Real Love: Beverly Jenkins writes romance fiction to tell African-American history


Beverly Jenkins

Beverly Jenkins wants to challenge your thoughts about romance fiction.

When her first book, Night Song, was published in 1994, there wasn’t a market for romance novels featuring people of color, and many African-American-focused novels centered on slavery. But Jenkins continued to pursue her vision of highlighting the love stories of black people, often set in the 19th century. Now, 37 novels later, the Detroit-raised Belleville resident is a superstar in romance fiction.

The prolific writer earned the celebrated Romance Writers of America Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017, further cementing Jenkins' status as a legend in the romance market. But Jenkins isn't just about love stories. She has said she wants to show how black people in America have “turned their lemons into lemonade,” and Jenkins continues with her mission to educate folks about African-American history with her emphasis on Juneteenth, the holiday that commemorates the end of American slavery on June 19, 1865.

On Monday, June 18 at AADL's Malletts Creek branch, Jenkins will present "The Historical Background of Juneteenth" from 7:00 pm to 8:30 pm. During this event, Jenkins will talk about, educate, and celebrate this milestone in American history.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Beverly Jenkins about her literary influences, if men read her work, and the importance of providing love stories featuring minorities.

Q: What was your earliest influence in becoming an author?
A: I think every book I ever read influenced me on the road to becoming an author.  Reading feeds the imagination, shows your voice, and how great stories are constructed and framed. 

Q: Many would consider you to be a pioneer for African-Americans in the romance genre. Your first novel, Night Song, was a tough sell as it didn't deal with the implication of slavery. How important is it for you to craft versions of our love stories?
A: If you look at mass media you’d never know African-Americans love. You don’t see it in movies, very rarely on television, so telling our stories as romance writers is incredibly important. It shows what we as a race already know -- African-Americans do love.

Q: Statistics show that woman make up over 80% of romance readers. Do you have male readers that relate to your work? 
A: Many men read my work.  They see themselves in the Buffalo Soldiers, the lawmen of Indian Territory, the Union soldiers, etc. Romance is one of the few places where black men are shown as heroes, and they appreciate that as well. 

Q: What are some of the stereotypes in the romance genre and how do you work to combat them?
A: Romance is sometimes seen as irrelevant, lightweight, frivolous, etc., mostly by people who’ve never read one. I combat it by encouraging them to read the romances being sold today. Many are surprised by what they find. 

Q: What would you say to individuals who aren't interested in reading romance and say that the stories aren't relatable to real life?
A: We all love. We love our parents, our kids, our pets, our siblings. Why would a story about love between two people be deemed irrelevant just because it’s in a novel? Is it because most are written by women?  Is it because some people take issue with women-centered stories? Is it because women win in romance? Is it because stories where women have agency over their own lives makes some people uncomfortable? Do those who deem romance unrelatable feel that way about their own relationships? Those are the questions I counter with.

Q: In your writing, do you draw from any personal experiences?
A: I draw from African-American history, diary accounts, newspapers clippings, and interviews to name just a few sources.

Q: What other African-American authors would you suggest in the romance genre? 
A: There are so many excellent writers in this genre: Alyssa Cole, Deb Fletcher Mello, Iris Bolling, Brenda Jackson, AC Arthur. I suggest readers check out the Women of Color in Romance website and see just how many women of color are writing romance.

Q: You've said in previous interviews, that you "want to light up the parts of black history you don't learn in school." Do you feel you've accomplished this?
A: I’ve shed light on everything from the Fort Pillow Massacre that took place during the Civil War, to the brown and black outlaws and lawmen of Indian Territory, to the ceiling breaking, 19th-century African-American female doctors, to the Great Exodus of 1879 and the small black townships in Kansas that grew from that migration. So, yes, I’ve done my job. And will continue to do so. 

Q: What will be your legacy?
A: My legacy -- I wrote the books I wanted to read about women who looked like me.

Sean Copeland is a desk clerk with the Ann Arbor District Library.

"The Historical Background of Juneteenth" with Beverly Jenkins is at AADL's Malletts Creek branch on Monday, June 18 at 7 pm.