I went a Google-hunting for a few links to Black romance reviews until I find find time on my tuffet to write some myself, and I found a very interesting article by Gwendolyn Osborne, aka “The Word Diva,” on AALBC.com. In her examination of Black romance, It’s All About Love, Osborne examines the stereotypes and issues facing romance, but more specifically, Black romance and the Black readers of romance novels. In short, Black romance fights the preconceptions about romance, as well as preconceptions and prejudices about Black women, and Black relationships. Note: I don’t know when this article was written, so if these quotes are profoundly out of date, I apologize.
Drawing from quotes from authors like Beverly Jenkins as well as from romance readers, Osborne examines the growth of the Black romance subgenre, and the social realities faced both by readers and by the characters within the novels:
[Renee A. Redd, director of Northwestern University’s Women’s Center, says] “They [romance novels] offer a substitute for those who have resigned to never really being able to find a fulfilling love in their actual lives. The reality of a dearth of available straight Black men for straight Black women is a disconcerting and painful issue before us. For a long time we have lived with the idea of the strong Black woman, who by implication can do without a romantic relationship if she must, but the truth is that she would rather not.”
This acknowledgement the social reality of the lack of marriageable African American men denotes the difference between sister-girl fiction and romance fiction, says second-generation romance reader Jean Dalton of New York City. “In Waiting to Exhale, four educated and successful Black women sat around complaining about Black men who were unable to commit, preferred white women, unemployed, incarcerated, gay, adulterous or sexually inadequate, etc. African-American romance heroines are more in charge of their futures. They aren’t sitting around waiting to exhale.”
Black romance heroines are located within a unique – and important – social and political culture, both in the fiction worlds they inhabit, and as part of the world inhabited by their readers.
While the theme of many contemporary romances relies heavily on the self-actualization of the heroine, Black romances also navigate a minefield as they struggle to portray Black protagonists that are very, very different from the majority of images of Black relationships portrayed in popular entertainment media:
As Emma Rodgers of Dallas’ Black Images Book Bazaar says, “African-American romance novels are so popular because they reflect the values of the majority of the Black community [better] than most other types of media. The men and women are educated professionals, gainfully employed . . . or are entrepreneurs, upwardly mobile. The women are independent, career-minded with goals. Both are law-abiding citizens. Readers seldom see these images reflected on the evening news or in the daily paper.”
But soft! What criticism from scholars through yonder window breaks? It is the critics, and they don’t like the sex. No, seriously: the idea of sexual content in a Black romance is a target of some sharp criticism, because the “the open sexual expression in romance novels can only reinforce negative stereotypes about Black women’s sexuality. Renee Redd says, ‘I think most Black women still believe that the sexual expressiveness allowed the women in romance novels and to women of other races is not equally extended to Black women.’”
Plus, there’s that lovely old romance=porn accusation, which of course raises it’s engorged and stupid head everywhere it goes. Hooray for Shareta Caldwell who, like many readers of romance, can actually tell the difference between romance novels and pornography: “Romances portray love, romance, and sensuality in an positive adult manner. In romance novels, a man puts a woman’s pleasure first. This is not the case in pornography.”
Jennifer Coates of Chicago enjoys the committed relationships depicted in African-American romances. “In other media, we see intimate relationships being treated casually—like a handshake, but not that personal. The romance, the courting, the mystery seems to have disappeared from contemporary literature.” Coates cites Beverly Jenkins’ Night Song among her favorites because the interaction between the hero and heroine “demonstrates their appreciation and love for one another and solidified their relationship for me, elevating their sharing and mutual respect from a by-product, to the backbone of their intimate exchanges.”
Osborne’s article also examines cover art – a graceful curtsey to Ms. Osborne because, well, that’s just plain awesome and important. Boy howdy, is it important. Black romances not only face criticism as to their content, but also the cover art – whether it’s “Black enough” or “too Black.” One article cited featured a quote from an unnamed magazine publisher who stated that romance covers featuring Black characters in “Afrocentric styles” might make white readers uncomfortable. This same publisher said that covers without people would be preferable.
(White reader Sarah says: “What a bunch of unmitigated poppycock.”)
Readers cited in the article disagree: “Shareta Caldwell says, ‘I like it when there are Black faces on the books, especially if the cover is an accurate portrait of the character in the book. That is the reason I picked up Beverly Jenkins’ Indigo. I loved the picture. And I don’t like the idea of fooling people by not having real Black people on the front. If White readers can’t get past the braids, locks, bald-heads, and Black skin on the cover, then how are they going to get through the book?’”
Osborne’s examination of Black romance ends with an assessment that the genre is evolving as more authors publish in mainstream fiction, and as new authors enter the genre. But the various influences entering Black romance concerned one reader, who is unwilling to see what she views as a more courtship-and-commitment focused narrative become more influenced by “hip-hop values:” “Courtship, marriage, commitment and sex are definitely seen differently by this generation,” says reader Jeanette Cogdell who, according to the article, reviews books at Romance In Color.
Which generation, I wonder. Osborne’s final statement, that “Readers are drawn to the romance genre because the stories provide an escape and are devoid of racial conflict, gratuitous sex and profanity,” undermines and contradicts some of the statements made by readers and writers in the article itself, especially that the stories are devoid of sex or acknowledgment of racial conflict. But Osborne’s examination brought my attention to elements of Black romance that I hadn’t known about. The evolving image of Black in American popular culture is an issue that’s been examined with greater focus, it seems, in the past few years, but is the idea of books focusing on female sexual experience going to underscore or somehow validate negative sexual stereotypes of Black women? If scholars and critics distrust Black romance for its focus on Black female sexuality, what would the appropriate venue be for an exploration of the topic? Already erotica received a big boost in it’s turgid longevity by the strength and backlist of writers like Noire and Zane – I wonder what those same scholars and critics would say about the influence of those writers on the erotica market as a whole.