The rise of Black romance novels–especially historicals– in the 1990s provided a platform for diverse representation in a genre that had long ignored this socio-demographic.
The Advent of Black Romance Novels
Since the romance revolution of the early 1970s, these books have depicted heroes and heroines from varied nations and of almost every race, with a notable exception. The paucity of Black and/or African American protagonists motivated readers to create stories of their own, with characters of their own heritage.
One of the most significant developments in African American literature during the 1990s was the emergence of historical romance novels with Black protagonists and settings. The stories offered a much-needed look into the past.
These books highlighted the challenges people of African heritage faced and the accomplishments they achieved in American and Global history.
As the decade wore on, more and more writers began to include Black characters in their stories, creating stories that talked about issues relevant to these characters’ lives, experiences, and identities.
Some Early Black Romantic-Fiction Authors
The first romances with African-American protagonists date back to the 19th century. Jessie Redmon Fauset was an African American editor, poet, and novelist in the first half of the 20th century. A prominent member of the Harlem Renaissance, her book There is Confusion is considered one of the first Black romantic novels.
Frank Yerby wrote swashbuckling historical epics and Southern plantation romances about primarily White characters. But it was the 1968 novel, The Dahomean, a tragic tale of an African ruler betrayed and taken into slavery, that was his most personal and arguably best work. It was followed up with a sequel in 1979.
Towards the End of the Century
The last decade of the twentieth century was a time of great change and progress for African American fiction. Terry MacMillan debuted her first book in 1989 and would have a long and successful career. She had two blockbusters, 1992’s Waiting to Exhale and 1996’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back, both made into hit films.
Omar Tyree’s Flyy Girl was a Young Adult sensation, spawning two sequels.
These books portrayed relationships featuring African American characters written by Black authors and allowed readers to explore different perspectives on love and relationships.
Many writers whose careers started during this era have had a lasting impact on the genre.
A Look Back at the Black Historical Romance Boom of the 1990s
The historical romance novel has seen constant transformations in the stories it tells. The 1990s would introduce stories set in the past that told love stories from the point of view the industry had largely ignored.
The first mainstream category romance with African American protagonists was Dell Candlelight’s Entwined Destinies by Rosalind Welles in 1980. Historical romances with Black main characters wouldn’t see mainstream release until over a decade later.
In 1989 Anita R. Bunkley self-published her first novel, a historical romance titled Emily, The Yellow Rose of Texas. The book is based on the legendary Emily D. West, the mulatto woman who was a Texian spy
Mildred E. Riley, a psychiatric nurse from New England, began writing after she retired from a 40-year career. In 1990, she published her first historical romance, Yamilla, which featured an African heroine in the American South. In 1992, she followed that up with the romance between a Native American heroine and a Black hero in Akayna, Sachem’s Daughter.
Riley is known for her ability to create powerful, compelling love stories steeped in history. She would go on to write more historical romances with Arabesque several years later.
1994: Arabesque Romances Are Born
In 1994, Pinnacle Books–an imprint of Kensington Publishing–launched Arabesque romances. This was the first line of romance novels to focus on Black couples. Arabesque released both contemporary and historical books that explored African-American life and culture.
The credited mastermind behind Arabesque was Monica Harris, an editor at Kensington who worked under legendary founder Walter Zacarius.
In July of ’94, Arabesque launched their first two romances, both full-length contemporaries: Sandra Kitt’s Serenade and then Francis Ray’s Forever Yours.
It wasn’t until several months later, in February of 1995, that Arabesque released their first historical romance, Journey’s End, by Mildred E. Riley.
The line greatly impacted the publishing industry, inspiring other publishers to sign African-American authors and release similarly styled works.
When Kensington shut down Pinnacle in 2000, they sold Arabesque off to BET-TV under Robert Johnson. Kensington would still publish the books, but BET controlled distribution, marketing, and promotion. Many Arabesque novels were adapted for television movies that would air on BET-TV.
Under their management, BET added the Sepia line for mainstream commercial fiction and New Spirit for inspirational books and nonfiction.
In 2005 Harlequin Enterprises purchased all BET-TV Books titles and continues to publish many of them today.
Beverly Jenkins, “The Queen of the Black Historical Romance”
Today, Beverly Jenkins is a legendary name in the romance genre. In 1994 Avon Books signed her on for a contract. Her first novel, Night Song, came out in July–the same month Arabesque launched–to much critical acclaim. It was also the first actual Black clinch cover.
After several more successful novels, such as Topaz and Indigo, Jenkins became the first African American romance author to make bestseller lists in the late 1990s. From there, more women like Jenkins followed in her footsteps with their own historical romances, spawning an entire subgenre.
Beverly Jenkins writes of people from varying professions: sailors and soldiers, ranchers, doctors, abolitionists, and teachers. Jenkins’ books are known for their richly drawn characters and historical accuracy, and she has been praised for her representation of diverse characters and cultures.
“I stick to the actual history and include a bibliography at the end of each book for readers who may want to delve deeper into the subject matter. I always set my stories where Black people actually walked, worked, and lived.”BEVERLY JENKINS, FORBES
Twenty-nine years later, Beverly Jenkins is still writing romances. She has written over 50 books, including historical and contemporaries, plus young adult and inspirational books.
Out of the rising tide of romance novels written by Black writers, 1994 is known as the year when Black romance novels were born.
The Pioneers of Black Historical Romance: How They Paved the Way
Other authors were writing historical romances in the 1990s that featured Black protagonists.
Shirley Hailstock wrote historical romances for Arabesque. Clara’s Promise, Hailstock’s first historical romance, won the Utah Romance Writers’ bestseller of the West Award. Her other novels made the bestseller lists and garnered awards, including the Romantic Times Award for Best Multicultural Romance.
Hailstock holds a Career Achievement Award from Romantic Times Magazine, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the New York City Chapter of RWA, and an Emma Merritt Service Award from RWA. Her novel, Legacy, is listed as one of the 100 Greatest Romance Novels of the 20th Century.
Roberta Gayle is another famous author of African American historical romance novels. Her books for the Arabesque line included Sunshine and Shadows and Moonrise. Some other notable works include The Last Round-Up and Truly Yours. Gayle has a strong ability to bring history to life and create engaging, well-drawn characters.
Patricia Vaughn wrote for Pocket Books two wonderful romances featuring Black couples, 1996’s Murmur of Rain and 1998 Shadows on the Bayou. Her books featured captivating and well-rounded stories with deep, meaningful themes driven by tales of love, resilience, and strength.
Authors like Riley, Jenkins, Hailstock and the rest gave readers insight into a side of history that is not often discussed: the romances of people of African descent. These books have since set the tone for other writers to explore these topics from their unique perspectives by showing the beauty of multiculturalism.
Celebrating Black Historical Romance Today
As for contemporary African American historical romance writers, there are more today than were in the 1990s! Many of these authors are often on the bestseller lists and have garnered awards and acclaim.
Here are some names and books you may be interested in.
- Vanessa Riley‘s multicultural Regency series, The Rogues and Remarkable Women trilogy features the novel’s Black heroines in a Regency setting. Her books include A Duke, the Lady, and a Baby; An Earl, the Girl, and the Toddler; and A Duke, the Spy, an Artist, and a Lie.
- Alyssa Cole‘s diverse books include the historical romances An Extraordinary Union and An Unconditional Freedom.
- Kianna Alexander‘s The Roses of Ridgeway historical series features African American heroines in the American West. These women find love with diverse heroes in Kissing the Captain, The Preacher’s Paramour, and Loving the Lawman.
- Piper Huguley writes Inspirational Historial romances such as The Preacher’s Promise, A Virtuous Ruby, and Sweet Tea.
These are just a few talented African American historical romance writers working today. If you’re interested in this genre, there is an abundance of great books for you to enjoy!
Final Thoughts on Black Representation in Historical Romances
Throughout the twentieth century, there would be books telling love stories about Black characters. But it was in the 1990s that this Black romance really took off. The rise of these novels helped create a more inclusive landscape for romance.
As a predominantly African-American genre, depicting Black characters as protagonists and heroines in historical romance novels posed a unique challenge. Writers emphasized the details and personalities of their characters while also working to address the prejudices they faced in the past.
However, a remarkable aspect of these stories is how they helped normalize Black characters outside traumas related to slavery and oppression. Black historical romances offered an opportunity to celebrate the totality of the African-American experience in the past and love.
Are you familiar with these authors and their works? If so, what are you are your favorite romances featuring Black protagonists? Who are your favorite Black romance authors?
Beverly Jenkins is undoubtedly up there for me, and I also love Patricia Vaughn’s books.
As always, please drop a comment, and let’s talk romance!