Finding Black joy in romance novels
Between the pandemic and police violence, there's more than enough Black death. What we need more of is Black people finding love
In hard times, the right book can be the best kind of refuge, one that offers a reset rather than retreat. The question is which book?
Anti-racist reading lists focusing on racism and Black struggle can be an essential educational resource, but many of these books only tell part of our story, and frankly, if you’re Black, that story is one with which you’re already far too familiar.
For African American readers right now, it’s important to read something that reminds you of the joy and the beauty of Black life, not just our trauma, and for that, there’s no better resource than the growing body of excellent, Black-authored romance.
Romance is the literature of hope, romance with Black leads, even more so. Modern love stories are the perfect vehicle for reclaiming your sense of joy, for reminding us that the Black experience can’t be defined solely by its struggle — that Black inheritance is also about survival, hard-won victories, and finding joy every day in each other.
Between COVID-19 and police violence, I’ve seen more than enough Black death. What we need more of is Black people finding love.
That makes romance the perfect genre for these COVID-plagued, MAGA-ridden times. When so many are running from rather than moving toward justice, reading romance is nothing less than self-care. Romance is nourishment — like good food, it soothes as well as fuels. It can also act as a psychological corrective to the daily violence of the dominant culture, and a way to recharge for the days ahead.
When you choose right, the experience feels like a reward, not work.
Beyond Mainstream Publishing
For those of us who relish reading books with Black folks at the center, however, limiting your options to mainstream publishers is a problem. When it comes to diversity, the deficiencies of the publishing world are well documented, and the romance genre is no different.
According to a recent study, in 2019 just 8.3 percent of romances put out by leading publishers were written by authors of color. The proportion written by African American authors is even smaller, and, despite advances in a few individual companies like Kensington, there’s been little change in recent years.
That doesn’t mean that Black authors aren’t writing or reaching audiences. While a few, like Beverly Jenkins, Jasmine Guillory, and Alexis Martin, have found audiences with big five publishers, they represent just a fraction of what’s out there for readers craving authentic stories with Black leads.
New distribution channels have enabled self-publishing to thrive, and authors to have far greater creative control over the stories they’re telling. As a result, despite the persistence of systemic barriers to publication, and our frequent collective neglect, many African American authors are thriving in the romance genre.
Self-published books by Black authors are accumulating both readers and accolades. In 2019, the Romance Writers of America honored Kennedy Ryan with the RITA award for best long contemporary romance of the year for “Long Shot,” a book she self-published.
Ryan and M. Malone were the first Black authors to win major awards from RWA, a milestone which was long overdue and came just before the organization imploded in a row over deeply entrenched systemic racism. Just as the line between streaming and network television has dissolved over time, so has the division between indie and traditional publishing. As a result, many readers today no longer recognize the distinction as relevant.
The times are changing. So too are our recommendations for romantic fiction written by Black authors. These are writers I love and the ones who come up most often in conversation with Black readers, bloggers and authors. I chose writers who sometimes or always publish independently to expand our reading horizons a bit. There’s something for newbies and permanent residents of Romancelandia.
Ten Standout Black Authors of Contemporary Romance
- Christina C. Jones (Indie KU). A true queen. No list of Black romance authors is complete without Christina C. Jones, a mistress of romantic comedy, who writes beautifully real books about Black love — both her protagonists and their love interests are African American. When romance author Lucy Eden asked a group of bloggers to recommend the perfect romantic comedy, no less than three picked a single, now legendary, romantic comedy.
- Start with: The legendary enemies to lovers rom-com, “I think I Might Love You.”
- Dig In: “Equivalent Exchange,” a dual POV, near-perfect workplace romance that’s a heavier favorite of Jones’s many devoted fans. Full of angst, joy and chemistry, this is a story of two damaged people helping each other rebuild.
2. Danielle Allen (Indie KU). If you ask a group of Black romance authors which strictly indie author to try next, apart from Christina C. Jones, one name pops up more often than any other: Danielle Allen, and readers clearly agree.
- Start with: “Broken Clocks” (KU). A tear-jerker of a second chance romance about two people who are inexorably drawn to each other despite bad timing and circumstances that keep pulling them apart.
- Dig In: “V is for Villainous” (KU). A romantic suspense novel about a woman caught up in dangerous dealings on her prestigious college campus.
3. Katrina Jackson (Indie, KU). Katrina Jackson is a legend of erotically charged romance, and one of a tiny elite cadre of writers whom I trust to write a book about a billionaire that isn’t inherently problematic in its glorification of capitalism and consumer excess.
- Start with: “Every New Year,” a sweet, serendipitous second-chance romance featuring an accidental mogul who gives his money away to his workers and reunites with the love of his life.
- AP Credit: “Office Hours,” an ivory tower office romance that epitomizes Jackson’s signature blend of softness and steam.
4. Alyssa Cole (Indie and Avon). Alyssa Cole is a multifaceted, multigenre innovator, known for contemporary romance, historical and sci-fi. If you haven’t read Alyssa Cole, are you even reading romance?
- Start with: “A Princess in Theory,” about a hard-working African immigrant who finds out she’s actually a princess.
- Level Up: “Let Us Dream,” a novella about a Black feminist restaurant owner fighting for voting rights in New York and finding love.
5. Tasha L. Harrison (Indie, KU) is a successful editor as well as an author of erotica and romance. Tasha shows that small-town romance doesn’t mean white. Her recent series is set in Upstate South Carolina.
- Start with: “A Taste of Her Own Medicine,” a younger man, older woman interracial romance about a Black woman starting over after a divorce.
- AP: “The Bad in Each Other,” book two in the series.
6. Adriana Herrera (Carina and Indie) made her debut with the “Dreamers” series in 2019, but her list of accolades resemble that of a veteran. Herrera’s signature style combines Afro-Latinx flavor and incisive social critique, but she’s also a master of humor and the super-steamy love scene.
- Start with: “American Dreamer.” The journey starts with Nesto, a hard-driving food truck owner of Dominican descent, and Jude, a sexy sweet librarian raised in a conservative white evangelical religious family. Their path to love is believably rocky, the happy ending well earned.
- Go Deep: “Finding Joy.” This well-reviewed indie romance is set in Ethiopia is a treat for the senses. It’s full of the sights and tastes of that country.
7. Talia Hibbert (Indie and Avon). This brilliant Black British author who writes mainly sweet supportive cinnamon roll male characters. Her books will make you laugh rather loudly and frequently.
- Start with: “A Girl LIke Her,” a great own voices story about a grumpy, comic book-loving outcast with autism and her cuddly teddy bear of a neighbor.
- AP Credit: “Work For It,” Talia’s first m/m multicultural romance, is a beautiful and deeply romantic story about two men struggling with intimacy and mental health.
8. Kennedy Ryan (Mostly Indie) writes angsty, socially conscious, deeply romantic books with multicultural casts.
- Start with: “The Hoops Trilogy.” Book 1, “Long Shot,” a complex and emotional story about a promising young sports professional who gets trapped in a toxic relationship with the wrong man just before she finds the right one. It’s a gorgeous love story that just misses becoming a tragedy.
- AP: Her latest, “Queen Move,” is an absolute masterpiece, with an Olivia Pope-like lead, also named Olivia, who gets a second chance at love with her childhood love, Ezra.
9. Jodie Slaughter (Indie). A young indie author with a talent for mixing dark suspense and romance, Jodie Slaughter has quickly become a fan and author favorite.
- Start with: Fan favorite “White Whiskey Bargain,” a multicultural marriage of convenience story that’s a huge hit with readers and Slaughter’s fellow authors alike. Authors Talia Hibbert, Charish Reid, and Adriana Herrera all identify it as a favorite.
- AP: “Just One More,” a fluffy and fun Valentine’s Day-themed treat.
10. Rebekah Weatherspoon (Indie and Kensington) is the ultimate crossover queen. She’s simultaneously one of the undisputed leaders in multicultural queer romance, most of which she’s published on her own, and the creator of a Black cowboy series for Kensington. She writes totally gripping, funny, and often kinky love stories.
- Start with: “Rafe,” about a buff male nanny with a sweet center who becomes the ultimate partner to a stressed-out doctor mom.
- Go deep: The FIT trilogy, a set of sweet and sexy romcoms with a kinky BDSM twist or “Harbor,” a novel of romantic suspense about two Black men who love each other finding the perfect woman at the worst time, and in the worst possible way.
Have you subscribed to theGrio’s podcast “Dear Culture”? Download our newest episodes now!