[Print edition page number: 103]
In 2018 under the pen name Elysabeth Grace I published my first romance novel, Fate’s Match. As I wrote in the author’s note, the romance story of the main characters, Amina and Michael, had its roots in a historical and troubling narrative about a Black African woman (“the negress Maria”) and the Englishman Francis Drake (Hendricks 2018). The series, Daughters of Saria, is indebted to a range of early modern English literary texts (John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Ligon’s History of Barbados, Shakespeare’s Richard III, and, of course, the historical accounts of Francis Drake’s voyages). The series owes a greater debt to Heliodorus’s early modern English translators and adaptors, Milton’s Lucifer/Satan, and to Aphra Behn for inspiring my scholarly and writerly interest in the intersection of racism and the romance genre. As authors whose fictional texts lay bare the racecraft at work in early modern English culture, these writers not only aided and abetted English racism, anti-Blackness, and white supremacy, they also exposed its fractures.
Fate’s Kiss, Book 2 of my Daughters of Saria, is set during the reign of Charles II, the world in which Behn lived. The Black female protagonist of Fate’s Kiss, Anne Willoughby, is a shapeshifter who engages in white passing. She is fully aware of the performative nature of white passing and the dangers inherent in being caught out. Yet, just as Forbidden’s Rhine Fontaine used his wealth and “whiteness” to ameliorate the plight of newly-liberated Black peoples following the United States Civil War, Anne uses her ability to become white to liberate or protect others, especially those who are targeted by racism and racial capitalism. White-passing Anne not only positions her whiteness as a buffer against racism; she does not diminish who she is as a Black romance character. In essence, like Rhine, Anne makes a deliberate choice to disrupt white supremacist logic (albeit, because Fate’s Kiss and all of the Daughters of Saria novels are paranormal romances, Anne’s principal enemy is Satan and his rebellious co-conspirators).
Comparable to Clorinda, Anne is a warrior, although a supernatural one. She is an expert with swords and knives and uses them against her enemies. Where the two women differ is in awareness of their origins and the outcome of their romance relationship. Anne is fully aware of her African-born matrilineal ancestry and the somatic skin coloring her white passing conceals. For Anne, whiteness is flesh she puts on and takes off as if it were a gown, something to be worn to protect herself and the women who who make up the exclusive Holland’s League brothel. Anne’s concealed Blackness, however, is not the major conflict in Fate’s Kiss that it is for Clorinda in Godfrey of Bulloigne and thus does not constitue an obstacle to an eventual happily ever after. Both Anne and the male protagonist, Gabriel, survive the violence that nearly costs them their lives and the novel ends conventionally and in line with Heliodorus’s romance.
Similar to all romance fiction, from Heliodorus to Beverly Jenkins, my novels work within the parameters of the generic conventions of romance. The main protagonists overcome the obstacles that impede their the happily ever after, the villains face justice for their actions, and the storyline is recognizable as a romance. As an author of romance novels, I am part of a larger writing community (Romancelandia) very much shaped by limitations and possibilities that the romance genre has promised since its inception. The possibilites of the romance genre lie in its popularity and accessibility, and, despite the naysayers, romance novels have probably done more for universal literacy than the genres of poetry and drama. While storytelling is inherent in all genres of literary writing, the romance novel engages its readers not as adversaries, but as co-conspirators. What I mean by this statement is that readers do not have to “work” to grasp the stories, the themes, or the conflicts at play in romance fiction. There is meaning but one does not have to master Greek or Latin, prosody, or Aristotelian notions of tragedy to comprehend what is at work in a romance novel. This not to say there aren’t expectations on the part of the author or reader. Rather, what exists is a consensual relationship between author and reader that mirrors the relationship between romance lovers. This is the gift the romance genre offers to its readership.
However, the romance genre has also been deeply imbricated in racial capitalism and white supremacy. As we witnessed with Fairfax/Tasso’s reimagining of Heliodorus’s Aethieopica, the female protagonist’s Ethiopian genealogy, her Black parentage, is irreconciable with her white-presenting body. Godfrey of Bulloigne is the racecraft that allows us to see the racism at work in early modern English romance fiction. Because the world-builing of Godfrey of Bulloigne is temporally, geographically, and culturally different from the world-building of Aethieopica, how whiteness, Blackness, and white presenting work in the early modern English text must align with the racism operative in English social, political, and economic parameters. The forms of enslavement and colonialism present in Heliodorus’s world are not identical to those at work in seventeenth-century England.
Therefore, to read or see the implications of Clorinda’s Ethiopian-ness and the necessity for her death, we must attend to the anti-Blackness that maps cultural discourse and representations of Africans in early modern English cultures. The interchangability of Black, Ethiopian, and Negro as signifers of an ideology of colorism makes it impossible for any character who wears one of these labels to escape the effects of racism. While I am not arguing there is a direct literary genealogy between all the romance texts I’ve discussed in this book, I do believe the racecraft that necessitated Clorinda’s death also set into motion one of the most pernicious and long-lasting cultural ideas within white Anglo-American romance fiction — the idea that Black people and happily ever afters are incompatible, that trauma, not love, is the definitive representation of Black peoples’ experiences (especially in the United States). This view, sadly, shaped many of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century African American novels even when authors placed Black love at the center of their storytelling.
At the end of the twentieth century, a sea change occurred in the romance publishing industry and in the romance genre as a whole. Technology enabled marginalized voices to circumvent the strictures of a largely racist publishing industry and produce romance fiction not bound by racism, misogny, sexism, ableism, and classism. Within traditional publishing spaces, Black writers such as Brenda Jackson, Beverly Jenkins, and Francis Ray created romance fiction that not only centered Black romance happily ever afters but offered characterizations not steeped in trauma. These authors produced representations that reflected the complexities of Black American communities rather than a monolithic narrative rooted in Black trauma in the aftermath of enslavement, Jim Crowism, and white supremacist violence. While traditional publishing has been slow to embrace Black romance not designed for white readership of a certain age, class, and sexuality (primarily heterosexual or “cis-het”) locked into a model of representation codified in white supremacist logic about what makes a “perfect” romance relationship, non-traditional pubishing venues have supported the desires of romance authors and readers from a variety of marginalized communities.
Whether dealing with complex social issues such as white passing, economic class, sexuality, disability, interracial romances, and community, contemporary Black romance authors reject the naturalized conclusions about the inevitable failure of white-presenting Black protagonists such as Clorinda or the Phils to enjoy a happily ever after. Romance as a genre tends to resist absolutes except for the happily ever after. Importantly, it is the romance genre’s flexibility as a literary form to accommodate whatever fictional premise or historically-based storyline an author wishes to create. Paradoxically, it is romance’s flexibility that also permits the detection of a culture’s racecraft. It is this watermark of racism, in all its variations, that permits a study like Race and Romance: Coloring the Past to exist.