It’s All About Love: Romance Readers Speak Out
by Gwendolyn Osborne
Published: Friday, February 1, 2002

Many Americans hold preconceived notions about romance fiction without having read one of these books. Their knowledge of the genre involves perceptions about Harlequin romances, terms such as “bodice rippers” or “purple prose,” and book covers with Fabio embracing a blonde, blue-eyed ing’nue deep in the throes of passion. It is widely believed that romance fiction only appeals to the type of women a Washington Post reporter once called “the bored and the brain-dead.”

Despite stereotypes of the novels as “poorly written” or “trashy,” readers spend nearly one billion dollars on romance fiction each year. Approximately two out of every three paperback fiction titles purchased are romance novels. Sales of romance fiction surpass those of mysteries, science fiction, and westerns combined. Surprisingly, African-American readers make up the fastest growing segment of the romance reading community, accounting for about 25 percent of the romances sold.  What accounts for this trend?

Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do

Romance novels are good escapist fare, says Jeanette Cogdell, senior reviewer and editor for the popular Internet site Romance in Color (URL was ”Reading a good romance novel helps to balance out the stress involved in everyday living. When reality gets to be a bit too overwhelming for you, romance novels offer an escape to a world you may never live in, but for those few hours of reading, you become a part of.”

But choices were limited for the first generation of African-American romance readers who entered the genre reading books by white authors.  Historical romance author Beverly Jenkins is an African American who was an avid romance reader, growing up on “Victoria Holt, Phyllis Whitney and Georgette Heyer.  When times changed we moved to books by Kathleen Woodiwiss, Rosemary Rodgers and Johanna Lindsay.”

Jenkins recalls, “Not a one [of the romance novels] featured women who looked like us, but as we read them we longed for stories that did feature us, stories that reflected the love our parents shared or our grandparents shared; the love that we saw in that married couple at church who was always holding hands; or the love we see every time we look into our partner’s eyes.”

waiting to exhalePrompted by the enormous success of Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale in 1992, publishers began to accept manuscripts by African-American writers in all genres, including romance. The introduction of the Arabesque line in 1994; releases by authors Beverly Jenkins, Amanda Wheeler and Celene Hardware; and the launch of Genesis Press in 1995 — these events all ushered in a new era in romance novels and the availability of romance novels by and about Black women created a second generation of African-American readers.

Blacks who read the early African-American romance fiction were drawn to the stories about middle-class Blacks with whom they were able to identify and who were involved in committed relationships. But psychologist Renee A. Redd, director of Northwestern University’s Women’s Center, says the benefits for readers are often more than superficial. Redd says that romance fiction provides an escape from the social realities many African-American women face.

”They [romance novels] offer a substitute for those who have resigned to never really being able to find a fulfilling love in their actual lives. The reality of a dearth of available straight Black men for straight Black women is a disconcerting and painful issue before us. For a long time we have lived with the idea of the strong Black woman, who by implication can do without a romantic relationship if she must, but the truth is that she would rather not.”

”…many feminist scholars and literary critics have berated the genre for its steamy sexual content. In addition, African-American scholars believe that the open sexual expression in romance novels can only reinforce negative stereotypes about Black women’s sexuality.”

This acknowledgement the social reality of the lack of marriageable African American men denotes the difference between sister-girl fiction and romance fiction, says second-generation romance reader Jean Dalton of New York City. “In Waiting to Exhale, four educated and successful Black women sat around complaining about Black men who were unable to commit, preferred white women, unemployed, incarcerated, gay, adulterous or sexually inadequate, etc. African-American romance heroines are more in charge of their futures. They aren’t sitting around waiting to exhale.”

Author Gay G. Gunn agreed. “None of us could be found in Black literature at that time. If novels gave us Black women who were about something, they still gave us jerks for mates”

Nonetheless many feminist scholars and literary critics have berated the genre for its steamy sexual content. In addition, African-American scholars believe that the open sexual expression in romance novels can only reinforce negative stereotypes about Black women’s sexuality. Renee Redd says, “I think most Black women still believe that the sexual expressiveness allowed the women in romance novels and to women of other races is not equally extended to Black women. This is profoundly brought to our attention by the continued images of Black women that are universally put forth.” The most prevalent television images of African-American women currently come from talk shows, situation comedies, music videos and crime-related news stories.

And, although some scholars and detractors have equated romance fiction with soft-core pornography, devoted romance readers understand the differences among romance, erotica, and pornography. Shareta Caldwell, a second-generation reader from Los Angeles, says “Romances portray love, romance, and sensuality in an positive adult manner.  In romance novels, a man puts a woman’s pleasure first. This is not the case in pornography.”

Beverly Jenkins
Beverly Jenkins

Jennifer Coates of Chicago enjoys the committed relationships depicted in African-American romances. “In other media, we see intimate relationships being treated casually—like a handshake, but not that personal. The romance, the courting, the mystery seems to have disappeared from contemporary literature.” Coates cites Beverly Jenkins’ Night Song among her favorites because the interaction between the hero and heroine ”demonstrates their appreciation and love for one another and solidified their relationship for me, elevating their sharing and mutual respect from a by-product, to the backbone of their intimate exchanges.”

It’s Not Just a “Girl Thing”

As the debate over the social and literary merits of romance novels continues, the number of Black romances and readers is growing. Interestingly a small number of men are beginning to examine the genre.

Larry Jones, of Fayetteville, North Carolina is a relatively new reader. “Like most men, I used to think that romances were all hugging, kissing and longing looks. But, as I began to read them, I found that they were that and much more. The thing that struck me most, as I read, was that the female characters were not weak women. In fact, they are the kind of strong, Black women that we brothers dream about. They are the kind of women who can give it emotionally, spiritually and physically,” says Jones.

”I really enjoy reading the works of Beverly Jenkins. Her historical romances, set mostly in the post-Civil War period, are exciting reading. She frames her action against the prevailing social and political climate of the day. It is interesting to see how her women deal with and overcome social and racial prejudice. With leading ladies like Cara Henson, Sable LeVeq and Grace Atwood, she is able to create entertaining stories filled with romance, action, suspense, drama and tragedy.

What would it take to get more men to read romance novels?  Jones says once men get over their initial misconceptions about romance fiction, they will find common ground. “They would see familiar situations from a woman’s perspective. It’s also quite possible that by reading “women’s books,” men could learn a little more about how their special woman looks at and feels about things. If I were going to recommend something to another guy, it would most likely be something in the historical vein.”

”I think Beverly Jenkins’ “Topaz” would be a good starter because it’s a good mix of romance, whodunit, action and it’s just plain old good writing,” he adds.

Kay Mussell, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and a Professor of Literature and American studies at American University, agrees.  Mussell, who has written four books about romance fiction, says romance novels are important to study. “Over time, their core values - love, family domesticity, fidelity, monogamy - have remained remarkably consistent while their subject matter and plots have altered with the times. This gives us some insight into how women in different eras perceive their roles, status, and some of the important issues of their day.”

Click to order a love supremeCritics of African-American romances often contend that they do not portray African-American life. A Love Supreme: Real Life Black Love Stories by Calvin and TaRessa Stovall presents real-life examples of many of the fictional plot lines that rival those in African-American romance fiction. And, like romance authors, the Stovalls produced the book to dispel harmful stereotypes of Black male-female relationships presented in the media. Black art truly does imitate Black life for a great many readers and writers.

As Emma Rodgers of Dallas’ Black Images Book Bazaar says, “African-American romance novels are so popular because they reflect the values of the majority of the Black community [better] than most other types of media. The men and women are educated professionals, gainfully employed… or are entrepreneurs, upwardly mobile. The women are independent, career-minded with goals. Both are law-abiding citizens. Readers seldom see these images reflected on the evening news or in the daily paper.”

Themes and Trends

Readers are drawn to strong romance characters, relationships and the escape they provide. As sociologist and romance novelist Gwynne Forster said, “What makes characters uniquely African American is their perspective of the world around them; their optimism and tenacious pursuit of dreams and goals in the presence of towering social impediments; and their ability to laugh at awesome obstacles, or to ignore them and, often, climb over them.”

African-American romances have touched upon a variety of contemporary issues and topics: homelessness (Rendezvous by Bridget Anderson), substance abuse (Slow Burn by Leslie Esdaile and One Love by Lynn Emery), breast cancer (I Promise by Adrianne Byrd), date rape (Hidden Blessings by Jacquelin Thomas) and illiteracy (Pride & Joi by Gay G. Gunn, and Forever Hers by Francis Ray).

Authors have also touched upon topics of specific concern to the African-American community such as class and intraracial discrimination (The Way Home by Angela Benson), the plight of the African-American farmer (For Keeps by Janice Sims), sickle cell disease (Picture Perfect by Reon Carter and Opposites Attract by Shirley Hailstock), organ donation (Precious Heart by Doris Johnson), Black genealogy (A Forever Passion by Angela Winters), and the impact of the foster care system of African-American children (Commitments by Carmen Green and Charade by Donna Hill).

Readers say they enjoy seeing Blacks in a variety of occupations and story lines which include features common to the every day lives of African Americans such as historically Black colleges and universities, Kwanzaa, Black fraternities and sororities, and religious denominations. Popular music also plays an important role in these stories and often provides a backdrop and context for the plot.  A trait specific to African American romances is that between 35 and 40 percent share titles or lyrics with “Old School” songs.

Beyond issues of race, African-American authors have begun to change the look of romance. Love comes in all sizes, shapes and skin tones. There are romances among Blacks throughout the African Diaspora. Full-figured women have been showcased as primary love interests in novels that depart from the one-size-fits-all school of romance. These include The Look of Love by Monica Jackson, Mad About You by Roberta Gayle, and Fantasy by Raynetta Ma’ees.

And, as baby boomers mature, many storylines have begun to reflect the changing demographic. Felicia Mason’s Body and Soul is a December-May romance between a 47-year-old woman with five grown children and a successful 30-something lawyer. More recent titles (with older heroes, too!) include Rochelle Alers’ novellas ”Far From Home,” “Stand-In Bride,” and “From the Heart”; Layle Giusto’s Silver Love; Monica Jackson’s Never Too Late for Love; and Janice Sims’ A Second Chance at Love.

Texas author Evelyn Palfrey writes books she calls “romances for the marvelously mature. “I enjoyed reading romances, but I was way past where the storylines and heroines were. Some of the main characters were the same age as my children and I had already come through some of the problems they faced. I began writing because I wanted to read stories about women like me,” says Palfrey. Her novels include Three Perfect Men, The Price of Passion, Dangerous Dilemmas, and Everything in Its Place. Subplots have touched upon menopause, second- chance romances and grandparents raising their grandchildren.

You Can’t Judge a Book By Its Cover

While there are those who complain that the characters inside African-American romances are not Black enough, others complain that the characters outside the novels might be “too Black.” In an Arlington Morning News story about crossover marketing of African-American romances, a magazine publisher indicated that the covers, which show Blacks in Afrocentric styles, might make white readers uncomfortable.

Click to buy on-line now
Until There Was Yo
Francis Ray

”There are many people who might see the covers of the books, which often feature women with braids or short kinky cuts and men with clean-shaven heads and dark skin, as being too black and in-your-face” She went on to suggest covers without people.

African-American romance readers chafe at the notion of removing Black characters from the covers to make the stories more palatable to non-Black readers. Shareta Caldwell says, “I like it when there are Black faces on the books, especially if the cover is an accurate portrait of the character in the book. That is the reason I picked up Beverly Jenkins’ Indigo. I loved the picture. And I don’t like the idea of fooling people by not having real Black people on the front. If White readers can’t get past the braids, locks, bald-heads, and Black skin on the cover, then how are they going to get through the book?”

The boom in African-American romances has created a market for male cover models.  On the covers of African-American romances, it’s not Fabio, it’s Demetrius. He, Daryl Farmer and Kendall McCarthy are popular with readers. In addition, Arabesque/BET Books has held an annual cover model search. The winners have graced the covers of a September release for the last three years. This year’s winner, Paul Haney, is a Washington D.C. - area firefighter who was among those who responded to the September 11 attack on the Pentagon. Fittingly, is appears on Dierdre Savoy’s Holding Out for a Hero.

Romance in the New Millennium

The genre currently is in a state of change. Several established authors like Donna Hill and Francis Ray are making the transition into mainstream fiction just as more publishers are beginning to publish African-American romances. Mid-list authors are making steps up. New authors are entering the genre. Edwina Martin-Arnold, Seressia Glass, Tamara Sneed, Reon Carter Laudat and Niobia Bryant are part of the next generation of romance writers.

However, readers like Jeanette Cogdell are cautiously optimistic. She is concerned about the encroachment of hip-hop values into a genre that is definitely “Old School.” “Courtship, marriage, commitment and sex are definitely seen differently by this generation,” says Cogdell.

It’s All About Love

African-American romance readers are not a monolithic group. They enjoy story lines that illustrate the depth and breadth of African-American culture, that depict their history, and that dispel stereotypes.  Readers are drawn to the romance genre because the stories provide an escape and are devoid of racial conflict, gratuitous sex and profanity. African-Americans who read romance novels tend to be avid readers who enjoy other forms of African-American literature, and books in other genres by black non-black authors.  Despite the predictability of the happy ending, readers enjoy  discovering how the author is going to resolve conflicts between the main characters.

Suggested Reading

Alers, Rochelle. (1999). Summer Magic. New York: Arabesque/BET Books.
Click to order via Amazon

Alers, Rochelle, Hill, Donna, Jackson, Brenda, & Ray, Francis. (2000).
Welcome to Leo’s. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Click to order via Amazon

Alers, Rochelle, Hill, Donna, Mason, Felicia, & Ray, Francis. (1999).
Rosie’s Curl and Weave. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Click to order via

Esdaile, Leslie, Henderson, T.T., & Thomas, Jacquelin. (2001) After the Vows, Genesis Press.
Click to order via Amazon

Green, Carmen. (1997). Silken Love. New York: Arabesque/BET Books
Click to order via Amazon

Gunn, Gay G. (1997). Nowhere to Run. Columbus, Miss.: Genesis Press.
Click to order via Amazon

Hill, Donna. (1997). Intimate Betrayal. New York: Arabesque/BET Books
Click to order via Amazon

Jackson, Brenda. (1997). Eternally Yours. New York: Arabesque/BET Books.
Click to order via Amazon

Jackson, Brenda. (2000). Secret Love. New York: Arabesque/BET Books.
Click to order via Amazon

Jenkins, Beverly. (1996). Indigo. New York: Avon Books.
Click to order via Amazon

Jenkins, Beverly. (1997). Topaz. New York: Avon Books.
Click to order via Amazon

Mason, Felicia. (1995). Body and Soul. New York: Arabesque/BET Books.
Click to order via Amazon

Ray, Francis. (2000). Heart of the Falcon. New York: Arabesque/BET Books
Click to order via Amazon

Sims, Janice. (1999). A Bittersweet Love. New York: Arabesque/BET Books
Click to order via Amazon