Sort of Like Why We Needed the Black Barbie Doll, Some Ponderings About African American Romance Novels

By Gwyneth Bolton, award-winning Kimani Romance Author

“More than simple instruments of pleasure and amusement, toys and games play crucial roles in helping children determine what is valuable in and around them. Dolls in particular invite children to replicate them, to imagine themselves in their dolls’ images. What does it mean, then, when little girls are given dolls to play with that in no way resemble them? What did it mean for me that I was nowhere in the toys I played with?”
— Ann DuCille, Professor and Cultural Critic

“African American romance readers enjoy stories about women who look like them—not just physically, but politically, socially, economically, and emotionally as well. We deserve no less.”
— Gwen Osborne, Journalist and Word Diva of Black Romance

When I think about African American romance novels, I can’t help but think of the Black Barbie. Now, I realize this connection doesn’t automatically come to mind for all. So, bear with me as I explain.

Playing with dolls and reading romance fiction are both recreational activities that provide pleasure and enjoyment. And, while women and girls aren’t the only gender to participate in these recreational activities, they make up the majority in both. Also, I don’t think I am making too much of a leap in connection when I say that the joy a little girl experiences when she opens up the box of a brand new doll is pretty close to the joy many women feel when they open up a new shipment of books from Harlequin when it comes in the mail. (Maybe I should just speak for myself in this regard, since I have been known to stalk my mailman as I wait for my latest order from eHarlequin.com…)
mattel christie
As a child growing up in the 70s and 80s, I was lucky enough to grow up in a time when Mattel’s Christie doll—the second black Barbie doll after the ill-fated “Colored Francie”—was widely available. Besides Christie, there were lots of other baby dolls with brown skin just like mine. I never had to experience a time like Black feminist scholar Ann DuCille writes about when I couldn’t play with a doll that “looked” like me. I can’t say the same for having romance novels to read. I used to sneak my mother’s Harlequin Presents and her Silhouette novels in the 80s. That’s where I became addicted to romance and really honed my love of reading. I would spend entire weekends reading book after book after book. I fell in love with romance when I was twelve; right around the same time I publicly stopped playing with dolls. (Truthfully, I played with Barbie dolls until I was around fourteen. But I would’ve never admitted it.) As I became an adult, I lost touch with romance novels much like I stopped playing with dolls. (Okay, I actually still collect black porcelain dolls and even some collectible designer Barbie dolls. But I don’t “play” with them. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it…)

Before Kensington published the first Arabesque novels fifteen years ago, there had been a few romance novels published that featured black heroes and heroines. There was Rosiland Welles’s Entwined Destinies (1980), Jackie Weger’s A Strong and Tender Thread (1983), Sandra Kitt’s Adam and Eva (1985) and Joyce McGill’s Unforgivable (1992). There were also attempts made to publish African American romance lines by Holloway House and Odyssey Books. However, romance novels that showcased black love had been sparse to say the least.

That all changed when editor Monica Harris got Kensington to publish those first Arabesque novels. Kensington’s Arabesque line went from two to four books a month before it was sold to BET Books and then Harlequin’s Kimani Press. Those early Arabesque authors—Francis Ray, Rochelle Alers, Shirley Hailstock, Sandra Kitt, Donna Hill, among many others—helped pave the way for the wealth of African American romance novels we see today. So did the black women authors who integrated Harlequin and Silhouette lines early on by writing romances with black leads. Women like Maggie Ferguson writing for Harlequin Intrigue; Angela Benson writing for Silhouette Special Edition; Robyn Amos writing for Silhouette Yours Truly and Intimate Moments; Rochelle Alers writing for Silhouette Desire; Brenda Jackson writing for Silhouette Desire and Blaze; and Natalie Dunbar writing for Silhouette Bombshell and later Silhouette Romantic Suspense. All of these trailblazing women made it possible for me to have a very sizable African American romance collection right next to the shelves that house my black doll collection.

Natalie Dunbar, A Serial Affair Rochelle Alers Beyond Business

read_k_romanceThe Arabesque line is still going strong with Kimani Press and we even have the first African American category-length line in Kimani Romance. Companies such as Genesis Press and Dorchester publish African American romances and we can also find many African American romance novels being published through lines like Dafina Romance and Urban Soul. In the space of less than thirty years, we have moved from being able to count the amount of African American romance novels on one hand to a healthy representation of black love growing stronger and stronger every day.

Hopefully one day—much like the Black Barbie doll isn’t just sold to little black girls and we can see little girls of all races, colors and creeds playing with the rainbow of Barbie dolls that are available—we will see more and more people reading romance across race. Yes, we needed Black Barbie dolls because little girls needed to see themselves represented in the toys they played with. But we also needed them so that little girls of other races could be exposed to diversity and difference. African American romance novels allow us to see wonderful representations of black love and hopefully as these novels become more widely available more people will see that a great love story—much like a beautiful doll—can be enjoyed by all no matter what color it comes in. What do you think? Do you think one day we will reach a place where the race of the characters really don’t matter? Can you think of other interesting things besides dolls that can be connected to romance novels?

Editor’s Note: Thank you to Gwyneth for this inspiring piece on African American romance novels. Join us as we celebrate Black History Month at eHarlequin with a very special discount of 40% on all Kimani Press titles!

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Comments ( 15 )
  1. Blogging on the Harlequin Blog today… | Gwyneth's Blog
    February 23, 2010 at 4:33 pm
    Reply

    […] I’m blogging over on the Harlequin Blog today. You can check the post out here. […]

  2. Niambi
    February 23, 2010 at 4:44 pm
    Reply

    I too used to read my mother’s novels.I enjoyed the love story, but nothing touched me like the first time I saw Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll in Paris Blues. Now that was the kind of love I wanted to read about! After that, when I read I replaced the characters with images of Sidney and Diahann. Years later, I am truly grateful for black romance and its varied portrayals of our love. I met a woman who had preconceived notions about a romance novel because there were black people on the cover. Once she read it, she was surprised to learn she could relate and that she in fact, loved the story. There is hope, after all (lol)

  3. conseula
    February 23, 2010 at 4:46 pm
    Reply

    My husband, who is twelve years older than I am, remembers a black person’s appearance on television being “event television” and going to see every “black” as soon as it came out, no matter how dreadful it looked. That’s a really different experience than my children have, who reguarly see people who look like them on television, even if I do wish there were more of us. It seems like such a small thing, but seeing some reflection ourselves, in things like romance or television that seem to be just entertainment, matters so much.

  4. 'cilla
    February 23, 2010 at 4:48 pm
    Reply

    WOW… you said a mouthful and you gave it to use straight. Love it 🙂

  5. Shelia G
    February 23, 2010 at 5:05 pm
    Reply

    What a wonderful comparison. I too recall the joy of opening up my Christmas present and my Black Barbie doll stared me in the face. I felt that same joy when I read my first romance novel by a Black author, which if I’m not mistaken, was Sandra Kitt.

    I do think we can reach a place where the race of the characters don’t matter if readers open up their horizons. A good story is a good story. My reading tastes are diverse and if readers will give certain books a chance, I think they too, will find gems within the pages of books where characters don’t necessarily look like them.

  6. PatriciaW
    February 23, 2010 at 5:44 pm
    Reply

    I hate that I missed a lot of the early Harlequin titles written by African-Americans and featuring African-Americans. Because I was seeking that same joy during that period. It never occurred to me to even consider Harlequin back then as a possible source of such diversity. So I stuck mostly to hardcover literary fiction for my fix of characters that were like me.

    I recently read a book where I imagined a key secondary character to be African-American. Eventually it became clear that she indeed was, but the author skillfully wrote it in such a way that this wasn’t easily apparent. I’d like to read more books like that, but I’ll always look for books with obvious AA protagonists. Because I’ll always be Black.

  7. LaShaunda
    February 23, 2010 at 5:51 pm
    Reply

    Gwyn, I’m clapping over here, great post. My favorite Barbie was Super Star Barbie and she was beautiful. I started young reading romances at 9 and I hoped for some that looked like me and you better believe I was first in line for those first two books when they hit the shelves. Meeting the authors that write these wonderful books will continue being high points in my life. Being able to help promote them is priceless. I’m glad my daughter will be able to have the diversity of books and Barbies.

  8. Lashonda Silver
    February 24, 2010 at 12:11 am
    Reply

    WOnderful Blog and very well put. I get and agree with the connection. I loved my Christie and love even more the fact that my 4 year old has more options than I had. Just as I love the day I discovered AA romance and I am glad my girls will have more options than I ever had.

  9. Gwyneth Bolton
    February 24, 2010 at 12:55 am
    Reply

    Niambi ~ Sidney Poitier and Diahann Caroll are nice substitutes. Sidney Poitier will always be fine!

    Conseula ~ I know, it’s amazing what we take for granted. I know that black shows are few and far between these days, but at least we have them. And there’s always reruns and syndication…

    Cilla ~ Thanks, sis! 🙂

    Shelia ~ Seriously, girlfriend, books and dolls! There was nothing like getting a new doll on Christmas when I was a kid, except for maybe when the Scholastic book orders came in or they had some kind of book fair. LOL.

  10. Victoria Wells
    February 24, 2010 at 10:15 am
    Reply

    I started reading romance at the age of 15. I didn’t discover African American romance novels until my early 30s. I nearly lost my mind! Immediately I became addicted and went on a crazy buying spree (which I haven’t been cured of yet)getting my hands on as many AA romance novels as I could. It just felt so good reading about black folks in love and committed to that love. I am an AA romance reader for life! And darn proud of it!

    Gwyneth, I thoroughly enjoyed this post. As always you did a fabulous job 🙂

  11. Gwyneth Bolton
    February 24, 2010 at 2:58 pm
    Reply

    PatriciaW ~ I think we’re moving closer to that kind of “post-racial” approach to books. Not quite yet… but moving in that direction. 😉

    LaShaunda ~ I’m telling you. My early Arabesque books are so worn the covers are falling apart I used to read them so much, over and over again. And I didn’t have a favorite Barbie doll, I loved them all the same, lol… But I remember I loved buying clothes for my dolls. That’s where I developed my shopping habit.

    Loshonda ~ I know they have so many options know with the Barbie dolls. Way more than we had… 😉 Almost makes me wish I was a kid again.

    Victoria ~ I think we might be able have a contest to see who is the bigger book addict. I can admit I have a problem… a serious problem… 😉

  12. Ellen Hartman
    February 24, 2010 at 3:03 pm
    Reply

    I didn’t have any Barbies as a kid. I wasn’t a very effective girl back in those days. 😉

    My first African American romance was a Gwyneth Bolton–Sweet Sensation, I think. (Still one of the best covers of all time.) Since then, I’ve read a bunch of other African American romances, and even had the great privilege of meeting Francis Ray and having her sign a book at RWA last year.

    I think it’s wonderful to see more choices for romance.

  13. Sola A
    February 25, 2010 at 9:57 am
    Reply

    I am Nigerian and have lived in Nigeria for most of my life. Read “hundreds” of romance novels in my teens and didnt realise i was missing much until after a long hiatus, I read my first Brenda Jackson (westmoreland series) novel in my late 30s, I could relate on a deeper level with the emotions, the language and chemistry between the characters and the dialogue was so familiar… almost like it was a story about me or a friend.. Then I got it! Story telling is not just about the words and the skin color of the characters, its about the perspective, the culture, the values, the richness of our individual experiences … And for me, – a black African, reading Brenda was like coming home to a place I never knew existed. Needless to say, i have read about 15 of her books ever since….(

  14. Gwyneth Bolton
    February 25, 2010 at 10:52 am
    Reply

    Ellen ~ I’m shuddering over here trying to imagine my childhood without Barbie. LOL. 😉

    Sola A ~ Brenda Jackson rocks!

  15. Aisa
    January 12, 2014 at 12:32 pm
    Reply

    Great post Gwyn! I remember getting a Christie doll as a child. Sadly I was very displeased with getting a Black knock off. They probably needed to start with Black dolls sooner for me to appreciate it. The White is right brain washing was already there. My daughter will have dolls that look like her from day one.

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