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black historical romance

Hidden Gems & Crown Jewels: The Rise of Black Historical Romances in the 1990s

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. 

black historical romance

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.

black couple in love

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.

Black romances The Dahomean

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.

waiting to exhale

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

black romance

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. 

black romance books

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.

black historical romances

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.

beverly jenkins

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.”


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.

indigo beverly jenkins

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. 

shadows on the bayou dominick finelle

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 PromiseA Virtuous Ruby, and Sweet Tea.
black romance

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.

Your Opinion

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!

what the confusion

Romance Versus Romantic Fiction: What’s the Confusion All About?

romance vs. romantic fiction

Romance or Romantic Fiction?

In fiction, what genre is romance and what is romantic fiction? It’s not a simple question, as the answer draws confusion. Every month or so, controversy arises on Twitter, with some posters unable to comprehend the difference between the two terms. Besides, why must there be rules for romance?

Romance and romantic fiction are distinct categories. They each have their own set of rules the writer follows. Otherwise, readers may be fooled into thinking a book will tell a particular kind of story and then walk away disappointed–or angry–when their expectations are unmet.

So let’s identify what differentiates the two so you can choose between them accordingly!

When You Think of Romance, What Comes to Mind?

The word romance means a variety of things.

  • Romance can denote a literary form rooted in adventure or specific ideals, like chivalry.
  • It could indicate a quality of glamour, excitement, or mystery.
  • Many people would say romance is an emotional connection, a feeling of love and affection.
  • A romance is a tale about love.

When readers of fiction use this term, they refer to the specific romance genre. These books are based on romantic-erotic love. In addition, these stories abide by a couple of hard-and-fast rules.

If you’re a promising author of a love story that ends with the main characters separated, be sure to market your book as romantic fiction, or at least the first entry in a romance serial, as romance readers will not stand for unhappy endings!

close up photo of wooden scrabble tiles near heart
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Many People Don’t Know the Difference Between Romance and Romantic Fiction



Romance novels depict people falling in love. They can also be about old flames reunited after a separation. Erotic love is essential over merely platonic love.

These books require happy endings. Or, at least, the reader understands the lovers will be united together for the foreseeable future. There must be a sense of optimism at the conclusion of the story.

Romantic Fiction

Romantic Fiction

On the other hand, romantic fiction focuses on relationships–especially between two people–rather than solely the love aspect. There are different elements to the plot besides the romance.

While it can consist of aspects like kissing and sex scenes (graphic or not), romantic fiction doesn’t necessitate a joyful epilogue with babies on page 350–as some traditional romances do! In fact, no kind of ending is mandatory.

Examples of romantic fiction include Gone With the Wind; Romeo and Juliet; The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller; Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick; The Notebook–actually, almost all Nicholas Sparks books are mislabeled as romance. Even Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series veers from genre romance after the first entry.

But the Confusion Remains

Author John Green argues that: “Romantic fictions must be able to describe themselves under one word: ‘love.’ A story becomes romantic when its goal is to show how two characters fall in love with each other.” But that doesn’t make it a romance novel.

All romance novels are love stories. However, not all love stories are romances.

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Rules For Romance

The Rules For a Great Romance Novel:

  • The romance must be front and center. An author can write a science fiction novel where a woman gets abducted by aliens and then falls in love with one of them. But this cannot be a subplot. It should be the main focus. (Just so you know, these books are scorching hot as of November 2022).
  • Characters must be well developed. Because this genre is so character-driven, it helps if they are fleshed out and relatable—even when they’re vampires or werewolves! Readers who identify with characters will likely stay engaged in the storyline longer.
  • The plot needs some shape and direction, even if it has little in the way of twists and turns. So keep things interesting. How do the lovers unite again after being separated for some time? Will one save another from danger? Conflict is essential. Without any obstacles–internal or external– between them, getting together would be kind of ordinary.
  • The absolute must-rule is a happily-ever-after ending. Or at least happy for now, as a teen romance might have.
question marks on paper crafts
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Rules for Romantic Fiction

The Rules

In romance, the story must have a happy ending. It’s the genre’s most fundamental rule. Romantic fiction has more leeway.

  • In romantic fiction, one is more likely to find a bittersweet or unhappy ending—or even no ending at all!
  • Romantic fiction focuses more on interpersonal relationships and plot than on romance itself. These books can involve more action and thematic elements than a romance does.
  • Love-making scenes are not mandatory. For that matter, no physical intimacy needs to be depicted at all.
  • There is a wider variety among works with similar themes but different tones (e.g., comedy romances vs. serious ones).
Romance Vs. Romantic Fiction

The Result

Romantic fiction has received considerable critical acclaim. On the other hand, romance–that is, female-centric novels with happy endings–has always been viewed by critics as several rungs below literary fiction.

Sadly, this may be due in part to sexism. Men write more romantic fiction than straightforward romance. As for romance, female authors far outnumber men. That is likely because ~85% of the genre’s readership comprises women.

There were numerous best-selling male writers in the heyday of bodice rippers. They used pseudonyms like Jennifer Wilde and Janette Seymour to appeal to the majority feminine audience. While men are writing romances today, they still stick to female pennames.

Romance has been derided as mommy porn” or, at best, sentimental fluff. Like detective mysteries, science fiction, and action thrillers, romance can be classified as pulp fiction. But of all pulp, romance gets the least respect.

Until recently–the successes of Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, to be precise–Hollywood mostly shied away from adapting romance novels to film. Certainly the big screen.

Meanwhile, romantic fiction like Atonement or Silver Linings Playbook was made into popular Academy Award-nominated films.

The Books Are Romantic Fiction, Not Romance!

These books are romantic fiction, but due to certain factors, aren’t necessarily romances.

Who Doesn’t Like Happy Endings?

Against HEA

Some readers have disdain for romance for its adherence to happy endings. Many stress that love can fail to stand the test of time and still be meaningful. Or they assert that one doesn’t need marriage–or monogamy–to be fulfilled.

A story about an affair that lasts for a short while can be more dramatic and intriguing than a relationship with a fixed, predictable ending.

Moreover, literature must encompass angst to portray the totality of the human experience. Every life ends in death; some deaths are more painful than others. Fiction demanding the erasure of final suffering reduces the stories into fairy tales.

The requirement for positive, optimistic endings is viewed as childish, for the world does not guarantee such perfection. A HEA is unrealistic, immature, feminine, or American. Only in Hollywood movies do we see such idealized conclusions to stories.

But if happy endings exist on screen, surely there is room in genre fiction for them as well? After all, both art forms are make-believe.

romantic fiction
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There are many reasons why we seek out Hollywood-style happy endings.

It would be wonderful to find a beautiful and perfect partner to live with happily ever after. That’s not how things always work in real life—but why can’t we experience that in fiction?

An emotionally satisfying conclusion is an essential component of the romance genre because it allows readers to escape from our mundane world into one where everything works out.

For this type of “escapism” to work, there is usually some mental barrier between reality and fantasy. One way is through narrative framing devices (e.g., time period or setting). These provide a distance between the reader’s personal experience and actual story material. Hence, the popularity of historical and paranormal sub-genres or the abundant number of Dukes and billionaires.

There is a fantastic element to romance, but that should not be a negative mark against the genre.

happy ending
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Why Read Fiction?

Fiction is a way of life. We turn to fiction for many reasons: escapism, entertainment, healing broken hearts, and even clarity.

All types of fiction have expectations to meet.

Science Fiction must involve some form of technological transformation from the present day.

Every mystery novel has a crime that must be solved. In rare cases, the perpetrator may get away scot-free, but the truth should be revealed to the reader for the conclusion to be satisfactory.

Romance Vs. Romantic Fiction
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Conclusion: Romance Vs. Romantic Fiction

So to sum it up: romance novels and romantic fiction are not the same concepts. They are both genres that readers can learn from.

Romantic fiction portrays an emotional story about a relationship that might happen in real life. It need not involve any sex scenes or other explicit content. Romance may play an ancillary part in a larger plot line. Romantic fiction can end unhappily or not, as the primary focus is the character’s growth or downfall.

The Romantic fiction genre deals with romantic relationships–with an emphasis on relationships.

The modern romance genre deals with romantic relationships–with an emphasis on an ideal resolution for the relationship (HEA being the highest of ideals).

Romances must end happily ever after or be happy for now with the possibility of more significant commitment in the future.

Both categories can elicit a variety of emotional responses in the reader. However, romantic fiction uses thematic elements to evoke a specific sentiment, while the idealism of romance inspires optimism.

Your Opinion

How do you stand on the division between romance novels and romantic fiction? Do you think it’s all arbitrary and wonder why these rules matter? Or are you a stickler for certain expectations when you read romance?

As always, please drop a comment, and let’s talk romance (in this case, romantic fiction, too)!