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…)
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.
The 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!