When die-hard romance readers start rattling off the preeminent writers in the genre, one of the names you ought to hear every time is Beverly Jenkins.
Jenkins got her start in 1994 with the publication of Night Song. At the time the business was even more overwhelmingly white than it is today; the 70s, 80s, and early 90s saw plenty of plantation-set romances and Westerns with characters who were only questionably “Native American.” Jenkins broke new ground with her novel about a Kansas schoolteacher and a calvary officer—both African American. She followed it up with a long line of beloved books, many of them set in the nineteenth century. Vivid featured a female doctor; Indigo is about an injured Underground Railroad hero and the former slave taking care of him.
As Christine Grimaldi wrote recently at The Rumpus, Jenkins is doing something very powerful in her historical romances. In a country that still insists on telling history in a way that centers white people, even while condemning things they’ve done, she writes love stories where African American men and women are the stars, the heroes and heroines of their own narratives. Jenkins also uses her settings to illuminate interesting chapters from history. For instance, she got the idea for her latest, Forbidden—which hits stores today—when she spotted a story about a Virginia City archeological dig that uncovered a high-end African American-run hotel. She knew she’d finally found a place to put Rhine Fontaine, a character first seen in 1998's Through the Storm, who her fans have been pleading to see again for almost 20 years.
Jenkins doesn’t flinch from the harsher realities of the period, either. When we meet Rhine, he’s passing as white, and determined to do so for the rest of his life. As a prosperous entrepreneur he invests in Black-owned businesses, but as far as the town knows, he’s a white man. That is, until he finds a determined young woman named Eddy Carmichael half-dead in the desert. As she recovers and begins to carve out a place for herself in Virginia City’s African American community, Rhine begins to reconsider. The stakes for their romance couldn’t possibly be higher; Rhine’s decision will have immense ramifications.
I spoke to Jenkins about her work; this interview has been trimmed and lightly edited for clarity.
Could you tell me a little bit about the role of history and historical research in your writing?
Now we’ve got a small group of young women who are doing historicals also, but for probably 15, almost 20 years, I was the only person doing this. And so if I don’t tell the stories of the race, there’s nobody who was. There’s so much history that is not taught in schools surrounding or concerning folks of color who have made their contributions to American history. I’ve said before, I look at it as a quilt. The pieces pertaining to African Americans or Chinese Americans or Japanese Americans or Native Americans have been some of it ripped out, some of it cut out. And so I look at it as—I don’t know if you want to use the word ministry—to stitch those pieces back into the quilt. Because it’s so important and they made such great contributions. The country would not be what it is or what it was or whatever without those other pieces of the quilt.
There’s an old saying that if you educate a woman, you educate a race. So the women who’re reading—and some of the men, too, because I have men readers who love the Westerns—they’re all getting a new sense of self, in that you learn that African Americans were not just slaves, and played an important part in history in other ways. Whether you’re talking about the buffalo soldiers or whether you’re talking about Harriet Tubman’s spy ring for the Union Army or whether you’re talking about the brown and Black lawmen and outlaws of Indian Territory.
So I’ve had a 20-year career of bringing all this forward and having an absolute ball.
As I was reading Forbidden I was thinking that it’s not just romance—how many Westerns were made in the ‘50s that were mysteriously all white people.
Yeah, and we were there and doing stuff. But never embraced by the majority culture.
There’s a lot of stuff out there that we just don’t even embrace and isn’t taught. And, you know, we won’t even go into why. But historical romance is a great way to teach history without a test on Friday. This is just to enjoy. And as a result, people learn and then they pass this on to their children. Because I’ve been doing this for 20 years, so I’ve hit maybe three generations of women and readers and folks who love historical stuff, and they’re passing this onto their kids. So their kids, for Black History Month or whatever, they’re doing Bass Reeves, who people think the Lone Ranger was based upon, they’re doing the buffalo soldiers, they’re doing the Black whalers of Massachusetts. And the teachers are going, where in the hell are you guys getting this stuff?
So it’s a good thing, passing this history on.
In your work you’re really grappling with and facing the heavy realities of the African American experience in history. In Forbidden, for instance, there’s a scene where they’re talking about how the Klan is working to roll back the gains of the postwar era. But romance is a genre that’s about the happily ever after, and you do provide that for your readers. How do you strike that balance?
Well, I mean, you can’t separate people from the times that they live in. And, for me, to pretend that none of this affected them would be a lie. The Jim Crow era and the awful years after Reconstruction—I mean, it impacted the way you could travel, it impacted where you could live. To put them in a bubble that is more fantasy than reality is not being true to the history. If you want your readers to actually learn about what happened, then you have to put them in a real place.
But in spite of Jim Crow and the discrimination and the Klan and the lynchings and stuff, the African American race still built colleges. We still had birthday parties. We still loved. So you balance it with the outside influences, but you also give people a real look at how people interacted with their neighbors and with each other on just a regular kind of scale. Because even if you look at the craziness in the world today, with Black Lives Matter and all this craziness with the police, people are still living day to day.
And I guess it’s the strong relationships that have helped people get through these historical trials.
Yeah, I mean, if the Blacks of the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries hadn’t been so strong and so clever and so awesome, we wouldn’t be here today. So you’ve just go to keep going forward.
You’ve talked a little bit about what draws you to the nineteenth century—why does the postwar period to the end of the century interest you so much as a writer?
There was so much going on and it’s not a typical time that we know about, regardless of what race we are, and I think the more we know about each other the better off we’d all be. And it also has its parallels with the twentieth and the twenty-first century. Because right after the Civil War you had those great gains with Reconstruction—this huge amount of Black men in Congress and representatives through the states, you had the lieutenant governor in Louisiana, you had Black folks in positions of power and businesses and colleges going up. And then when Reconstruction died in 1876, everything started to unravel. You had the rise of the Klan and you had the Redemption period. And lynchings and blood and death and destruction. And folks said we’ve got to leave the South. They moved into places like Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Colorado, California. Which is where I set my very first book, Night Song, in one of those Black townships in Kansas.
In the ‘70s you had African Americans retaking their places in Congress and in the Senate and in local elections. So there’s a parallel in us rising and then the ‘90s and stuff started to sort of peter out again. It’s an up and down cycle. Great things happening in both centuries, both bittersweet.
How do you shape your stories? I know you had Rhine in the back of your head but it took reading the story about the archeological dig to say Ah-ha, here’s the book.
Each story’s different, and it’s really weird. Sometimes it’s character-driven. Like with Topaz, which is my mail-order bride story, I wanted to do the history of the Black Seminoles. And so I created Dixon Wildhorse, who lived in Indian Territory. And what I like to do is I like to have the characters sort of wear the history. That way you don’t have the readers’ eyes glazing over when you’re giving them all these facts and figures. You learn about it through the characters.
Indigo—which we were celebrating on my Facebook page yesterday—the book’s 20 years old, still in print, one of my most beloved books. That came from like two sentences in a book I read, called Bullwhip Days, which was a compilation of oral stories and histories told by the slaves that were still alive in the 1930s. It was a WPA project. And one of the former slaves said he knew a man named Wyatt who was free, who sold himself into slavery for the love of a woman.
Yeah. So that two lines—that stopped my heart; I’m like, Oh my God—fueled Indigo. Because I knew that there’s no HEA in slavery. There’s no happily ever after. So I didn’t want to write about that couple. But I wrote about their daughter. And she was able to escape and she was in Michigan and she was working on the Underground Railroad.
Each story comes with its own little ah-ha moment. I’m having fun with it, and learning along the way with my readers.
I’m curious about Indigo, because that’s really one of the classics of the genre, and it’s so beloved, still in print, and people still respond to it.
People are still discovering it! It’s just amazing to me.
Tell me what the romance world was like when you published it and what the reaction to it was.
You know, because of the majority culture and what’s defined as beauty, you rarely if ever see a dark-skinned Black woman as the centerpiece of a love story. And Hester’s a very very dark-skinned woman. She’s the heroine of Indigo. And she has these purple hands from working the indigo dye when she was little, and it stained her hands and feet. Which was a common thing for folks who worked the plantations in South Carolina and intracoastal Georgia. In fact, Julie Dash did a great film, Daughters of the Dust, which was what gave me the idea for the book.
So I wrote this book and I’m going to book signings, and Black women are crying. Women saying that they had never been described as beautiful. And they are weeping and I’m weeping and everybody in line is weeping. It was just the most moving experience that probably I’ve ever had. And so I knew that this was a good thing I had done. But I didn’t go into it with that in mind. Hester came to me as she was—a dark-skinned woman. So I had no idea. And after I got to thinking about it, of course the women were right. But it’s still an amazing book. And like I said, people are still discovering it and still being moved by it.
And Galen is an incredible hero. I got to do the gens de couleur, the free Black Frenchmen of Louisiana.
You hope to write something that moves people. You hope to write something that people want hold close to their heart. I remember a signing, a woman said she read it every day. And she lost some of the pages—this was before it came back into print—and she said “I know it so well I just recite it and go to the next page that’s there.” And I’m like, Oh my goodness.
They love this book, and I love their love for it.
How did you get into writing romance? Were there particular authors that got you started?
I grew up reading absolutely everything. I tell my mother it’s her fault. I’m the oldest of seven, grew up on the east side of Detroit, great family life, two parents, the whole deal. And she said when I was a baby she bought me those little cloth books. I was born in ‘51. And she said I used to eat them because of course you’re too little to read. And she remembers saying, “Eat those words, baby, eat those words.” I tell her this is all her fault because she had me eating words when I was a very, very young age. She read to me in the womb, which was something women didn’t do in 1950. So I sort of came out reading. I didn’t read any earlier than any regular kid, I wasn’t gifted or anything like that. but once I started reading, it was like it filled a spot in me, a hole that I didn’t know I had until I went to the Mark Twain library when I was about seven or eight.
I read Zane Grey one summer. I read every book in the library by the time I was 14. So while I’m reading everything else, I’m also reading the books that were sort of the basis for romance—Mary Stewart, Phyllis Whitney, Victoria Holt. When The Flame and the Flower came out in ‘72, it blew me away, along with everybody else who loved a good love story or a good romance. Of course you look back and it’s an entirely different thing now than when you read it in ‘72, because the genre has moved forward a lot—which is a good thing.
The first thing that I did was a contemporary. And that book was so bad, my God. That book probably beat me home from the post office. It was incredibly bad. But it turned out to be my first contemporary, my first romantic suspense. I’m of a mind that everything has its own time, and it was obviously not that book’s time. And people say you know, why did you start writing historicals? Because that’s the first thing I sold. And I’ll always be forever beholden to Ellen Edwards, who was the executive editor at Avon at the time, for taking a chance and saying, “Hey, it’s an African American story but we’re gonna publish it.”
Are there particular historical facts or chapters that you want to write about that you haven’t gotten to yet or you plan to write about in the future?
Well, let’s see. I think I’ve covered a whole lot of different stuff. I don’t know if there’s anything left!
But there’s always new things to strive for. The readers would like me to go back and do a little more with the Revolutionary War and that era, because I’ve only done one book, which was Midnight, in that era. I haven’t done a lot with the Black whalers, which I’d like to do. There were some incredible Black communities on the East Coast back then, and I’d like to delve into that a little more. I’d like to come forward, too, and maybe do 1920s, 1930s Harlem, the Harlem Renaissance, and see how I can spin that in a Beverly Jenkins kind of way. When I first started, historical could not be after 1900. That was sort of the unspoken line you couldn’t cross over. But now that we’re in the twenty-first century, I think people are a little bit more comfortable with the twentieth century—at least the early parts—as being historical. I’d like to do maybe something with World War I. I figure I’ve got another good 20 years, so who knows? We’ll see where we go.
Are there any authors you want to shout out that you really love or think are doing interesting work or would encourage folks to check out?
I would like for them to check out Piper Huguley. She’s doing African American Christian historicals, and she has that niche to herself. She’s doing great stuff. She’s a professor at Spellman, knows her stuff. Deborah Fletcher Melo who’s writing good contemporary—she got a starred review from PW for a couple that was, I can’t remember whether it was the man or the woman that was was Muslim. There’s so many people coming up behind us. Courtney Milan of course is a good multicultural writer.
I just tell people to step outside of your comfort zone. I run into people who say “I can’t relate to African American books.” I know you can relate to werewolves and shape-shifters and all this other craziness, but you can’t relate to books about people who just happen to be a different race? Come on, now. That’s stupid.
But I’m having a good time. Looking forward to doing more work. Looking forward to seeing publishing get a little more diverse.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.