Wednesday, November 01, 2006

African-American Romances - A Short History

In 1865 'Julia C. Collins, a free black woman who lived in Williamsport, Pa., serialized The Curse of Caste [...] in The Christian Recorder, the newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church' (The New York Times). Whether or not it is the first published novel written by an African-American woman is a matter of controversy, but had it been completed it might have been the first romance written by an African-American. Unfortunately the author died before she could finish it, so the editors of the current edition from Oxford University Press have written two alternative endings, one 'The Happy Ending' and the other 'The Tragic Ending'. An earlier novel by the African-American William Wells Brown, Clotel; or, The President's Daughter (1853), ends tragically, and the heroine of Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig (1859) is abandoned by her husband.

In The Curse
The novel treads gingerly around issues of sexuality. The principal black women are essentially asexual. Claire [the heroine] is suddenly born on her mother’s deathbed, without warning that Lina was even pregnant.
“It was really dangerous for a black woman writer at this time to talk about passion and desire,” Mr. Andrews said. “There was a prejudice that black women were not faithful, not true to their marriage vows, and that marriage wasn’t prized by black people.”
The book differs from most novels of the period about mixed-race romance in that Lina and Richard [the heroine's parents] are allowed to marry and to be briefly, blissfully happy in the United States. “Typically,” Mr. Andrews said, “white writers and black writers who wrote about racial mixing pack them off to Italy or France.”
Ms. Collins, he said, is taking “the bold step of saying black women should be able to marry whomever they want.”
Monica Jackson recently posted an extremely thought-provoking item at Romancing the Blog about the publishing business and black authors. It seems to me that this is an issue which, among many other things, affects the history of the romance genre, and I've not seen much mention of African-American romances in the academic writing on the subject (though that could be because I haven't read widely enough).* On her own blog Monica offers a short history of black romance:
It wasn’t until the 1980’s that more than a very few romances with black characters appeared. Sandra Kitt [whose first book, Rites of Spring was published in the Harlequin American line in 1984 and whose Adam and Eva, also published in 1984, was 'the first Harlequin release to be written by a black author and to feature an African-American hero and heroine] and Francis Ray were pioneers. Gwendolyn Osborne wrote an excellent article on the subject of how black romance started. A portion of the romance reading market has always been women of color. Black women read romance and read it as voraciously as any group of white women. So what did black women read before the publishing industry allowed black heroines? They read white characters like everybody else.

When I was a teenager and reading romances, I wondered why you had to be white to fall in love according to books. If a black woman wanted to write romance before the mid-nineties, basically she had to write white characters. To put it in perspective, what if a white romance writer couldn’t write white characters and sell until 1994?

In the mid 90’s New York started seeking black popular fiction writers. We have Terry McMillan to thank for this primarily, because with the best selling status of Waiting to Exhale, she made them realize that not only do black people read; they spend money on books.

In 1994 Kensington Publishing started a line of romances featuring black characters, Arabesque. It did very well and Black Entertainment Television acquired it in 1998
If we look at the history of the romance genre in the USA in general, we can see that although romances written by Americans made up only a relatively small proportion of the romance novels published worldwide in the early 1970s, in subsequent decades African-American romances have not gone mainstream in the same way as romances written by non-black American authors.
In 1981, when Simon & Schuster launched Silhouette Books to challenge Harlequin’s domination of the market for short, sweet romance novels (often called “category romances”), most forms of the romance genre derived from British models and most writers hailed from Great Britain or the Commonwealth. Harlequin, a Canadian firm based in Toronto, did not at that time publish its own books at all. Instead, its entire list of paperback romances consisted of reprints of novels that were originally acquired, edited, and published by the British firm of Mills and Boon. As for the other romance subgenres, the lone exceptions to British dominance were the adventurous, sexy novels sometimes called erotic romances or “bodice rippers”, which had come to prominence in the previous decade. Erotic romances, unlike others, had been invented, shaped, and marketed by American writers and editors; and such authors as Rosemary Rogers and Kathleen Woodiwiss had turned many readers into avid fans of the genre [...]. But for the most part, these very popular American writers were few compared to the many British and Commonwealth writers of category, gothic, or historical romances, whose work was imported into the United States and Canada. (Mussell 1999: 1)
According to American writers who tried to break into the market in the late 1970s, the firm [Harlequin] showed little interest in recruiting writers from North America or in expanding the typical settings of their books into North American locales. (Mussell 1999: 2-3)
Simon and Schuster spotted a niche and began to publish Silhouette romances which were
a mirror image of Harlequin['s]. Their content was 'sweet contemporary'. The only variation on Harlequin’s content was to accentuate an American theme: The setting of the romance was to take place in the United States, and Silhouette’s hero[e]s and heroines were to reflect American values (Markert 1985: 85)
and, 'In addition, Silhouette recruited well-established Mills and Boon/Harlequin authors, such as Janet Dailey and Anne Hampson [who was not American], and also actively sought new North American authors' (Mussell 1999: 5). One can therefore see parallels with the current state of African-American romances, where African-American authors are recruited to write about African-American characters.

Harlequin bought Silhouette in 1984 and nowadays, with the Romance Writers of America having roughly 9,500 members and 144 chapters it's easy to forget that the American presence on the romance genre's scene is relatively new, and that the RWA was only 'founded in Houston, Texas, in 1980 by 37 charter members'. The Romantic Novelists' Association, by contrast, was founded in 1960, in the UK.

African-American romance authors would appear to have benefitted from the upheaval in the romance world that took place in the early 1980s.Gwendolyn Osborne writes that
By 1980, journalist Elsie B. Washington, writing under the pseudonym of Rosalind Welles, published Entwined Destinies. Believed to be the first-known romance featuring African-American characters written by an African-American author, Entwined Destinies was published under the Dell Candlelight imprint with editor Vivian Stephens.**

Stephens, one of the first African-American editors of romance fiction, bought the first works of several romance authors whose names now appear regularly on The New York Times best-seller's list. Later, during her tenure with Harlequin, Stephens was credited with updating and "Americanizing" the romance genre. She put into place the framework for the Harlequin American Romance, Harlequin Intrigue and Harlequin American Premier editions.

In 1985, Harlequin published its first romance by and about African-Americans with Sandra Kitt's Adam and Eva. [I found the date 1984 given in various other locations, including Sandra Kitt's website.]

Until 1994, no publishing house had a line devoted to black romance novels. Then along came Kensington Publishing, which became the first major house to develop a line of African-American romances called Arabesque. [...] In June of 1998, less than five years after the launch of Arabesque, Zacharius sold the line to black-owned Black Entertainment Television (BET). [Arabesque was sold to Harlequin in 2006 and is now one of the lines published by Harlequin's Kimani Press]
It would seem, however, that unlike the new American-set romances which would not be shelved separately from British, Australian, Canadian or New Zealand-set romances, and which, in fact, are probably what most American readers would think of simply as 'contemporary romance' (though Harlequin does retain a specific Harlequin American Romance line), the African-American romances remain separate. They are often shelved in special African-American sections and there are many lines which are labelled and marketed as African-American romances. Also, while some African-American romances are reviewed by the larger romance review sites (and All About Romance has had some in-depth columns on the issues related to book segregation and the difficulties some readers had in even finding AA romances in their local bookshops and libraries), there are also separate African-American romance review sites, such as Romance in Color. As Monica Jackson observed in her article, there are both advantages and disadvantages to being published in the African-American romance niche, but the Millenia Black case has brought the issue to the forefront of many people's minds and has led authors such as Monica Jackson, Millenia Black and Donna Hill to ask searching questions about the negative aspects of book segregation and why it persists.
  • Markert, John, 1985. ‘Romance Publishing and the Production of Culture’, Poetics, 14.1-2: 69-93.
  • Mussell, Kay, 1999. 'Introduction' in North American Romance Writers, ed. Kay Mussell and Johanna Tuñón (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press), pp. 1-9.

* Paula Morgan's 2003. ‘ “Like Bush Fire in My Arms”: Interrogating the World of Caribbean Romance, Journal of Popular Culture 36.4: 804-827, deals, as its title indicates, with Caribbean romances. Morgan notes that 'a definite innovation appears to be the creation of protagonists who reflect the multi-ethnic composition of this region's peoples. [...] One can expect these novels, at the very least, to undermine the myth that only Caucasian women can be beautiful' (2003: 807-808). Unfortunately I have not been able to find copies of Stephanie Burley's 'Shadows and Silhouettes: The Racial Politics of Category Romance', Paradoxa: Studies in World Literary Genres 5.13-14 (1999): 324-343 or Rita Dandridge's (2003) 'The Race, Gender, Romance Connection: A Black Feminist Reading of African American Women's Historical Romances', in Doubled Plots: Romance and History, eds. Susan Strehle and Mary Paniccia Carden (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi).

** 'referring to her position as the new editor of Candlelight Romances in 1979-1980, Vivian Stephens (1984) could say, ‘The line wasn’t really looked at to make any money or make a statement for Dell. It was just there’. This lackadaisical attitude toward romances by management allowed Stephens room to experiment.' (Markert 1985: 86)


  1. Over at Monica Jackson's blog Gwyneth Bolton's let me know of an important book to add to the bibliography on this topic:

    Dandridge, Rita B., 2004. Black Women's Activism: Reading African American Women's Historial Romances, African-American Literature and Culture, 5 (New York: Peter Lang).

    There's an index and extracts available here and here's a description:

    Black Women's Activism is the first book-length study of African American women's historical romances. This book examines romances written from 1989 to the present, and discusses their black heroines' resistance at particular moments in history - from the colonization movement to the Texas oil boom. Socio-historical perspectives, a womanist agenda, and an African-centered outlook inform the readings of female characters in the narratives of Francine Craft, Gay G. Gunn, Shirley Hailstock, Beverly Jenkins, and Anita Richmond Bunkley. Broadening the scope of the historical romance genre, and expanding the canon of African American literature, this book provides a more comprehensive image of the black female character and addresses gender issues previously unexplored in black fiction. This text should be used by librarians, historians, literary critics, writers, college-and graduate-level students, teachers, and romance readers.


    I've added links to webpages which give more details about these authors' historical romances, as they might interest both those interested specifically in AA romances and also some of the readers who'd like to read some non-Regency-set historicals.

  2. I've got the Paradoxa volume--if it's the one that is all about romances. I can copy it for you and send it to you.

  3. I've taught one Jenkins volume, "Something Like Love," to great success in my undergraduate romance classes. Thanks so much for posting this, Laura; I'm going to follow up on the authors and resources you mention before I teach the course again!

  4. Thanks, Sarah, but unfortunately it's in a different volume. Most of the articles on romance in Paradoxa are from volume 3.1-2 from 1997, but this particular article is from volume 5.13-14 from 1999-2000. I've noticed something which might be a problem on the Romance Wiki bibliography - I don't think we have all the items entered for the 3.1-2 volume, and I'm not sure why that is. Is it because some of them are interviews or anecdotes rather than academic essays?

  5. There are interviews in the Paradox volume. I don't have it with me now, of course, but there's definitely at least two interviews with authors. I guess that doesn't count as "academic"?

  6. I think they could count as academic, but it would depend on the tone and content of the interviews. But there are other items from that volume that aren't on the bibliography either, for example Tania Modleski's 'My Life as a Romance Reader' or Kay Mussell's 'Where's Love Gone?', and as I haven't read the volume, I don't know what selection criteria were being used by the person adding those items to the bibliography. I'm sure she had good reasons though.

  7. Well, Mussell's article should certainly be included, from what I remember. Introduction to the whole volume, IIRC, and definitely academic in tone.