This author gig is hard. The work involved is never-ending. There is no writing a story and just releasing it into the universe with your fingers crossed that it will do well. It becomes a never-ending cycle of telling a great story, staying relevant in a saturated marketplace and if you are an author of color writing romance, the inevitable fight to be respected and welcomed where you are too often told you are not wanted. For black authors every book is a fight for acceptance, to sit at the table and be treated fairly. But I speak for many of us when I say that we welcome that fight. Because we have stories to tell about characters who look like us. People of color who struggle and fight and love fiercely.
The television program THIS IS US, has become one of my favorites. The writing is exceptional. But what calls me to watch each week, it the loving relationship between Randall and Beth Pearson, played divinely by Sterling K. Brown and Susan Kelechi Watson. The love and devotion between a black man and a black woman who respect and admire each other is a rarity in television. But for many, like myself, it reflects the history of our parents and our grandparents and the family that loved and nurtured each other and their children. Despite the lack of black couples in television, the Pearson’s are no more an oddity than breathing is. They just do a damn good job of representing what we already know exists.
Before the Pearson’s, we watched and adored Heathcliff and Clair Huxtable, Florida and James Evans, Dwayne Wayne and Whitley Gilbert. They laid the foundation of black love on television. Seeing their love stories on the big screen gave value to what many people of color live each and every day. Yet, we are constantly told that kind of love doesn’t exist and has no audience.
I write romance. My heroes are always strong black men and my heroines even stronger black women. Occasionally, I’ll stir things up and give my stories some swirl. In the romance genre, authors of color occupy a very small sliver of that much larger multi-billion-dollar pie. But we’re out here, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, arm-in-arm, lifting each other up, because ultimately, we all have the same goal. To tell great stories about two people falling in love, in whatever flavor moves us.
When a new author joins the fold, I get excited. Because a new voice, another perspective, a sister-in-arms, trumps the naysayers who proclaim we don’t belong. In our small community we welcome newcomers with an open heart, ready to help push and promote their book baby. We know that for far too many of us, we are all we have. The powers in charge aren’t bending over backwards to promote our stories. Hell, they’re barely trying to see us published! So, we are always ready and willing to step into the gap and do whatever we can. I know I am, and I do so to honor the black women who paved this path that I’ve been blessed to travel. The literary Queens who were the first and sometimes the only voices of color fighting to tell our stories. The matriarchy that pushed and pulled so many of us along and consistently encouraged us to do what we so love to do.
Recently, I was so ready to welcome a new author into this sisterhood. I was ecstatic to see her getting press so many of us have continually been denied. It felt like a step in the right direction that her publisher was standing firmly behind her. And then, in the blink of an eye, she and her advisors threw a boulder at the rest of us that hit hard and stung like hell. To hear them tell it, her story is the first of its kind. They proclaimed that the rest of us don’t exist. It seems she single-handedly invented black romance. I was offended to the nth degree and I was not alone.
In a recent interview, the newbie said, “I want[ed] more books about people like me. People who aren’t white but also people who have diverse lives, who live in cities and have friends of different ethnicities. It just felt false to me to read books that were just about white people.”
Well, baby girl, let me enlighten you. Author Sandra Kitt was the first black woman to write for Harlequin, publishing her first three books by 1984. Her novels featured African-American characters and tackled social issues, race relations, class differences, and interracial relationships. They were people who had diverse lives, lived in cities with friends of different ethnicities and weren’t just about white people. The list of black romance authors who followed is lengthy and distinguished. Have you ever heard of Donna Hill or Rochelle Alers, two prolific black women authors who helped lay the foundation for black romance? You are far from being the first to bring black love to black women.
Black romance authors can’t talk about black romance without bowing to Brenda Jackson, and Beverly Jenkins. To ignore their continued contributions to the industry is an insult of magnanimous proportions. Queen Brenda and Queen Beverly have helped many of us get a foothold in this industry, grooming us for what would come, teaching us the ins and outs of writing and writing well, cheering our efforts, applauding our successes and being a shoulder when the writing fails us.
And they are not the only ones. Renowned author Jacquelin Thomas mentored me and has been a fixture in my life since I got that call some fifteen years ago. I am honored that all these women cared enough to help nurture my career and I’m blessed to be able to call them friends. I can’t fathom how anyone could extoll their own efforts without giving due praise to those who set the bar and who continue to dictate the standard that is expected from the rest of us.
I can’t begin to list the best-selling, award-winning black authors with membership in this club. Women, and a few men, who have whole-heartedly embraced the good and the bad within the industry. Who have achieved a degree of success despite the efforts of others to keep them from it. Writers who love to write, respect the readers who support them and who readily share their knowledge whenever they’re able. There isn’t enough space to list them individually and to extoll the virtues of each and every one of them. But if I could, I would!
I hate that any author would think that slighting the rest of us to promote their work is a good thing. I’m disappointed that it was necessary for this author to proclaim herself the one and only saving light for the host of readers who have supported black romance authors and the black romance genre since before she even thought about becoming a writer. The blatant disrespect was chilling. I’m annoyed that there are those who seem determined to not do better. And I’m pissed that another black woman would make this author gig even harder than it has already proven to be.