As a scholar of African American literature with a particular interest in the work of black women, black popular romance provides an intriguing site to examine narratives of black female desire rather than (as is often in the case in black female literary fiction) narratives of black female suffering and/or degradation.
If we read Zane’s work not as simply stories about sexual escapades and/or the readers’ sexual titillation, but rather as stories about the desire for emotional satisfaction on the part of both the characters and the readers, we open up a cultural space for new conversations about representations of black female pleasure and desire, a topic we pay scant attention in popular culture and in academic circles. And if we can read Zane’s work this way, other black erotica might well reward this new approach as well.
Certainly not all of Zane’s work holds up to this kind of scrutiny. Sometimes erotica is simply erotica. But novels like Addicted and Nervous challenge our notions of black female sexuality by giving us sexually adventurous and courageous heroines who are not punished for the good sex they are having, while also encouraging us to rethink what it means to be a “respectable” black woman. In prioritizing and narrating black women’s desires, sexual and otherwise, Zane and her fellow authors—both of black popular romance and of black erotica—are providing a space for black women to reimagine themselves and the world in which they live and love.
Conseula Francis is an associate professor of English and the director of African American studies at the College of Charleston. Find out more about Conseula Francis.