Matchmaking Black Writers Find an Audience for Black Romance Novels

Article excerpt

"Her hand lifted again just as the heavily carved door opened. Her jaw slackened. Standing in front of her was the brawniest man she had ever seen. He had a rugged, dark brown face. Winged brows arched over piercing black eyes edged with thick lashes. A neatly trimmed mustache defined an uncompromising mouth." - "Forever Yours," by Francis Ray

EVER SINCE the romance industry first seduced America's pulp fiction readers in the 1950s, the dashing heroes and bosomy heroines have mostly been white.

Now the strong-willed ebony beauty has taken the spotlight as black writers like Francis Ray move into the pages of passion, adventure and happy endings.

Ray is a nurse practitioner in a Dallas school district and a Texas Woman's University graduate. Tired of waiting for someone else to write the black romance, she decided to pen her own.

"This is important to me because I like writing about the positive aspects of African-American life," she says. "I want to be sure there are things that I and others would be proud to read. We have some fine black men, but the ones who aren't so fine, who don't have respect for life and people, get the attention."

Ray is part of a growing movement that has publishing houses signing a record number of black romance writers, causing many in the industry to deem the summer of 1994 "the birth of the African-American romance novel." In the last year, more than 30 black authors have concluded contracts with large and small publishing houses, compared with only a handful in 1980.

"This marks the first time that African-American women have been able to write and read something completely frivolous," says Vivian Stephens, a longtime editor in the romance business and the black woman whom The New York Times credits with inventing the ethnic romance.

"Traditionally, black novels have been victimization books about `the struggle,' " adds Beverly Jenkins, a black romance writer and librarian from Belleville, Mich. "It's important to show that black women fall in love, go to college, have careers - not all are teen-age moms living on welfare."

Only a smattering of black romance novels have hit the market since June 1980, when the first one was published: "Candlelight's Entwined Destinies," written by Rosalind Welles and edited by Stephens.

There have been black writers such as Sandra Kitt, author of "Adam and Eva" and "Rights of Spring," who have found success using both black and white lead characters.

"The editors had no problem with me being black, but I found resistance to black characters," says Kitt. "When I first started writing, I didn't know there was a problem with the race of the characters. I just wrote them how I saw them. Sometimes that was white, and sometimes that was black."

Kitt says she found it more difficult to sell the books with black characters. While all of her works have been published, she is the exception, not the rule.

For Ray, who at age 49 has been writing for more than a decade, it took nine years to sell her first book, "Fallen Angel," which was put on bookstore shelves in 1992 by Odyssey Books, a black romance publishing company in Silver Spring, Md.

But now Ray is on a roll. Last month, Pinnacle Books published her second book, "Forever Yours." This steamy tale is set in Texas and concerns a sexy entrepreneur who, trying to hold onto her chain of lingerie stores, agrees to marry a handsome and rich rancher for one year.

And her third, fourth and fifth books have release dates: "Sarah's Miracle" in December 1994, "Undeniable" in April 1995 and her Victorian novel, "The Bargain," in March 1996.

Industry insiders say black romances are being taken more seriously since the national crossover success of recent works of fiction by black writers. Terry McMillan's "Waiting to Exhale" and Walter Mosely's mysteries featuring Easy Rawlins proved it could be done, says Ellen Edwards, an editor at Avon. …