Racism in Romance

Some minor link sluttage:

An excellent overview of race and racism in romance is in the most recent edition of At The Back Fence at All About Romance.

I don’t have much to add to the dialogue, except my puzzlement at the whole “African American Literature” section in certain bookstores. It didn’t even occur to me to look for black romances there, for example, until somebody pointed out that certain stores, like Borders, sometimes shelve their black romances there. You don’t generally see, say, Asian American lit, or Hispanic American lit, etc. etc. pushed into their respective little niches in stores. That, more than anything else, says volumes about how very much black people are viewed as the Other.

Oh! And Monica and LLB have finally kissed and made up. Or at least e-mailed and made up. Champagne all around! Summon the dancing girls! Free elephant rides for everyone!

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  1. 1
    fiveandfour says:

    The separate section for African American work just popped up recently at a couple of the bookstores I frequent and it took me aback at first.  It was almost as though suddenly having a separate section was like announcing “Here’s a whole new genre of book!”  I have mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, if you’re looking for a SciFi adventure or a chick lit story, it certainly makes it easy to see your options within that narrowed focus when they’re all shelved there together.  Thus, if these books are meant to specifically address the African American experience I can see why it makes some sense to have a section for them. 

    On the other hand, I’ve somehow read a lot of books featuring characters from early 20th century upper class England, but I’ve never seen them in a separate section.  Human stories about human experiences have always been shelved generally together regardless of race or religion and I’ve always liked that.  I’ve liked finding a book featuring characters in Colonial South America bumped up against a book featuring the sea escapades of 18th century adventurers.  It makes it more egalitarian somehow – that each one of those stories is equally likely to take you to a place you’ve never been and introduce you to people you’ve never met.

    I think that analogy of making such books something “Other” is fitting.  Perhaps the intent was to make that something other more special in a positive way, to highlight literary achievement for some authors that might not otherwise be recognized by the audience they were aiming for (those people interested in stories touching upon the African American experience).  But this decision also means that maybe the audience for these books won’t be as large as the authors were hoping for because people like me that are looking in the literary fiction section for something to catch their eye and who therefore come across lots of worthy stuff quite randomly, won’t necessarily find these books because they’ve been segregated and shelved somewhere else in the store.

    In short, if this issue were to be weighed on one of those scales like you see being held by blind justice, for me that scale would be teetering up and down, perhaps coming finally to rest on the “I don’t like the idea” side.  I’m not sure yet, though – I think I need to see some more comments by others to make up my mind.

  2. 2
    Doug Hoffman says:

    Hmm. That might explain why I couldn’t find any of Monica’s books at Barnes and Noble (Medford) on Saturday. I did the dumbass thing and looked in Romance.

  3. 3
    fiveandfour says:

    After about an hour, it occurred to me that an argument can be made that my reading early 20th century stories set in England involving upper class people is probably no coincidence since that likely describes a great number of books on the shelves at any given library or book store. 

    Perhaps that’s argument enough in favor of just mingling African American stories in with all other literature?

  4. 4
    dl says:

    Don’t like the seperate African American section, wasted several hours and three trips to Borders before I figured it out.  It’s dumb.  Why do I have to know the race of a good author before I can locate their book on the shelf? Also think readership would improve if books are just shelved by genre.

  5. 5
    Darla says:

    Put me down on the “don’t like it” side of having a separate section for African-American romances. 

    My main objection is that it keeps average romance readers from books they might very well enjoy.  I don’t go into a bookstore thinking I’d like to read an AA romance—I go in thinking I’d like to read a romance, so I look in the romance section.  And I don’t think that’s unusual.  Maybe I’m naive, and the general population is more racist than I think they are, but I’d guess that AA romances shelved in the general romance section would sell better than ones hidden away in the African American Literature section.  Or maybe the publishers have already studied this and determined that segregation is how they sell, and I’m being naive again.

    The other problem I have with segregating the books is that it makes it seem as though romance novels by AA authors can’t compete with other romance novels.  From the ones I’ve read, this isn’t the case, but segregation sure makes it look like that’s what the publishers think.

    It all ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Segregating AA romances because only people interested in The African American Experience would want to read them ensures that those are the only people who find them.

    They’re kind of like romance as a whole—how often have we complained about the assumptions that romance can’t compete with real literature or that it’s only of interest to women?  And AA romance is considered even below that?  It can’t compete with real romance and is only of interest to black women?  Somebody must have a really low opinion of AA romances in general.

    I find myself offended that it’s assumed I’m not interested in reading about anyone who’s not Just Like Me.  To tell you the truth, I don’t think I’ve ever actually read a book about anyone who is Just Like Me. 

    Okay, who are some good AA romance authors?  I already know about Monica Jackson, Donna Hill, Rochelle Alers, Francis Ray, Brenda Jackson, & Celeste Norfleet, all of whom I’ve enjoyed.  I have an urge to put my money where my mouth… er… fingers are.

  6. 6
    Eddie Adair says:

    Okay. “Studies” sections, such as Native American Studies, African American Studies, Women’s Studies, etc. are valid, because obviously the books are analyses of various aspects pertaining to [insert group here]. But to have an African-American LITERATURE section? Come on, Borders!

    What would happen if they did a throwback to recent history and started putting all female authors’ books under “Women’s Literature”? Because Lawd knows that Ayn Rand, Toni Morrison, Aphra Behn, Danielle Steele and Jeanette Winterson all have the same perspective and the same style of writing, much as Malcolm X, Terry MacMillan, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker and ZANE all write exactly the same.

  7. 7

    Over here Borders have created a new “Black” fiction section, which seems weird, for all the reasons outlined. No romances in it, though. Since we’re not so well-developed in the UK, romantically-speaking, they just lump all the romances together at the back of the store, as far from the “proper” books as possible.

    This is also the first time I’ve encoutered this sort of thing in the UK, so assumed this was an American thing? British shops (so far) seem to avoid this, probably ‘cos they don’t stock enough romances to categorise them further. (They’ll also hide them in the fiction and sci-fi if they’re very well-known writers.)

    But saying that, most of the authors mentioned don’t seem to appear over here at all. LA Banks is a writer that I glom, but if it weren’t for one very good (but very expensive) independent shop, I wouldn’t have found her at all.

  8. 8
    Jenny K says:

    heh

    I also think the idea of an african american literature section is dumb.

    Apparently not everyone does though, judging by the number of people who come into the store that I work at not only asking where all our black authors are, but who are also quite upset when we explain that they are in fiction (or non-fiction, as the case may be) just like everyone else.

  9. 9
    Alyssa says:

    I’m looking forward to Monica’s upcoming column for Romancing the Blog. Should be interesting.

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