Monday, January 03, 2005

Literature Across the Color Lines

The following is an article that sister author Monica Jackson wrote on the black/white thing in romance. It is definitely worth a look and your time.

Romance in Black and White
I first put this up in 1998 on my site in response to much comment on black romance on an online romance site by clueless folk who apparently had no interest or exposure to anything black. Some facets of the incident seemed to be a microcosm of the majority romance community as a whole. Unfortunately, little has changed in the passing years, so I updated the article. There is no more taboo subject in this country than race, possibly even more then abortion, politics or religion. Many whites feel guilty, irritated or uncomfortable at mention of the topic. Blacks also feel uncomfortable because they fear the backlash. It's historical for blacks to back away when the whites are mobbing. It's called lynchin' mentality. When they see you hanging in the trees, they don't want to be next in line for the lynching. This could be one explanation why black authors seldom speak up openly on racial matters among whites and generally steer clear of white romance message boards where racial controversy may occur.

It wasn't until the 1980's that more then a very few romances with black characters appeared. Sandra Kitt and Frances 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.

I sold Midnight Blue to Arabesque in 1995 and it was published in 1997. I had no clue about the publishing industry or romance. I discovered the Internet in '97. I was enlightened as to my place in the romance scheme of things when I wrote All About Romance politely asking why no black romances were included in their special listings which included romances of many other ethnicities. The site owner, Laurie Gold, asked for my book (I'd just finished my second one), and reviewed the first romance with black characters she'd read with an ensuing uproar. Personally, this probably was a good thing for me. It took a brand new, totally unknown black romance author and at least gave my name exposure to people that probably would have never heard of me at all. In the years since then, my work has become better known, and not as substandard either, but certainly not as traditional or ordinary romance.

Laurie Gold had different expectations of my second book then of a white romance. She expected a black romance not merely to fulfill the function of reading entertainment, but to fill some cultural gap also--to enlighten clueless white folk and have some deep fundamental message perhaps? She probably would have hated Heart's Desire anyway with white characters--it was satirical, a subtle parody of soap-operish romances and likely not the style of anyone who's favorite author is Julie Garfield.

Personally, I roll my eyes at many white traditional historical romances, but I would never degrade the authors' writing or talent. That sort of book is simply not to my taste. If the characters were white, Laurie Gold might have been able to see that Heart's Desire was a chick lit (before the term was created) type of novel, laced with ironic humor instead of an Uncle Tom's Cabin treatise. Primarily, I doubt that she'd judge an entire sub-genre by special expectations of one book if the characters were white.

An AAR reviewer wrote a letter to me that stated in essence, since I had the opportunity to write about black people, I should write about them in a positive fashion. I should upbuild the race! I should write about blacks as if life were the Cosby Show. Would she be writing the same comments to Tami Hoag or Lisa Gardner whose novels feature white serial killers and other multifaceted characters? Of course not. Fiction has to have conflict and reality isn't always pretty. But she had no problem holding up a black author to a different standard. She's now an author herself, and it would be interesting to see if her main objective in her fiction writing is building up the white race.

Understanding these white women's issues with black characters, beyond the quality of the work, isn't difficult--they want enough distance between themselves and black characters so as to maintain their comfort. Romance is an intimate genre unlike mystery and science fiction. You're dealing with love, sex and personal fantasies. Romance readers are notoriously picky about their place and settings, character professions, and having sympathetic main characters. If there are any underlying or unconscious issues with blacks, white readers certainly wouldn't want them in their fantasies. That's the heart of the issue.

As far as romance, a black author can only be absolutely safe writing for whites when creating an alien and exotic culture (ghetto-style hot mamas in heat seem to work well), or sanitized feel-good pablum (think Bill Cosby). Angst-ridden literary fiction is pretty safe too, and will automatically brand you a "good" writer if published, which unfortunately isn't the case with romance--often the opposite (these judgements seem to be made, good or bad, without a word of the work actually being read).

Most black romance readers want to read real stories with real people like themselves. While the black romance author generally includes subtle touches of ethnicity if appropriate to the character, we don't write overtly "ghetto" because it usually isn't appropriate to our middle-class professional romance heroines. We don't write crack whores. How different from the white middle-class professional is her black professional counterpart? Her skin color, her hair. Her sorority trappings, maybe in some portion her upbringing and worldview. But very little of what makes her a woman, of what drives a romance.

Since I originally wrote this in 1998, Zane has emerged with spectacular success with both whites and blacks. Salon.com wrote an article about her with this excerpt of her work.

"People were fucking anywhere they could find a spot. I fucked three men at the same time on top of the green velvet cloth on a craps table while my cumdaddy feed [sic] his dick to two of the new sorors from the Nashville chapter. They were all on him and I thought they were about to come to blows over it because they were both being so damn greedy with the dick. Can't say I blame them though cause the brotha did have some good ass dick." Libertine or Prude, Salon.com

Black sorority sisters? In my experience many tend to the more religious and sexually conservative! Zane writes steamy sex and hot sexy black women overcome by their sexual urges, in an ethnic style. Sex sells, period, and Zane's style of black sex also sells to whites. Her imitators are scrambling to emulate her.

I'm not writing that black folks don't like heavily ethnic fare also. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don't, and sometimes it depends on our mood. Black people come in all different flavors and tastes--just like white people do.


5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I always wondered why romances written by African American writers were segregated out of the romance section where true romance readers would look for them. It's almost as if "our" romance was somehow different from any other and that never the two shall mix. I remember going in a Borders bookstore looking for a particular black romance only to find that all of the black romances were tossed in with African American Interests. So essentially, had I not asked about the book (from a black clerk by the way) I may have walked out thinking that the store didn't carry black romances. I don't see them single out any white writers when they write about Irish or Italian characters. Those romances are not put in the Irish section of the store. Apparently this was a corporate policy from the head office of Borders. It has since changed after a letter writing campaign. But it was and still is indicative of how society feels about black folks in general, particularly when it comes to relationships. Other than the old days of The Cosby show, our media presented relationships are dysfunctional, or non-existent ... as we all know and have seen ..."oh wonder how long the black guy will be in the movie before they kill him off?" Not much has changed.

Lydia said...

Thank you for your article! I must confess that I personally steer away from books that are marketed as "multicultural romances."

Why do I avoid them? I really do like to read romances about characters who are black, Asian, Irish, Polish...whatever. But if I'm being told that this is a Black Romance (or a Polish Romance), my gut reaction is "no, thank you." (I have the same reaction to inspirationals, too.)

I have a strong dislike of books that have people who are white/black/Hispanic/poor/rich/Italian BEFORE being just...people. I like to read about people, not about being Italian. When race or religion or any issue or cause becomes more important than the story, I'm lost as a reader. The books become Issue Books, and I don't do issue books. I'm probably being too judgemental over something that is, at its essence, a marketing decision for many books, but there's this nagging feeling that only books that are "religious enough" get published as inspirationals or "black enough" or "Hispanic enough" as multicultural or latino romances.

You said, "An AAR reviewer wrote a letter to me that stated in essence, since I had the opportunity to write about black people, I should write about them in a positive fashion. I should upbuild the race!"

And that's exactly what I'm AFRAID of when a book is segregated like that. That there is some sort of Message under the words. If it were the same book without the label, I'd probably buy it. But the label itself gives me expectations (fair or not) about the book being About Being Black (and about the RIGHT way to be black) and not about PEOPLE who are black...and then my interest is gone.

I hope this makes sense.

--Lydia

Anonymous said...

I am so glad that you posted the reason you would turn away from books that are targeted to a specialized audience. For years we have battled with edtiors, publishers about the placement of African American books in bookstores in addition to the labeling with some sort of logo indicating that it is a "black" something. For one, it screams "these books are different," "if you aren't black, you won't get it." I have to agree, the books should be marketed as romances with black characters, not a book about black romance. How is love shared between African Americans any different than anyone else?

In addition, even with contests and "best of" African American books (speaking of romances) immediately get segregated out of the general population to the "multicultural category." Why? If the hero and heroine are both looking for love at the end of the rainbow, how is that "multicultural". Its almost as if these books are not expected to be able to stand up against any other romances.

And what is even more ridiculous is that multicultural doesn't mean African American--it means of more than one culture. In reality, it probably should be that books written by white writers should be multiculutral--when you bring in Irish, Italian, Greek, Spanish, French, German.

Something to think about!

Anonymous said...

I've basically found that black romances are shelved in the romance section. At least they are in my area. I think it depends a lot upon what the imprint is that determines where it will be shelved. If the publisher is known primarily for romances, then it will, more than likely, be in the romance section. But if it's more, let's say, women's fiction than romance and it features African-American characters it will, more than likely, be in that section. There are now Latino sections and Christian Ficiton sections in some bookstores, so it can get even more complicated for booksellers as to where to put a book these days.

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