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How black romance--novels, that is--came to be. (romance).

Shortly after World War II--in 1949--Harlequin Romance was born; thus began the romance fiction genre. In the years that followed, the Harlequin line kept pace with the loves and lives of white America, but not African Americans. Instead, black women were more likely to be readers of mainstream romance fiction than authors.

Black writers, however, continued to churn out stones about relationships. Indeed, in the 1960s, long before Harlequin published its first African-American romance, Frank Yerby was already making a contribution to the genre. Three of Yerby's best-selling novels had African Americans as main characters: Speak Now: A Modern Novel (1969), The Dahomean: An Historical Novel (1971), and its sequel, A Darkness in Ingraham's Crest, (1979).

Around the same time, McFadden/Sterling, which was best known for its True Confessions magazine, published a line of pulp magazines aimed at black consumers. Bronze Thrills, Black Romance and jive, along with True Confessions, published early short stories by contemporary black romance novelists like Donna Hill, Francis Ray, Loure Bussey and Sinclair LeBeau. True Confessions editor Nathasha Brooks-Harris, who bought many of these early stories, will release her first romance, Panache, under the Genesis Press imprint early next year.

By 1980, journalist Elsie B. Washington, writing under the pseudonym of Rosalind Welles, published Entwined Destinies. Believed to be the first-known romance featuring African-American characters written by an African-American author, Entwined Destinies was published under the Dell Candlelight imprint with editor Vivian Stephens.

Stephens, one of the first African-American editors of romance fiction, bought the first works of several romance authors whose names now appear regularly on The New York Times best-seller's list. Later, during her tenure with Harlequin, Stephens was credited with updating and "Americanizing" the romance genre. She put into place the framework for the Harlequin American Romance, Harlequin Intrigue and Harlequin American Premier editions.

In 1985, Harlequin published its first romance by and about African Americans with Sandra Kitt's Adam and Eva. Kitt would later earn the distinction of being the first author for the Arabesque line, and she has since carved out a niche writing interracial romance for Signet. However, during her tenure at Harlequin, Kitt's novels generally featured white characters.

Until 1994, no publishing house had a line devoted to black romance novels. Then along came Kensington Publishing, which became the first major house to develop a line of African-American romances called Arabesque.

The publishing story behind Arabesque was that Kensington head, Walter Zacharius, overhead two black women in a New York bookstore bemoaning the lack of romances by and about African-American women. Zacharius promptly decided to create a black romance line. Since then, the publisher has released more than 250 titles by about 50 African-American authors. In June of 1998, less than five years after the launch of Arabesque, Zacharius sold the line to black-owned Black Entertainment Television (BET).

Even now, the works of only a few African Americans have been published by Harlequin and its imprints; and the publisher estimates that only "five or six" of its 1,200 authors are black. They include Eva Rutland, Maggie Ferguson and Gwen Pemberton. Ballantine, Signet, Pocket Books, St. Martin's Press and HarperCollins all publish a few African-American romance titles.

Novelist Gwynne Forster says her readers often tell her that they are attracted to stories that depict black men as caring, loving characters who respect women, nurture them and their children. Forster, who has a background in sociology says, "Romances represent us as we are. Here we see ourselves as we know ourselves to be."

Gwendolyn E. Osborne is associate editor at Black Issues Book Review for the "Market Buzz" department and public affairs director for the Illinois Institute of Technology's downtown campus. She also serves as senior reviewer for two Internet publications, The Romance Reader and The Mystery Reader. Learn the history of black romances on page 50.
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Author:Osborne, Gwendolyn
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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