I want to start by saying that this will not be a static post. I’ve been piecing together the history of Black authors in romance for something close to five years and I feel like I’m constantly turning up something new. My goal with this post is to get the names, titles and publishers down in one spot, and then keep going back to edit. After all, we have to start somewhere.
It was a conversation with Beverly Jenkins back in 2017 that got me started trying to find all the threads of Black romance history. She mentioned names I hadn’t yet come across as a newbie to the genre- Joyce McGill, Sandra Kitt, Elsie Washington, and more. As an archivist, missing information is something I cannot abide! So I dug, and dug, and continue to dig. While this post goes up to Kimani Romance’s creation in 2005, rest assured that the list of Black romance authors continues to grow to this day.
UPDATE: 04/13/2021- I’ve added Anita Bunkley’s 1989 publication of Emily, The Yellow Rose of Texas to the list. Bunkley went on to become a successful mainstream romance author, but self-published this first book. This predates Beverly Jenkins’ historical Night Song by 5 years, so it’s significant. Given the rejection of Black romance by major romance publishers, there are likely other self-published authors I’m not aware of (in fact, I know there are) during the last half of the 20th century who belong on this list. I’m going to try and add them as I find them.
UPDATE: 2/2/2022- I’ve added Ann Allen Shockley’s Loving Her (1974) to the list. I’d been meaning to get my hands on a copy to better understand whether it would be considered more of a romance or women’s fiction, but either way it warrants inclusion as a groundbreaking lesbian text, so my own reading backlog shouldn’t keep it off the list.
UPDATE: 2/23/2022- After some recent discussions and reflection, I’ve renamed this post as “A Black Romance Author Timeline” so as not to conflate Black authors with Black Romance. Black Romance is a book written by a Black author, with Black main characters and a happy ending. It does not include interracial romance, which is its own entirely valid thing. My goal here is to highlight Black authors who have written Black and/or interracial romance stories because of their importance to the genre as a whole.
UPDATE: 7/19/2022- I’ve added the list of books published by Leticia Peoples at Odyssey. This info came from Rebecca Romney of Type Punch Matrix, and I’m incredibly thankful for this, since it’s previously been hard to identify all of the titles from this short-lived but important publisher.
UPDATE: 2/1/2023- I added an entry for Patricia Vaughn, and added to Shirley Hailstock’s entry.
UPDATE: 2/14/2023- I’ve added Francis E.W. Harper, whose links to Black romance are outlined in Beverly Jenkins’ excellent chapter in Black Love Matters.
This list is in rough chronological order. It is NOT COMPREHENSIVE! Please let me know if there are names and publishers I’m missing and I’ll be happy to update it!
- 1892: Frances E.W. Harper– Harper publishes Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted, one of the first novels published by a Black woman, in 1892. While the novel covers many topics, it includes the relationship between Iola Leroy and Dr. Frank Latimer, making it the first novel by a Black author to portray the love story (with a happy ending!) of two Black protagonists.
- 1969- 1971: Rubie Saunders– Saunders wrote four books between 1969-1971 chronicling the life and loves of Nurse Marilyn Morgan, R.N. The books were published by Signet/New American Library under their Nurse Romance line.
- 1974: Ann Allen Shockley- Already a groundbreaking librarian and archivist of Black literature at Fisk University in Nashville, in 1974 Shockley wrote Loving Her, a novel about an interracial lesbian couple. First released by Bobbs-Merrill in 1974, it was reprinted by Avon in 1978. Prior to its release, few widely-published novels had portrayed Black lesbians, let alone in a positive light.
- 1980: Elise B. Washington– Elsie B. Washington, writing under the pen name Rosalind Welles, penned a single fiction work, 1980’s Entwined Destinies, published by Dell’s Candlelight Romances under the guidance of editor Vivian Stephens. The book received significant media attention, including a review in People Magazine that declared it the “desegregation of the romance rack”.
- 1982: Lia Sanders- Friends Angela Jackson and Sandra Jackson-Opoku teamed up to write The Tender Mending under the pen name Lia Sanders for Vivian Stephens’ Candlelight Ecstasy line in 1982. The title was the first Candlelight Ecstasy to feature a Black couple on the cover. The book was promoted as part of Ecstasy’s “ethnic romance” push, led by Stephens and meant to include more diverse voices in the romance genre. Shortly after the first few books in this effort were published, Stephens moved to Harlequin to start the publisher’s American line, and Dell dropped all of the ethnic romance authors.
- 1982: Tracy West- Acclaimed mystery author Chassie West began her publishing career in 1982 with Lesson in Love for Silhouette’s First Love line of YA romances. The book was the first in the line to feature a Black couple. While West wrote several other titles for First Love, they all featured white couples.
- 1984: Heartline Romances*- In 1984, Los Angeles publisher Holloway House, who specialized in books and magazines aimed at the Black community, announced the start of their Heartline Romances books, their attempt to capitalize on the Romance Wars raging among all of the major publishers at the time. This entry earns an asterisk because as Kinohi Nishikawa points out in the book Street Players: Black Pulp Fiction and the Making of a Literary Underground, most of the Heartline writers were Holloway House’s male staff writers writing under women’s names. Nishikawa suggests that two of the credited authors- Yolande Bertrand and Felicia Woods- may have been Black women, but the biographical information on both is scant.
- 1985: Sandra Kitt– In 1984, Sandra Kitt became one of the few known Black writers for Harlequin. Her second book for the company, Adam and Eva, was published in 1985 and was the first title by the publisher to feature a Black couple.
- 1980s: Doubleday Starlight Romance- Doubleday’s Starlight Romance line featured contemporary romances by several Black authors over the course of the 1980s, including Barbara Stephens, Sandra Kitt, Valerie Flournoy, Rochelle Alers, and Angela Vivian (Angela Dews and Vivian Stephens). The line was sold primarily to libraries, and was not sequentially numbered as many lines were, making it hard to find much information about it.
- 1989: Anita R. Bunkley- In October of 1989, Anita R. Bunkley self-published her first novel. Emily, the Yellow Rose of Texas is a historical romance set in the 1830s, about Emily D. West, the mulatto woman purported to be the subject of the song “The Yellow Rose of Texas”.
- 1990: Odyssey Books- Leticia Peoples began independent publisher Odyssey Books as a way to fulfill what she saw as an unmet need in the market for Black romance. The company lasted just a few years, but launched the careers of authors such as Francis Ray and Donna Hill, and included previously published authors such as Rochelle Alers and Sandra Kitt. Odyssey would publish just 11 books total before closing shop around 1993. Those books were (thanks to Rebecca Romney for sharing her bibliographic work on this!):
- Yamilla, Mildred E. Riley, June 1990 [historical]
- Rooms of the Heart, Donna Hill, June 1990
- Midnight Waltz, Barbara Stephens, February 1991 [sister of Vivian!]
- Indiscretions, Donna Hill, March 1991
- Dark Embrace, Crystal Wilson-Harris, September 1991
- My Love’s Keeper, Rochelle Alers, October 1991
- A Sheik’s Spell, Eboni Snoe, February 1992
- Fallen Angel, Francis Ray, September 1992
- Akayna Sachem’s Daughter, Mildred E. Riley, October 1992 [historical]
- Promises of Summer, Terry Hurt, October 1992 [YA]
- Love Everlasting, Sandra Kitt, February 1993
- 1990: Marron Publishers “Romance in Black”- Brooklyn-based publishing company releases two books under an imprint called “Romance in Black”. The books were Love Signals by Margie Walker and Island Magic by Loraine Barnett (pen name for Marron owner Marquita Guerra).
- 1992: Joyce McGill- Once again we run into Chassie West, who wrote adult romances under the name Joyce McGill for Silhouette’s Intimate Moments line. Her 1992 romantic suspense title Unforgivable was the first adult Silhouette title by a Black author, with Black main characters.
- 1994: Arabesque- Walter Zacharias, founder of Kensington Publishing, created the Arabesque line in July 1994 under the company’s Pinnacle imprint. The first line dedicated to Black authors telling stories of Black love, legendary editor Monica Harris opened the line with books by established authors Sandra Kitt (Serenade) and Francis Ray (Forever Yours).
- 1994: Beverly Jenkins- The same month as the launch of Arabesque, Beverly Jenkins made her debut with the historical romance Night Song, published by Avon. Jenkins has gone on to publish more than 50 titles in both historical and contemporary settings.
- 1994: Maggie Ferguson- Looks are Deceiving by Maggie Ferguson was the first Harlequin Intrigue written by a Black author. Ferguson wrote four books for the line.
- 1995: Brenda Jackson- In 1995, Arabesque published Brenda Jackson’s first book, Tonight and Forever. In 2002, Delaney’s Desert Sheikh became the first Silhouette Desire book to be written by a Black author. Jackson has been incredibly prolific over the course of her career, publishing more than 100 books.
- 1995: Genesis Press- Begun in 1995, Genesis Press published some original romance titles but specialized in reprinting out of print titles by Elsie Washington, Donna Hill, Gwynne Forster and more. The company also printed the 1999 edition of Kathryn Falk’s book How to Write a Romance for the New Markets, which was the first edition of the book include segments written by Black authors. Genesis Press suffered financial woes and filed for bankruptcy in 2013.
- 1996: Patricia Vaughn- In 1996, Vaughn published Murmur of Rain with Pocket, a historical romance featuring Black characters, set in Paris in the 1890s. Vaughn would write another historical for Pocket, Shadows on the Bayou, in 1998. In 2021, Vaugh spoke with Dr. Julie Moody-Freeman on the Black Romance Podcast about her writing career.
- 1998: BET Books- In 1998, Robert Johnson’s BET purchased the Arabesque line from Kensington. While Kensington continued to publish the books, BET provided the promotion, and adapted several books into TV movies that aired on the BET network.
- 2000: Dafina- Because of an agreement Kensington signed when selling the Arabesque line, they were prevented from publishing Black romance. When that provision expired, they started the Dafina line. The line continues today and has published authors like Donna Hill, Cheris Hodges, Rebekah Weatherspoon, and Kianna Alexander among many others.
- 2002: Shirley Hailstock– From 2002-2003, Shirley Hailstock served as the first Black president of the Romance Writers of America. Hailstock was one of the original Kensington Arabesque authors, with her first novel, Whispers of Love, appearing in September 1994. Hailstock’s 1995 book Clara’s Promise was the first historical romance published in the Arabesque line.
- 2006: Kimani Romance- In 2005, Harlequin purchased BET’s publishing arm and formed Kimani Press as a new arm to publish romance, women’s fiction, and non-fiction aimed at Black readers. Kimani Romance was the first dedicated Black romance line to exist at a major publishing house. Kimani Romance was discontinued in 2018.
Are you focusing only on the paperback romance lines? Frank Yerby began writing hardcover historical romances with The Foxes of Harrow (1946). He wrote about white characters initially, but years later wrote The Dahomean (1971).
That’s a good question! For the moment I’ve mostly focused on paperback lines and authors specifically associated with romance as a genre. Yerby is definitely on my radar, but I haven’t had the chance to really dig into his work. I know that several authors, including Beverly Jenkins, cite him as an influence.