Diversity’s Never Looked Quite Like This

I’ve always written interracial romances featuring a black heroine. I’m like a lot of romance writers, in that I wanted to read and write about a heroine I could identify with. For years, I avoided reading romance altogether because I didn’t feel represented there. I might have stayed away from romance if it hadn’t been for law school. One of Mom’s friends sent me a couple of romances in a care package. I was so desperate to read about human beings and just enjoy the story, without the pressure of facing The Paper Chase the next day. I finished the first one very quickly and had to slow down and savor the others.

I still didn’t feel represented. But I was interested in what romance had to offer.

When I started reading romance, it looked like black women appeared in only two capacities – as the Sassy Black Friend, helping the heroine get the guy, or as the “exotic Creole” character. I was never clear on whether the Creole character was actually black. She always had dark hair and dark skin, but I always wondered why the author didn’t just say she was black, if she was in fact black.

I wanted to see – and, okay, maybe to be – a black heroine at center stage of her own romance novel. It wasn’t enough to help someone else get the guy and then be relegated to the end of a series (if she was lucky) with the only other black character in the books. I didn’t want to have to guess whether the heroine was black.

And that’s when I started thinking about writing romances. I had always written stories and I’d always wanted to write for publication. I just didn’t think I’d do it with romance. After all, I didn’t see anyone else publishing interracial romances, although I know now that there were a handful of them out there, scarce as hens’ teeth.

Then Sandra Kitt changed everything. The Color of Love is the romance novel I needed to see. The heroine is definitely black – she’s not olive-skinned or Creole – and she is definitely center stage. She and the hero, who is white, overcome the obstacles separating them (race-related and otherwise) to arrive at the end of the book with a declaration of love and a marriage proposal. I’d never read anything quite like it.

The Color of Love came out in 1995, so it was around when I got to law school. I just didn’t know about it. Once I found it, though, the game changed again. If she’d been published with an interracial romance (and Sandra Kitt has more than one such story out there), then I could do it, if I worked at it hard enough.

When my first novel, Illicit Impulse, comes out in three weeks, it will enter a very different world. I never thought I’d see a world with so many interracial relationships in books, television and movies. Interracial romances have long since made a place for themselves in electronic publishing, but TV and movies seem to be seeing the light, too. Finally.

I was the nut who stood up and cheered when Uhura kissed Spock in Star Trek. (Go easy on me. I’d been waiting YEARS for that.) I’m happy to see James Bond continuing a 40-year tradition of getting his swirl on. I was almost delirious with joy when ABC had two (three if we consider Grey’s Anatomy) well-established interracial relationships in prime time scripted television, although I miss 666 Park Avenue dearly now. Better still, television executives aren’t playing up the fact that their characters are falling in love across racial lines. These are just characters with their own needs and wants and dreams and problems. They just happen to be of different colors, and that’s the sort of romance I love the most.

I couldn’t be more excited to enter this field now, when the market exposure is growing. I’m part of a steadily growing audience, composed of people seeing these relationships for the first time and people who are saying “about damn time.” The sky is the limit now. I already know there are more interracial relationships on TV than I can keep track of. I claim the next book as my excuse, but I hope I can keep up with developments.

In the meantime, I need to make plans to see Skyfall.

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8 comments

  1. EXCELLENT post, Alexa! (I didn’t exactly cheer, but I did do a “woo hoo” when Spock and Uhura kissed in the latest Star Trek Movie. Did you see the William Shatner-Uhura moment in the original series?)

    Here’s my question. How do you feel about the separate shelving in bookstores/Wal-mart/etc. for “African-American Romance” which includes a lot of interracial romance novels? I’m still torn. On the one hand, you have customers who are looking for a very specific sub-genre, who are able to walk right to the books on their separate shelf. On the other hand, it’s a separate shelf!! In our local box store, the shelf doesn’t even enjoy good product placement – bottom two shelves, tucked between YA and “regular” romance. A lot of potential customers could miss your book if they’re searching the generic romance shelf.

    Okay, personally, I’d be happy to have any shelf in one of the box stores, but after I had made that leap, I’m not sure if separation by sub-sub-genre would yield more sales.

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    1. I am a Star Trek dork of the first water! I definitely saw Plato’s Stepchildren. My complaint at the time was that Captain Kirk was being forced to kiss Uhura and looked like it. But I get it, with the network pressure and society and lalala. There is no similar excuse for the movies, but I get it.

      I am not a believer in separate but equal shelving. I don’t think I’ve seen it as “African American Romance” yet. The last time I saw it, the black romances were over in “African American Issues,” which is not the right place. I mean, if I ever got to print, it’s the only way my book would ever be that close to Langston Hughes, but I don’t want that to happen because we’re both black and for no other reason.

      I don’t think anyone is really served by separate shelving for black romances, though. First and foremost, there is the matter of that horrendous placement, toward the bottom. But on top of that, the criteria used to separate those books are a little strange. I’ve seen books separated out because there’s one black character (that’s the situation with my book). I’ve seen books separated out because the author is black, regardless of the book’s subject matter. I’ve seen them separated out because someone connected with the publisher was black (I’m thinking of Zane’s Strebor line; I stared hard at the cover of Delilah Devlin’s Obsessed to figure out how that ended up on that shelf instead of Romance).

      In addition, I think that many of the folks looking for black romances are specifically not looking for interracial romances. When I was trying to decide on where to start sending my writing, I considered Harlequin, but only briefly. My thinking is that the black heroines would send me to the Kimani line, where the readers have indicated that they’re not all that interested in interracials. Carina will take interracials, and they do not seem to have a Kimani analogue, so my inclination is to send my stuff there instead of Harlequin, because I think they’ll place my stories according to their subject matter. With apologies to a much wiser man, the book would be judged by its content, not the color of its characters.

      Having said that, I like Ellora’s Cave because they have designations for books where the story is about the differences between the characters’ races (the Fusion line) and the ones where the characters just happen to be of different races (Interracial Elements). That fits the bill and then some for me. 🙂

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  2. Another thoughtful post, Alexa! I always enjoy learning more about you and how you developed into a writer. It’s so true that we write what we read or WANT to read and I’m super excited about your upcoming release! I also remember the episode Sofie mentioned above between Capt. Kirk and Uhura which I thought was excellent. I guess it’s just me, but I never thought about the social connotations, I just thought – yeah, ’bout time, Kirk and Uhura! I was disappointed that it never went beyond that. Oh well.

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    1. You know, that was kind of my thought, too, when I saw it the first time. I thought, this woman is standing here, right next to all these guys, all day, every day. They know and are familiar with each other. They even seem to like each other. And nothing? Nothing at all?

      I’ve found it interesting to see what the fanfiction types are making of the original series and the new movie. They’ve managed to pair Uhura up with Spock, the captain, and Dr. McCoy, which is gratifying to me. Progress comes slowly sometimes, but it’s always coming.

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  3. McCoy!!? I totally missed that one. (How did I miss that one?) Yeah, I get what you mean about Kirk’s reaction to “the kiss”, but I imagine, (if I had been savvy enough at 6 or 7 years old to think hard on it), I’d have thought his repulsion was because she was a subordinate officer. And what was with that Yoeman? And I’m not just talkin’ about that jacked-up hairdo. 🙂 I can’t say Kirk ever did it for me. It was that Vulcan who was constantly using that racy word, “negative”. (It sounded racy to a 6 or 7 year old.)

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    1. I forget that so many people came to Trek younger than I was! I was a very impressionable middle schooler when I first saw the original series, so I was always wondering, “Why haven’t those two gotten together? Or those two? Or *those* two? And why Janice?” Poor Janice Rand was such a ninny, but she was so successful with men. Hmm.

      Uhura spent a lot of the original series flirting with Spock. It was really very cute. They have a very flirty conversation about the word “frequency,” I think, in one of the Season One episodes (OMG, I am such a Star Trek dork). You’re right, though, “frequency” is not as hot as “negative.” 🙂

      Dr. McCoy is steady when it matters and volatile at most other times. How irresistible is that?

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  4. Three cheers for you on your pending book publication!
    It is high time for more interracial romance. Thank you for pointing out the lack of it in the market. It is high time publishing caught up with the real world.

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    1. Thank you! My suspicion is that we may be on the brink of some real developments in interracial romance fiction, what with the sudden increase in interracial television stories. I just hope that happens sooner rather than later — I am so impatient when it comes to such things!

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