A tribute to the pioneers of African-American romance

Michelle Monkou, USA TODAY12:53 a.m. EDT June 3, 2013
This past week I attended BookExpo America, an annual convention held in New York City, for the publishing industry. Small and large publishers network with sales staff, librarians, booksellers and the press to highlight their imprints, new products and/or new authors. As an observer and participant at this conference, it’s a good vantage point to see what’s new on the romance fiction landscape.
Hands down, the romance genre is still a powerful player in the industry. Under this large umbrella are sub-genres that have expanded and redefined this market segment, such as African-American romance. Diversity continues to push boundaries and add to the profit margins, not only from the many books published each month, but also by the creators of those stories.
Clearly, the romance fiction road is not done charting its course. The Chinese nationals who came to the Romance Writers of America’s booth for books are just one symbol of the international reach of this genre. Signing my books for these international visitors, librarians and booksellers served as a reminder of how far African-American romance has come. 

Twenty years ago, there wouldn’t have been any significant signs of black romance fiction. Not that writers weren’t creating such stories. Mainstream publishers hadn’t envisioned the specific market, much less recognized a demand, for such a product. When that mind-set was finally broken, the barriers to entry were lowered. Readers swooped in and bought these books, launching the careers of many authors into the ranks of best sellers and award winners and onto readers’ lists of favorites. With the demand mounting, the supply was met when more than one publisher stepped in to fill the gap.
Many of those pioneering authors are still writing today. Their personal journeys to stay persistent and write stories that reflect a part of the world’s population are inspiring. They’d faced rejection within the industry. They’d faced the stigma that their work was substandard. Even now, debate goes on about how to market books — with African-American couples, concept covers or color-filtered characters? — and whether to separate into racial/cultural tags or include them within the general part of the genre.
These writers also had to market and promote harder to change the perception that the African-American stories didn’t have universal themes of love, hope and the happy ever after. When the reader opens a book, she will read a romance that holds no requirement to belong to this cultural identity to enjoy and appreciate the stories.
There is still much road to be covered and frontiers to be explored. If I could wave a magic wand to create a Hall of Fame for these pioneers of African-American romance, in the first wave, I would immediately induct these authors, along with an enthusiastic recommendation of their works (listed alphabetically):
Rochelle Alers
• Angela Benson
• Anita Richmond Bunkley
• Carla Fredd
• Layle Giusto
• Bettye Griffin
• Gay G. Gunn
• Shirley Hailstock
• Donna Hill
• Brenda Jackson
• Beverly Jenkins
• Sandra Kitt
• Francis Ray
• Mildred Riley
• Eboni Snoe

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