Friday, November 03, 2006

Black and White

Some people like to see things in black and white. It's simpler that way. But, as Benjamin Zephaniah's poem 'White Comedy' demonstrates, these colours have particular connotations:
I waz whitemailed
By a white witch,
Wid white magic
An white lies,
Branded by a white sheep
Lived off the white economy.
Caught and beaten by de whiteshirts
I waz condemned to a white mass,
Don't worry,
I shall be writing to de Black House.
Zephaniah's reversal of black and white in this poem reveals the extent to which, in English, the colour white has, both in the past and in the present, been associated with goodness and cleanliness (cleanliness being next to godliness), while black has often been associated with evil and dirt. The continued acceptance of these connotations is demonstrated by the following quotations from a webpage about a software programme to be used to create colour schemes:
White is associated with light, goodness, innocence, purity, and virginity. It is considered to be the color of perfection. White means safety, purity, and cleanliness. As opposed to black, white usually has a positive connotation. [...] In advertising, white is associated with coolness and cleanliness because it's the color of snow.
Black, on the other hand, has dangerous, sinister connotations, it
is associated with power, elegance, formality, death, evil, and mystery. Black is a mysterious color associated with fear and the unknown (black holes). It usually has a negative connotation (blacklist, black humor,'black death').
In the romance genre whiteness (blonde hair, or the redhead with very pale skin) has often been associated with beauty and purity. In E. M. Hull's The Sheik, for example, the heroine, Diana Mayo (whose name is that of the virgin goddess of the hunt), has a 'thick crop of loose, red-gold curls' (page 3 of the Project Gutenberg edition). Even today 'The majority [of heroines in sheik romances] are slender, with long fair hair' (Sheikhs and Desert Love), though there are exceptions, such as Brenda Jackson's Delaney's Desert Sheikh, in which the heroine is African-American.

Dandridge notes of the post-1989 historical romances written by African-American authors that they challenge the convention which so frequently links the heroine's beauty to her pallor:
The new image is that of the dark-hued heroine who triumphs. This figure revises the mulatta stereotype dominant in early African American historical romances and descended from the tradition of the blond, fair lady populating the traditional genre. In the later works, the dark-skinned heroine is a masculinized or toughened character, whereas her light-complexioned counterpart is too often perceived in black male and female fiction as too weak to effect societal change. [...] Dispensing with weak, light-complexioned heroines, post-1989 black writers of historical romances give victory to strong black women darker than mulattas. These narratives celebrate black women's victories in the tradition of black women pioneers who paved the freedom path. (2004: 4-5)
The associations between the features of the white heroine and beauty would, however, seem to persist in some of the Carribbean romances analysed by Morgan:
In some of the texts [...] curious permutations remain. Whereas the dark-skinned hero dovetails neatly with the bronzed Caucasian hero of the traditional formulaic romance, the requirements for female beauty are far more stringent, leading to peculiar formulations. [...] Charles's heroine may be brown of skin, yet her face, which is "a legacy from her Spanish ancestors, was that of a Renaissance painting of the Madonna" [...]. In this case, the darkness is, in a literal sense, no more than skin deep; every other feature remains Caucasian in ancestry and in construction. (2003: 808)*
Dandridge and Morgan's observations about the skin tones of African-American heroines reveal that skin colour remains an important issue, not just for 'white' people, but also for African Americans themselves. Monica Jackson's contemporary paranormal romance Mr. Right Now opens with the quotation 'I am black, but comely...' from the Song of Songs, thus affirming that black is beautiful. Later one of the characters asks 'Is he light or dark-skinned?” [...] Danni wasn't asking if he were white or black, she was asking about skin tone.' This isn't generally a question that would be asked about a white person perhaps because, as Kathry Perry observes, 'Gradations of shade in the skin colour of white people [...] carry little of the corresponding significance that slavery attached to the range of colour in black people' (1995: 176). In a short online novella, The Choice, also by Monica Jackson, Evelyn, the heroine, has very noticeably darker skin than her sisters:
Deb was beautiful, trim and small with smooth skin that looked like honey and long black relaxed hair hanging over her shoulders and down her back. Deb favored her other two younger sisters and her mother’s sister, Aunt Jean. Not for the first time did Evelyn wonder why she’d gotten such a different set of numbers in the gene lottery, with her stocky body, dark skin and short, kinky hair. [...]

Her body was sturdy and plump, not willowy with feminine curves like her sisters. Her skin was the color of Hershey’s chocolate, her features distinctly African. Brothers who would turn all the way around when one of her sisters passed wouldn’t give her a second glance on the street.
Of course, this isn't just about aesthetics and which colours or types of physical characteristics are more pleasing to the eye. Colour is usually interpreted as an indication of racial origin and Evelyn's appearance, for example, is described as being considered less beautiful not just because her skin is darker but because it, her hair, her body-shape and features are 'distinctly African'. Steig, writing about 'Indian romances' (i.e. romances set in India and written by British authors during the period 1890-1930) notes that:
All authors of Indian Romances during this period were firmly committed to the notion that the two groups [Indians and British] were different in fundamental ways and should remain separate. They would have agreed with the mother of two girls in a Fanny Penny novel that “there was very little romance when it was a question of color.” [...] Indian Romances were clearly on the heredity side of the heredity vs. environment debate. The theme “blood will tell” recurs again and again. (Stieg 1985: 7)
Stieg adds that
When sex between English and Indians rears its ugly head, Indian Romances become almost-if not actually-hysterical. The credo of the Romance was “that nature itself has built a wall between East and West” and any interracial connection violated that natural law. There is more than an implication that Indians commonly engaged in deviant forms of sexual activity to intensify the reaction. (1985: 8)
Teo adds that in these romances 'If interracial love was to be contemplated, it could not be between an Indian man and an English woman, only between an English man and a high-caste Indian woman' (2004).

In the context of this sort of attitude, where genetics is thought to inexorably shape a character's personality, a novel such as Julia Collins' 1865 The Curse of Caste with 'its dominant themes of interracial romance, hidden African ancestry, and ambiguous racial identity' can be read as a challenge to simplistic, racist divisions between black and white, good and bad. On the other hand, as implied in Dandridge's comments about the very dark-skinned heroines of the recent historical romances, the mixed-race and paler-skinned heroine might be taken as an indication of capitulation to white aesthetic and cultural values. This ambiguity of interpretation exists in many other texts which deal with race. Is the marriage of Shylock's daughter to a Christian in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice a triumph of inter-racial harmony, understanding and tolerance, or is it a way of destroying Shylock by denying him the possibility of having fully Jewish grandchildren who are aware of, and proud of, their Jewish heritage?
in late-fifteenth-century Iberia, and increasingly throughout sixteenth-century Europe, the idea that meaningful national identities are determined immutably by inherited 'blood' began to take hold [...]. In The Merchant, Jessica herself enters this discourse – against the 'blood' fatalists. Of Shylock, she says, 'though I am a daughter to his blood, / I am not to his manners' (II.iii.18-9) (from a review written by Rebecca Nesvet)
Is the fact that Daniel Deronda, in George Eliot's novel of that name, can only marry the Jewish heroine once he discovers that he himself is Jewish (and the fact that the Jewish heroine rejects a non-Jewish suitor) an indication that individuals should not marry outside their own racial group? If we return to romance, we find that in E. M. Hull's The Sheik, the hero is not, in fact, Arab in origin and the heroine 'learns that she need harbour no further qualms about having sex with a man of a different race. It turns out that he is actually as white-skinned as she (though, of course, a touch more sun-bronzed) and is the son of a British peer and his strikingly beautiful Spanish wife' (Cadogan 1994: 130). Modern sheik romances do feature heroes who are Arab or Beduin, but 'In most cases, the heroines of these stories are women who hail from progressive countries, such as the United States, Canada, Australia or Great Britain' (Sheikhs and Desert Love). In many cases 'while the sheik’s country is often described as a utopian state where the people are happy and rich, it is also backwards and needs modernizing. [...] Often, the heroine somehow has the key to this modernization' (Taylor 2003). Is the heroine's role to 'tame' and civilise the noble savage? Or can the modern sheik romances be seen as rejecting the racism of the earlier works in this sub-genre?

When it comes to that other group of 'noble savages', the Native American, we find
the figure of the Native American in the widely popular "Indian romance," as the industry has named these novels that depict a love affair culminating in marriage between a European American character (usually the heroine) and a full- or half-blood Native American. Like Cooper and previous writers, the Native American in these texts represents more of the American cultural imaginary; these novels do not reflect reality so much as fantasy and include a mythical depiction of the tribal community as an integral part of that fantasy. (Wardrop 1997)
McCafferty has analysed a sample of these 'Savage' romances (they all feature the word 'Savage' in the title' and would appear to be historical romances) and finds that
The basic story formula is as follows: young, beautiful, white, affluent woman meets young, handsome, Native American man. Eighty percent of the time, players meet along border spaces, where the female has fled from an economically privileged but repressively gendered role. [...] Native lovers, “pure” or “half-pure,” come to accept mixed blood in themselves/their children, through the catylyst of romantic love for the white hero[ine]. In doing so they overcome the dominant model of oppositional racism, in favor of “miscegenation.” (1994: 46-47)
These romances about sheiks and Native Americans, then, present mixed-race relationships in a positive light, though they often emphasise the role of the white woman in 'civilising' the sheik or present a hightly idealised portrait of the world of the Native American hero. The latter 'offers as symbolic capital a utopian society in which women are valued for their social contributions; where they are sexually assertive members of a group distinctive for cooperation and solidarity' (McCafferty 1994: 51).

Romances perhaps use racial difference/difference in skin-colour and the differences in culture between the tall, dark, handsome and 'othered' Arab or Native American hero and the pale, beautiful heroine to reinforce the binary opposition of gender which is already emphasised in many romances. As Taylor observes,
The central ethnic/racial/national identification in the category romance, the non-Other condition, is that of the heroine, which is generally white Anglo Westerner. Thus, the male Other ethnic/racial/national positions do not just include the Arab sheik, but often also the Greek tycoon, the Italian count-- a type of aristocratic Mediterranean lover.
But if the tall, dark, handsome, male and 'Other' role can be filled by powerful men of Arab, Mediterranean and Native American origin, why is it so rare to find African-American heroes, who would also be tall, dark, handsome and male, in the non-African-American romance lines and in the general romance sections of bookshops? African-American heroes can be found in large numbers in modern romance novels, but they seem generally to be confined to the segregated African-American romance lines and African-American sections of many bookshops.

One possible answer to why this might be the case is suggested by McCafferty is that
In the choice of Native American (rather than African-American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Filipino, or Japanese American) lover, a tension concerning romantic love’s vulnerability to economic instability is avoided. The myth runs that the Native American man lived comfortably off the land (1994: 51).
The sheik too offers economic security, which is an important aspect of the romance fantasy for many readers (the hero of the popular Harlequin Presents/Mills & Boon Modern line, for example, is always 'wealthy'). I suspect, however, given that there are plenty of affluent, successful African-Americans, that financial status is not the only factor which impedes the acceptance of black heroes in mainstream contemporary romances.

As we have seen, racist attitudes towards sheiks, Indians and Native Americans did, in novels from an earlier period, preclude them from being cast as heroes. It is worth remembering too that where these heroes are present in modern romances they are usually paired with a white heroine. To my knowledge, romances featuring both a Native American hero and a Native American heroine, or a sheik and an Arab heroine are few or non-existent in the Western romance genre. Nor am I aware of many modern, Western romances which feature non-white heroines paired with a white man. This is not to say that there are not exceptions, but they remain rare (some are to be found here).

Inter-racial relationships between white and African-American characters would seem to have remained problematic for the romance genre and in Mr Right Now the black heroine, Luby, tries to resist her attraction to a white man (the hero): 'He’d probably never be attracted to a black woman, and to be frank, he wasn’t what I wanted either'. She also questions the motives of white women who seek out sexual relationships with black men:
Danni liked black men and black men only, although she was a petite, pretty blonde with a generous chest and big blue eyes. I know, once you go black, you don't go back, but it was deeper than that. She had issues and apparently sleeping with black men helped.
Most white girls like that were subconscious racist bitches wanting only to degrade themselves, but I’d known Danni long enough to see she didn’t have a bigoted bone in her body.
The suspicion about the motivations of people in mixed-race relationships can come from both black and white people, even from some of those individuals themselves engaged in a mixed-race relationship. Kathryn Perry writes that
Many white people are wary of discovering that the myths of black sexuality have spilt over into their own imaginations. Uncomfortable to be seen to have 'a thing' about black people, they deny that their desire may also encompass their partner's blackness. Others unashamedly desire the 'forbidden fruit' of racist mythology. (1995: 174)
Issues of race remain highly divisive and controversial within society and within the romance-reading and writing community, as suggested by the history of the African-American romance and African-American authors' ambivalence about courting a white readership (Monica Jackson, for example, has said that 'Disloyalty to the [African-American] niche is perceived as disloyalty to the readers who shell out their dollars to support us and our work. How can we diss them?'). Discussions of race generally, and of sexual relationships between members of different races may create unease. They can question the very foundations of 'race' itself and the cultural differences (and perceived differences) which have grown up around them. They may not do so as incontrovertibly as the
DNA analyses [which] illuminate the raging scientific debate about whether there is anything real to the notion of race.
"There's no genetic basis for any kind of rigid ethnic or racial classification at all," said Bryan Sykes, the Oxford geneticist and author of The Seven Daughters of Eve. "I'm always asked is there Greek DNA or an Italian gene, but, of course, there isn't. . . . We're very closely related."
Likewise, The New England Journal of Medicine once editorialized bluntly that "race is biologically meaningless" (CNN, from The New York Times, 2003)
but even if race is 'biologically meaningless', racism exists, and cultural diversity is often tied up with a perception of racial/national identity. It's an issue to ponder while looking at the photo of these babies (we're discussing romance, and given the popularity of babies in romance, I thought I'd finish up with a couple of them):
Beautiful baby twins Alicia and Jasmin Singerl certainly make people look twice.
Alicia has dark brown eyes and complexion, while Jasmin is blue-eyed and fair-skinned.
Experts say the chance of twins being born with such different physical characteristics is about a million to one.
Conceived naturally, the sisters from Burpengary, north of Brisbane, were born at Caboolture Hospital in May. (The Courier Mail)
  • Cadogan, Mary, 1994. And Then Their Hearts Stood Still: An Exuberant Look at Romantic Fiction Past and Present (London: Macmillan).
  • 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).
  • McCafferty, Kate, 1994. ‘Palimpsest of Desire: The Re-Emergence of the American Captivity Narrative as Pulp Romance’, Journal of Popular Culture, 27.4: 43-56.
  • Morgan, Paula, 2003. ‘ “Like Bush Fire in My Arms”: Interrogating the World of Caribbean Romance', Journal of Popular Culture 36.4: 804-827.
  • Perry, Kathryn, 1995. 'The Heart of Whiteness: White Subjectivity and Interracial Relationships', in Romance Revisited, ed. Lynne Pearce & Jackie Stacey (New York: New York University Press), pp. 171-184.
  • Stieg, Margaret F., 1985. 'Indian Romances: Tracts for the Times', Journal of Popular Culture, 18.4: 2-15.
  • Taylor, Jessica, 2003. '"And you can be my Sheikh": Gender, Race, and Orientalism in Contemporary Romance Novels', an online essay.
  • Teo, Hsu-Ming, 2004.'Romancing the Raj: Interracial Relations in Anglo-Indian Romance Novels', History of Intellectual Culture, 4.1.
  • Wardrop, Stephanie, 1997. 'Last of the Red Hot Mohicans: Miscegenation in the Popular American Romance', MELUS, 22. 2, Popular Literature and Film: 61-74. [Unfortunately this article refers to only two of the modern romances in this sub-genre, both published by Zebra,so the sample size is extremely small.]

* I wonder what Faith Smith's Smith 1999 'Beautiful Indians, Troublesome Negroes, and Nice White Men: Caribbean Romances and the Invention of Trinidad' in Caribbean Romances: The Politics of Regional Representation, ed. Belinda Edmondson (Charlottesville, VA: UP of Virginia), pp. 163-182 has to say about race and representations of race in these romances. It's an item I haven't been able to find and read.


  1. FWIW, Suz Brockmann also has Harvard's Education, which has both an African-American hero and heroine. The heroine from her most recent single title is Asian-American, and I think she's about to have an Hispanic-American hero in her next book.

  2. I've just come across another one to add to the list of exceptions. Mary Jo Putney was discussing the re-release of her Angel Rogue and she says that the heroine,

    Maxima Collins is ‘half Mohawk and all-American,” [...] One reason for Maxie’s mixed heritage is that romances with native Americans usually feature Plains tribes. Plus, it’s almost always the hero who has Indian blood.

    Naturally, I thought this needed changing.

    I did a double-check, and it is in fact on AAR's list of inter-ethnic romances, but there it's listed with it's original title, The Rogue and the Runaway, from when it was a Signet Regency, and before it got reworked into single-title length.

    Brenda Jackson's had romances featuring black couples published in the Silhouette Desire line (see here for details about her Westmoreland series, for example) but I do think that, as Putney's comments make clear, there are certain unwritten rules about the racial origins of the couples 'allowed' in the mainstream of the genre. The exceptions are still few in number, and accompanied by comments like Putney's, or put on a special list, which makes it clear that the 'rules' are still in effect. But that doesn't mean that things aren't changing. They clearly are: what readers will accept nowadays is obviously very different from what they'd accept in the days when the sheik had to turn out to be a man of European origins in disguise.