Romance in the Time of Black Panther
By Alexa Day
I missed you all last month. I’m not going to offer you any excuses. Let’s just say that a lot of things went off the rails at the same time, and that I would much rather have been here with you, and we can leave it at that.
My plan last month was to present you with a post about the phenomenon that is Black Panther. I was going to give you a thumbnail review — short version: IT IS INCREDIBLE — and then I was going to ask some hard questions about why traditional romance publishing can’t be bothered with compelling stories by black creators about black characters. Then, like I said, things went a little crazy and I wasn’t able to get to you last month.
As March went by, I thought I’d have to write a new post. I thought the post I had in mind would certainly be outdated by April.
And I’m wrong. As it happens, the thrust of my post is even more relevant today than it would have been last month.
Let’s begin with the good news.
Black Panther is incredible. Created by black people, featuring a predominantly black cast, and set firmly in the Marvel Universe, it presents an easily accessible story. You don’t need to know anything about superheroes to get into it. The sibling relationships speak to people with siblings. The female characters speak to women who don’t need to be rescued, who have to make a place for their identities in a world that’s constantly changing around them, who have relationships that challenge the traditions they might have grown up with. Things get blown up. Sterling K. Brown will make you cry. No film is perfect, but this one is mighty close.
The New York Times captures the importance of Black Panther’s success — and the essence of my joy surrounding it — in this article. Black Panther is a wildly successful story, featuring black characters, set largely in Africa, that is not about ‘black poverty, black pain, or black suffering,’ the ingredients that typically spell box office billions for movies with predominantly black casts. No slavery. No Jim Crow. No drug abuse. The closest we get to rap music is Klaue, one of the film’s two white characters. I haven’t even said anything about natural hair. Or representation for darker-skinned black women in these powerful, beautiful roles.
When I first wrote this post a month ago, Black Panther was closing in on $800 million dollars in international box office receipts. Today, it’s at $1.3 billion worldwide. It was released about six weeks ago.
People worldwide wanted this story. They loved it. They told their friends and went back for seconds.
At about this time, The Ripped Bodice released the 2017 results of its survey on diversity in romance publishing. This is the romance-only bookstore’s second year asking romance publishers how many of their releases were created by authors of color.
This year’s numbers are worse than last year’s. Last year’s numbers were not good. Here’s a highlight: the imprint with the highest number of romances produced by authors of color in 2017 was Crimson Romance with just over 29%, up from around 12% in 2016. Simon and Schuster shut the imprint down without fanfare within days of the report’s release.
The news gets worse.
In the month since I wrote the first version of this column, Romance Writers of America announced the finalists for the RITA award, which recognizes excellence in romance fiction. RWA noted that there were no black finalists this year. RWA further noted that no black author has ever won the award. The organization recognizes this as a serious problem. I do, too, but I think of it as a symptom of an even larger problem.
I’m damned impressed by the phenomenon that is Black Panther. Don’t get me wrong. But black creators have been producing stories with black characters for decades. Stories that don’t center on poverty, slavery, racism and pain. Stories with loving family relationships and with families facing the same kind of troubles families face all over the world. Stories with heroines who don’t need to be rescued. Women who find love while saving the world or just handling their business or looking the other way.
These stories are everywhere. Sure, some publishers are hiding them (yeah, I said it) in their own separate lines and imprints where readers of other races will have trouble locating them. But they do exist. Indeed, The Ripped Bodice can’t keep some of them on the shelves — some of their best-selling books are romances by black authors.
So if the stories exist, and they are selling, what’s the problem?
Perhaps romance publishing is fully aware of what Black Panther is doing for Hollywood (i.e., stuffing everyone’s pockets full of money) and does not want to risk that happening for them. That seems an odd business model, but hey, I’m just a writer.
Alternately, romance publishing thinks that you, the reader who pays the bills at romance publishing, are too racist to read those books. I do not believe that is true for most of you. I know that describes some people with photographic perfection, but I don’t think that’s most readers.
The obvious answer, of course, is that romance publishing itself is so racist that they will deny access to black authors and will resort to any available excuse to avoid giving black authors access to the marketplace. I will not address this issue further here. I will instead refer you to The Ripped Bodice’s Twitter account. The proprietresses are calling publishers to account for their embarrassing numbers, and I will allow them to speak for themselves.
There are gatekeepers to the romance industry if you want to be traditionally published (if you don't, rock on!)
As much as it sucks to publicly call people out, we seem to be out of options
We don't think this is "mean"
We want businesses to answer for their business practices.
— The Ripped Bodice (@TheRippedBodice) April 2, 2018
Not all superheroes wear capes.
Let us proceed with the presumption that you, the non-black reader, want to address the problem black romance authors are facing. What can you do?
Start by finding some books.
So where do you find romances by black authors? A couple of easy answers come to mind. First, find a black author. You already know me, and everyone knows Beverly Jenkins, and this is probably the last time you’ll ever see the two of us in the same sentence because I’m not worthy. But if you’re wondering who else is out there, well, can I introduce you to Google? When I wanted to know where the nearest auto parts store was, I went to Google for answers. When I wanted to know if my cat would eat me if she were large enough to do so, I went to Google for answers. (She would.) Try Google. Just put in ‘black romance authors.’
I don’t want to fall into the very, very popular trap of making Beverly Jenkins the first and last stop in the world of black romance, and you should avoid that trap, too. Go see WOCinRomance. There are more black romances than you can shake a stick at, and it’s run by a black author, Rebekah Witherspoon. Joyfully Reviewed presents another list of authors of color, complete with Twitter links. So you have a lot of black authors, and an extensive reading list.
Now you have to actually read the books. I wrote about this before. It is not enough for you to spend the money and then pat yourself on the back.
Well … what are the books going to be … about? This is an easy question. I’m glad you brought it to me because I like you all, and I want to make sure you hear this the right way.
The black author’s romance is going to be a romance novel. It will be about the same things any other romance would be about. My friends-to-lovers romance, Illicit Impulse, is at its core much like any other friends-to-lovers romance. There’s another dude in it, and a sex pill, but the center of it is two people wondering if it would be weird to sleep with each other. (Little plug: If you’re interested in Illicit Impulse, you should click that link today. It will be out of print in a few weeks when its publisher closes its doors.)
The sports romances are sports romances. The paranormals are paranormals. The snozzberries taste like snozzberries.
Honey, you’re not going to catch anything from a black author’s romance novel. Find one you think is interesting and read it. If you cannot find a single book on WOCinRomance that you think is interesting, you may be a bigger part of the problem than you realize.
How did you find the last book you read? Word of mouth? Amazon also-boughts? A trusted, romance-only bookstore’s list of bestsellers? This really is the same process.
I’m not trying to be small.
Look, when I was a girl taking the stagecoach to school, I learned very quickly that if I wanted to read about kids having adventures, rescuing racehorses, traveling into the frontier, exploring space, or living in the world outside my small hometown, that meant reading outside my race. I say “kids” because in the era of the stagecoach, it was hard to find books about girls, let alone black girls like me. So while I’ve been reading outside my race forever, I recognize that this was not a requirement for everyone. Let’s be frank. If you’re white, you may have gotten all your fictional needs met without having to read outside your race. You didn’t have to build that habit as a kid, and all habits are harder to build as an adult.
I know it’s hard. Start building now. Ask questions. If people are perhaps a little sharp with you when they answer, ask someone else. But don’t stop reading. Don’t stop discovering.
Twitter has had a lot to say about race and romance in the last few days. I want to leave you with this tweet from a completely different discussion. It’s from a librarian, about one of her young patrons.
At the library:
A kid patron came up to me at the desk, asked me where she could find more mystery books. That she'd read her first mystery & had loved it so much.
So I led her over to the MG mystery series section.
She placed a hand over her heart & whispered, "Oh my gosh."
— June Hur, Queen of the Heo Clan (@WriterJuneHur) February 6, 2018
Doesn’t that make you tear up, the thought of a girl learning that there are shelves and shelves of new books to discover?
That magical, hand-on-heart, oh-my-gosh feeling is here for you, too. I promise.
Google. Go to WOCinRomance. Hit Joyfully Reviewed’s Twitter list. Enjoy that moment of joy as all those covers appear in front of you.
Then get to reading.
The world is waiting. Climb inside.
Alexa Day is the USA Today bestselling author of erotica and erotic romance with heroines who are anything but innocent. In her fictional worlds, strong, smart women discover excitement, adventure, and exceptional sex. A former bartender, one-time newspaper reporter, and licensed attorney, she likes her stories with just a touch of the inappropriate, and her literary mission is to stimulate the intellect and libido of her readers.