A couple of months ago, I did a quick Instagram reel about Black romance in 1994. The idea was to show the contrast between Black romances published in the first half of the year (none!) and the second half after the beginning of the Black Summer of Love.
As I said in my Peeling the Onion talk the other day, I want readers and authors to know they’re not alone, that they are part of a history. Romance fiction is nothing without community, and a community needs to know its history. I hope that my sharing this stuff gives you as a reader a seed of curiosity- a thread you can pull on to build your own understanding of genre history.
One thing I’ve learned in the time since making this reel is that there’s a love story I missed! Invisible Life by E. Lynn Harris, originally published in 1991 by independent Consortium Press, was reprinted by Anchor Books, an imprint of Doubleday in the spring of 1994. Though his 15+ books were written outside of the romance establishment, Harris deserves to be included in this “Class of 1994” as someone who was writing about the life and loves of Black gay men and finding mainstream success doing it.
Learning about romance history is a never ending journey with constant twists and turns and “ah-ha!” moments. I’m glad you’ve joined me!
If I’m honest, I’ve been a little out of practice when it comes to talking to groups lately. That’s why I was so chuffed that Kharma Kelly and the programming team at the Inclusive Romance Project reached out to me to talk a little romance history recently. As I was talking with a group focused on opening up the genre to underrepresented groups, I spent a lot of time talking about the ways in which marginalized romance authors and readers wrote themselves into the narrative. If you weren’t able to make it to the event, you can watch the replay!
If you’d like to dig in a little more, you can check out the Black Romance Author Timeline, and here are the links I mention at the end of the presentation:
The vast majority of category romance writers in the 1980s and 1990s did not create beloved characters or become household names. From their relative anonymity, they turned out book after book, year after year, of happy endings that brought readers happiness. When they pass away or stop writing for some other reason, they often end up forgotten by the reading public. In many cases, those authors were fascinating people in their own right, whose personal stories deserve to be remembered.
There is no more shining example of that than Eva Rutland.
Eva Rutland was born in 1917 in Atlanta, the daughter of a pharmacist and a school teacher. Her grandfather, Isaac Westmoreland, was a former slave who worked as a shoemaker to ensure that each of his children attended college. Eva attended Atlanta’s segregated public schools, and graduated from Booker T. Washington High School, where she appeared on stage with classmate Lean Horne, and went on to Spelman College, where she graduated in 1937. After marrying Bill Rutland, a civilian Air Force employee, the couple moved to Tuskegee, Alabama and Columbus, Ohio before settling in Sacramento, California. While stationed in Tuskegee, Eva underwent an operation that ended up severing her vocal cords, which led to her needing a tracheotomy tube in order to speak.
After her first book, Rutland turned to fiction and began writing stories. She had begun to lose her sight due to retinitis pigmentosa, but did not let that stop her. In a 2011 interview with AARP, Rutland described her early process- she would dictate a story into a tape recorder and then slowly transcribing using a regular typewriter.
In 1988, after years of trying, Rutland’s first book was published by Harlequin. To Love Them All debuted in the Harlequin Romance line in March of 1988, just two months after Eva turned 71. It was followed in November 1988 by another contemporary, At First Sight.
A year later, the author whose favorite book was Pride and Prejudice would become the lead author for Harlequin’s new line of Regency category romances. Matched Pair (1989) is a classic “sweet” fake relationship Regency with, not to give it away, a surprising deus ex machine twist at the end. For several years, Rutland would go back and forth between contemporaries for Harlequin Romance and Regencies for Harlequin Regency Romance, until the latter line’s demise in 1993- after that she only wrote contemporary stories. Among her Regency romances is 1991’s The Willful Lady, which I mention mostly because it has one of the most delightful covers in romance history, featuring a man falling down while trying to hold on to a Macaw.
Of the 18 titles Eva Rutland wrote for Harlequin only the last, 2005’s Heart and Soul, published when she was 88, features a Black main character. In a 2000 profile for the Orlando Sentinel, she says that she had once considered writing an earlier book with a Black character, but had been dissuaded by a friend. During the time Eva was writing for Harlequin, the publisher put out only a handful of stories with Black main characters, so one can imagine a writer who wanted to keep working with the publisher not wanting to mess with success. Even authors like Sandra Kitt and Chassie West, who had in the early 1980s written groundbreaking books with Black characters for the publisher, were mainly writing white protagonists for Harlequin.
It is worth taking a moment here to point out that while we know that Eva Rutland was one of the few Black authors writing for Harlequin in the 1980s and 1990s, we cannot definitely say how many others there might have been. Many authors published under pseudonyms, and would’ve been either implicitly or explicitly told to stick to writing white characters for their books, which may have led them to write very little or later disavow what they did write. We just can’t be certain. Rutland’s status as the first Black author to write a Regency romance for Harlequin is undeniable, however.
Eventually, Eva would team up with Sandra Kitt and Anita Richmond Bunkley to write novellas with Black characters, this time for Signet- 1996’s Sisters and 1999’s Girlfriends. Rutland’s stories in these books- Guess What’s Cooking in Sisters and Choices in Girlfriends– would end up being her only romances to feature Black couples.
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 Mendingunder 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.
Every collector of anything has that short list of items in the back of their mind that they’d instantly pay any price for if they find it in the right circumstances. Sometimes it’s something well known and rare like a missile-firing Boba Fett or a Billy Ripken error card, and sometimes it’s something a bit more obscure, like the anti-drug Spider-Man storyline that was printed without the Comics Code seal in 1971.
The collecting of romance novels has historically been a little different. Readers have collected entire lines or accumulated all the works of a particular author. Others have simply never gotten rid of any romance they ever read, resulting in time capsule storage rooms like the one in this tiktok video. Still, a few rare things float out there drawing excitement whenever they appear. Nora Roberts completists might yearn for a copy of Rhapsody Romance Magazine no. 8, containing her simultaneously acknowledged but disavowed story Melodies of Love. Fans of Johanna Lindsey will search long and hard for a first printing of 1985’s Tender is the Storm with its controversial and revealing cover.
But other romances are collectible because of what they represented when they were published. Entwined Destinies by Rosalind Welles is one of those books.
Written by journalist Elsie B. Washington under the pen name Rosalind Welles, Entwined Destinies was a collaboration with Candlelight Romance editor Vivian Stephens, and was acclaimed as the first time a Black author had written a category romance with Black characters. The book received a considerable amount of press and a reported 60,000 copy print run, but it’s nearly impossible to find a copy of that original printing today. Two reprints exist- a UK edition and an edition published in 1994 by Genesis Press- but those are difficult to find as well.
I have searched for the Candlelight edition of this book for at least five years, but it rarely shows up in any of the usual places. And when it has, the prices have frequently been too rich for my blood, sometimes reaching over $100, or the copies have been in poor condition and not worth it. There may be a few reasons for this scarcity- Vivian Stephens has said that the actual print run was closer to 30,000, small for a romance at the time, and other sources have indicated that it was mostly distributed in “urban market”, suggesting that any remaining copies would be geographically clustered, making it unlikely you’d run across it today at the local used bookstore. Also, many of those existing copies may already be in the hands of collectors reluctant to part with such a significant text.
You can imagine how thrilled I was to come across the book on AbeBooks a few weeks ago. The condition was listed as “good”, which isn’t terribly helpful, and there was no image of the book, but the price was less than $100, so I gambled. Imagine my surprise when it arrived and it was the nearly pristine copy pictured above. It shows almost no signs of wear and was likely never even read. A truly fortunate find that I’ll treasure forever. The cover image is worth zooming in on here:
The simple vignette by artist Joel Iskowitz sets the scene in London and gives us magazine correspondent Kathy in an embrace with oil tycoon Lloyd. As innocuous as it seems, it marked the first time a category romance publisher had featured a Black couple on the cover. Harlequin wouldn’t catch up until Sandra Kitt’s Adam and Eva, purchased by Vivian Stephens during her short time with the company, four years later.
Like Rubie Saunders, Elsie Washington was a pioneer in the magazine industry. After graduating from City College of New York with a journalism degree, she went to work for the New York Post before becoming one of the first black reporters at Life Magazine. From there she moved on to become and editor at Newsweek, which is where she was working when she wrote Entwined Destinies.
In addition to her work at Essence, Elsie Washington published a non-fiction book in 1996 titled Uncivil War: The Struggle Between Black Men and Women. I’ve also found evidence that Washington was behind a zine called African-American People during the 1990s, but I’ve never seen a copy- if you have, let me know!
Elsie B. Washington passed away in 2009. With a single book she left an indelible mark on the romance genre, something few can say.
Quick note: If you read my entry about Rubie Saunders, you’ll recall that Saunders published earlier, which muddies the waters a bit on Entwined Destinies’ claim of first. There are arguments to be made on both sides, but let’s suffice it to say that Entwined was definitely the first of the 80s American romance boom.