Beverly Jenkins and Brenda Jackson
By Dharshan Varia (2022)
Two prominent romance novelists of the 1990s, Beverly Jenkins and Brenda Jackson, worked to include black characters in romance novels to redefine the genre’s representation. As a university librarian, Jenkins began writing novels after being exposed to African American history while working at the library’s reference desk (National Trust for Historic Preservation 2015). Jenkins has explained that when reading growing up, no romance novels she read featured people of color (Moody-Freeman 2020). Jackson’s initial interest in romance novels came in the form of a pastime to destress after work, but she quickly realized the lack of diversity within the genre (Coates 2007). Neither author started their career in writing and their paths were very different, but both were avid readers and saw a need for portraying people of color in romance novels. In fact, before Jenkins and Jackson started publishing, there were less than thirty romance novels featuring black characters in leading roles (Israel and Drew 1995). During a time when black representation in romance novels was few and far between, both novelists helped to change an industry that only associated white people with romance fiction. Reviewers and readers praised them for their character development and research process, respectively, and their use of physical characteristics to increase diversity. Their writing was exactly what readers wanted, but also provided variety to existing novels at that time. This report seeks to show that Jenkins and Jackson’s writing received praise and became popular because of their respective abilities to showcase historical and contemporary, everyday black romance and subsequently create representation. I will do this by examining reactions in book reviews to their novels and newspaper articles between 1990 and 1999.
Before Jenkins started publishing, the main themes written by black romance novelists highlighted the struggles of black people in facing racism (Israel and Drew 1995). Jenkins veered away from this common theme, wanting to showcase genuine black history from a romance lens. Jenkins’ first novel, Night Song, was published in 1994 by Avon and is about a Kansas schoolteacher who falls in love with a Tenth Cavalry soldier, set after the Civil War (Israel and Drew 1995). Jenkins then went on to write four more novels between 1994 and 2000, including Vivid, Topaz, Through the Storm, The Taming of Jessi Rose, and the very popular Indigo (National Trust for Historic Preservation 2015). Reviews for these books ranged in style but were similar in praising her character development and representation of black characters. The 1995 review published in People, “Heat in Another Color,” goes so far as to say that Night Song “has everything you could ask for in a romance novel” (Israel and Drew 1995).
This review, like many others, commends Jenkins for her mastery of the romance novel, as she was able to effectively combine black history and romance and quickly developed a following. She was able to tap into a necessity that was not previously met in the industry, as black women made up approximately one-third of the industry’s readership in 1995 (Israel and Drew 1995). After her first two novels, Jenkins received over 600 pieces of fan mail (Greenwood 1996). She helped to expand the industry by helping to further attract an audience that had never been represented. Furthermore, the representation included in her novels attracted people globally and even women who were not formerly romance fans (Greenwood 1996).
Brenda Jackson’s Madaris Family and Friends series was her first in her efforts to increase representation in the industry (Coates 2007). Published by Kensington initially, Madaris Family and Friends series is Jackson’s main series (Jackson 1995). The series includes fourteen novels portraying various struggles and events that are a part of daily life (Coates 2007). Her first novel in the series, Tonight and Forever, is about Lorren Jacobs, a recent divorcée. Jacobs meets Dr. Madaris and they fall in love (Coates 2007). This series further includes elements of black representation, through detailed physical appearance from the beginning. In fact, in the first few pages of her 1995 novel, Tonight and Forever, Jackson uses the words, “nutmeg” and “chestnut” to describe Madaris and Jacobs’ skin (Jackson 1995). From the outset of the novel, Jackson very specifically describes black skin to add to diversity. This story could be found within the context of any race, but Jackson uses the element of physical appearance to increase representation.
Jackson followed up Tonight and Forever with more Madaris Family and Friends novels, publishing One Special Moment in 1998 (Coates 2007). One Special Moment is about Colby Wingate, who wants celebrity Sterling Hamilton to help her family’s cosmetic company by advertising for them (Falk 1998, 90). Sterling wants Colby to carry his baby and the novel follows their interactions as a result. In 1998, one review in the Romantic Times applauded Jackson’s One Special Moment, calling it the “pinnacle of literary and commercial excellence…that is sure to be a runaway bestseller” (Falk 1998, 90). Jackson wrote a novel about a black family business and a prominent black celebrity, which is completely different than Jenkins’ historical romance focus. While Jackson focused on romance with black people working and living in all roles, Jenkins focused on historical romance. They both were able to cater to the large audience of black women within the romance novel market as well as attract black readers that had not previously read romance into the industry (Israel and Drew 1995).
Entering the Industry
As each author began to publish, the industry recognized that their motivations and goals were different than most authors that wrote novels featuring characters of color prior to the 1990s. Wall Street Journal reporter Eleena De Lisser interviewed Jackson in September 1994, who said that her series, Arabesque, was created to display black characters (De Lisser 1994). Jackson and Jenkins did not only display black characters, but they also included detailed physical descriptions. In a February 1996 interview with the Toronto Star, one reader said that seeing braided hair with extensions depicted in novels was a uniquely recognizable trait for black women (Greenwood 1996). The physical appearance of characters is an important part of culture, especially for a group that was not represented prior. In their efforts to increase representation, both Jackson and Jenkins successfully incorporated accurate depictions of black people in their novels.
As Jenkins and Jackson made efforts to widen representation, publishers and booksellers were initially slow to react. Mainstream publishing houses and bookstores intentionally used the word “ethnic” to segregate Jenkins’ and Jackson’s novels (De Lisser 1994). Publishers used the word ethnic to classify them apart from mainstream romance novels, which Jenkins felt inhibited potential exposure and readership (Jordan 2017). Despite the separation of their novels, Jenkins and Jackson proved to be influential as their widespread success in sales helped convince other publishing companies to move away from working only with white authors who portrayed white characters (Israel and Drew 1995). Avon, Jenkins’ publisher, helped increase black romance novels in major distribution and purchasing sites after signing with her. Although publishers had hired black authors prior, Avon’s actions represented a major romance publishing company promoting representation (Bradley 1994). Each author within their respective niche worked hard to include elements in their novels that they would have wanted to read.
Beverly Jenkins’ Novels
Jenkins was able to weave together elements of black civil war history with romance in Night Song. One of Jenkins’ main motivations in writing was covering history that happened during the time between the civil war and the civil rights movement (Israel and Drew 1995). Avon picked up the novel for its unique concept and Night Song quickly became an icon among romance readers of color, as people would spend hours reading through the book repeatedly (Israel and Drew 1995). Jenkins’ style of writing with combining black history and romance left readers obsessed.
Two years later, after Indigo was published, Chicago Tribune writer Pamela Sherrod interviewed Jenkins in February 1998. Jenkins explained that she used her romance novels to tie together everyday life for black people with their history (Sherrod 1998). Although Jenkins was primarily writing for the romance genre, the duality of her work in allowing people to both enjoy and learn further explains why she became so popular. She was able to intertwine her goals of writing in a manner that gave her novels a rich, detailed history. In researching her novels, Jenkins looked deeply through journals of African American history (Falk 1998, 8). In a Romantic Times profile from February 1998, Jenkins speaks about her research process and comments on the bibliography she includes so that the actual events can be understood (Falk 1998, 8). She meticulously researched to contextualize black history, contributing to her popularity (Bates 2021). Indigo is a prime example of Jenkins’ research contributing to a very successful book, as her carefully researched novels drew in readers and made them want to continue reading (Israel and Drew 1995).
Brenda Jackson’s Novels
As Beverly Jenkins helped to fill a niche specifically with black historical romance, Jackson expanded the genre and wrote about contemporary black romance. Jackson furthered the ability to make black romance novels more representative with one of her more popular novels, Secret Love. In 1999, a reviewer in Publishers Weekly said that Jackson’s “talent for character development imparts credibility…” (“Secret Love” 1999). Jackson’s work was all about the characters and helping to deepen them became one of her main talents. The detail helped people of color see themselves in romance novels, with physical appearance and as a result, everyday activities and careers.
Jackson was not only praised for her character development but her ability to write effective and “steamy” romance. Speaking to Jackson’s Fire and Desire in June 1999, one reviewer in Publishers Weekly claims that Jackson “turns up the heat in the already steamy surroundings” (“Fire and Desire” 1999). This is exactly what Jackson aimed to accomplish, providing black characters with a platform to be in romance novels where the focus is purely for the goal of romance. This ability effectively proves to be a reason behind Jackson’s immense success as a novelist.
The Response of Publishing Houses
Both novelists helped pave the way for publishing houses to recognize that black romance would flourish in the larger romance novel market. A pivotal example of their success and growing readership was reviews and booklists, as Night Song was even chosen as the runner-up for the Doubleday Book Club (Israel and Drew 1995). Following rave reviews, large publishers, including Avon, Pinnacle Books, and Harlequin moved towards including multicultural novels, or books that highlight characters of color (Israel and Drew 1995; Bradley 1994). Novels featuring Hispanic and Native American characters followed suit (Bradley 1994). In 1999, Judith Rosen wrote in Publisher’s Weekly about this further shift. Rosen cites Jenkins as an integral factor in changing the industry, convincing publishers, and bookstores alike to include more multicultural romance (Rosen 1999). Before this time, publishers overlooked the need for representation, as they were primarily led by those who were already over portrayed in the industry. Ignorance by publishing houses continued with the separation of black romance novels.
In entering the industry, Jackson and Jenkins’ novels were separated into a separate category, the “ethnic” category (De Lisser 1994). Their subgenres within the romance fiction industry were vastly different, but this did not stop booksellers from categorizing them together. Jackson won the best multicultural novel award for her “Valentine Kiss” anthology in the Romantic Times magazine (Molineux 1996). Jenkins won the 1994 Waldenbooks Bestseller Award for multicultural romance for Night Song (Rosen 1999). In this decade, it seems that both authors, even for their excellent writing, were given praise only through the lens of writing with multicultural characters in mind. Furthermore, in several Romantic Times magazines published in 1998, the top picks page would have a separate category for African American romance (Falk 1998). This later changed to multicultural romance, but the categories were obviously separate from mainstream romance picks.
Even though the “ethnic” category inherently addressed diversity, it was not helpful for Jenkins and Jackson. Jenkins spoke about the “multicultural” category in a 2017 interview saying that grouping black romance novels in this category was not helpful for authors (Jordan 2017). People did not take their novels for what they were, and segregation ensued (Jordan 2017). Although their novels were very critically acclaimed by reviewers and magazines, their novels got less exposure from greater romance readership because of the grouping in this category (Jordan 2017). As much as Jenkins and Jackson worked to portray everyday characters, the industry deemed black characters as out of the ordinary.
Jenkins and Jackson wanted to expand representation to respectively portray contemporary and historical black romance. Their individual techniques in creating black historical and multicultural contemporary romance garnered a lot of praise for the representation and everyday normalcy portrayed. They helped to show a culture for people of color that does not only exist in struggle or hardship. Publishing houses and booksellers subsequently were slow to broaden representation, as they separated Jenkins and Jackson’s novels from mainstream romance. Jenkins and Jackson each recognized the disconnect in the romance industry as they progressed and wrote because they wanted to fill the need in the industry. Beverly Jenkins and Brenda Jackson’s writing defined representation and diversity in the industry.
Bates, Karen. “The Queen of Black Historical Romance Talks Race, Love and History.” NPR Code Switch, February 11, 2021. https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2021/02/11/966404855/the-queen-of-black-historical-romance-talks-race-love-and-history.
Bradley, Deborah. “Matchmaking: Black writers find an audience for black romance novels.” Crisis 101 no. 8, November 1994. https://web.s.ebscohost.com/pov/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=b1734e60-e71a-4dda-847c-6436d8dafded%40redis&bdata=JnNpdGU9cG92LWxpdmUmc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ%3d%3d#AN=9411290064&db=pwh.
Coates, Jennifer. “Author of the Month – Brenda Jackson.” Romance in Color, June 2007. https://web.archive.org/web/20070617053546/http://www.romanceincolor.com/authormthjacksonB.htm.
De Lisser, Elena. “Romance Books Get Novel Twist and Go Ethnic.” Wall Street Journal, September 6, 1994. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/historical-newspapers/romance-books-get-novel-twist-go-ethnic/docview/904936222/se-2?accountid=10598.
Falk, Kathryn. “Beverly Jenkins.” Romantic Times, February 1998.
Falk, Kathryn. “One Special Moment.” Romantic Times, August 1998.
“Fire and Desire.” Publishers Weekly, June 21, 1999, 65. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A55022534/EAIM?u=duke_perkins&sid=summon&xid=664c47d3.
Greenwood, Heather. “Arabesque Aims its Novels at Romantic Black Readers: [Final Edition].” Toronto Star, Feb 24, 1996. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/arabesque-aims-novels-at-romantic-black-readers/docview/437407624/se-2?accountid=10598.
Israel, Betsy, and Nancy Drew. “Heat in Another Color.” People, February 13, 1995. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=9502067828&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
Jackson, Brenda. Tonight and Forever. New York: Kensington, 1995.
Jordan, Emily. “Uncommon ground: Beverly Jenkins, diverse romance and American history the way it really happened.” Salon, June 25, 2017. https://www.salon.com/2017/06/25/uncommon-ground-beverly-jenkins-diverse-romance-and-american-history-the-way-it-really-happened.
Molineux, Will. “Book Notes: [Final Edition].” Daily Press, Nov 17, 1996. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/book-notes/docview/342800427/se-2?accountid=10598.
Moody-Freeman, Julie. “Beverly Jenkins.” Black Romance Podcast, September 1, 2020. https://blackromancepodcast.libsyn.com/beverly-jenkins.
National Trust for Historic Preservation. “Author Beverly Jenkins’ Romance with the Past.” HuffPost, December 7, 2017. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/author-beverly-jenkins-romance-with-the-past_b_7243912.
Rosen, Judith. “Romance: Love Is All around You.” Publishers Weekly, November 8, 1999. https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/print/19991108/28599-romance-love-is-all-around-you.html.
“Secret Love.” Publishers Weekly, December 13, 1999, 69. Gale General OneFile. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A58352499/ITOF?u=duke_perkins&sid=summon&xid=83d615f8.
Sherrod, Pamela. “The Secret Life of the Black Lawn Jockey.” Chicago Tribune, February 7, 1998. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1998-02-08-9802080499-story.html.