B is for Beverly Jenkins

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Ask anyone who knows: they’ll tell you Beverly Jenkins is the queen of African-American historical romance. I’ve had Destiny’s Embrace sitting in my TBR pile forever, just waiting for me to pick it up. And I finally did! And … I didn’t like it.

Cover image for Destiny's Embrace by Beverly Jenkins. Pastoral background. A dark-skinned, dark-haired woman lounges on her right elbow facing away. Her light blue gown is undone to bare her long back. Facing her and the viewer is a dark-skinned, dark-haired shirtless man, gazing into her eyes with heroic intensity. Pink text above reads BEVERLY JENKINS. Yellow text below reads DESTINY'S EMBRACE.Let’s be clear: this is mostly a matter of personal preference. Destiny’s Embrace is a romance in a very classic mold: virgin heroine resplendent with niceness, alpha hero terrified of commitment, cast of secondary characters whose goodness is directly related to how much they help or are sympathetic to our protagonists. Plenty of conflicts are foreshadowed — the heroine’s abusive mother in Philadelphia, the hero’s current mistress, the sinister neighboring rancher who’s busting down fences to poach water he doesn’t have the rights to — but all these problems are resolved in a single scene each, and none of the solutions have any consequences or repercussions.

In short, I was bored silly.

This unsettled me so much — was it due to unconscious racism? seriously, everybody talks about how much they like Beverly Jenkins — that I bought and read another book of hers, Vivid, for comparison.

Cover image for Vivid by Beverly Jenkins. A flowery landscape. A shirtless man with dark skin stands behind a dark-skinned woman, his hands on her upper arms, his face tilted down toward hers. The woman wears a white gown with a red sash. Her eyes are closed, her shoulders are bare, and she is leaning back into the man's chest. Pink text reads BEVERLY JENKINS in the upper right and VIVID across the bottom edge.I liked Vivid a great deal more, not least because the heroine’s goal was more concrete and emotionally plausible, but in many ways it felt like the same book with the same basic underpinnings. Like a book that had kept its boned corset but changed the color of its gown. And that book is one I’ve read before, over and over, in many a historical romance over the years. In fact, I checked the publication date on Destiny’s Embrace to make sure it was published recently and was not a reissue from the late 80s. (It wasn’t.) It’s a very familiar romance type, and it is very much not my bag.

This is not necessarily something Beverly Jenkins needs to change. For one thing, she has a thousand awards, a passionate following, and can cheerfully ignore the opinions of a newbie author of weird erotic paranormal historicals.

For another, I kept remembering part of this Ann Leckie post about tradition and inclusion in genre ficion:

And the whole “escape the suffocating weight of Tradition!” thing doesn’t look the same from every angle. Consider that for women, POC, and LGBTQ writers the question of forebears and tradition can be a fraught one. “She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly.” Such writers have either been denied their own tradition by this kind of erasure, or have been repeatedly erased from the dominant one. To some of us, belonging to a tradition is a valuable and hard-won thing.

I had a similar thought two years ago when I discussed a contemporary romance with a trans heroine  that felt old-fashioned and cliché to me: having a romance heroine from a usually invisible group who is written the same way as all our much-discussed TSTL heroines is something of a triumph.

And yet …

And yet here I am, unsatisfied, about to think overly hard about these two Beverly Jenkins novels and the value of resistance.

My very favorite line from Vivid comes early on, when our titular heroine meets the hero’s mischievous daughter and recalls her own less-than-proper childhood:

Vivid’s partner-in-crime had been her late grandmother Maria, founder of the Female Plotting Rebelling Society. Grandmother Maria believed that all females, regardless of age, race, or circumstances, should always be plotting rebellion to better the state of women. (Kindle location 512)

The Female Plotting Rebelling Society! I was enchanted. I imagined something like a black 19th-century Michigan Lysistrata taking place (tell me you wouldn’t read that!) especially since the text has at this point already established the parameters of a gender battle: Vivid is a female doctor, determined to build her practice despite the era’s rampant sexism, and Nate, our hero, is a man whose spoiled and adulterous ex-wife has left him convinced that women are flimsy, treacherous things not to be trusted or loved or anything. (Alpha heroes can be so adorably fragile, can’t they?) Sadly, the FPRS is never again mentioned, as the plot meanders through several seemingly unconnected episodes of suspense and family melodrama.

Still, this quote helps set up a fundamental theme of the book: rebellion and resistance are important virtues. The indignities of Jim Crow are depicted, and several characters speak against those racist policies or find ways to work around them as best they can. National politics are mentioned frequently and in-depth, and I admit (nerd alert!) that I was delighted to find a mini-essay on the pros and cons of Frederick Douglass as a representative of black experience in a historical romance novel. Black voters in the text are forced to choose between a Republican Party that has neglected them and a Democratic Party that has worked for their disenfranchisement and destruction; some characters stay loyal to the party of Lincoln, but others make a different choice. This rebellious spirit, defending the dignity and humanity of black persons, is presented as entirely compatible with patriotic fervor: we are not resisting the state, so much as we are attempting to improve it.

Additionally, we have our heroine’s resistance to rigidly sexist gender roles as conceived by the inhabitants of Grayson’s Grove. Vivid is an excellent doctor, well-trained and passionate, who saves numerous lives and spends her off hours reading case reports and compiling patient histories. (Even in the 19th century, most of good doctoring is paperwork.) In defense of herself and other women, Vivid speaks out against prejudiced locals, including our hero himself — and all of them are demonstrably wrong for distrusting her abilities. Her resistance to the town’s initial sexist skepticism guarantees her own happiness in her profession and new location, and it also ensures that Grayson’s Grove has a trained and competent doctor for the first time in decades. It’s both a personal triumph and a sign of social progress.

In fact, Grayson’s Grove has a particular history of anti-sexist action by the women who live there, as Nate himself reveals to the reader:

The women owned many of the businesses, oftimes they voted as a bloc on Grove affairs, and generally they had their way when they wanted it. According to legend, during his grandfather’s day the men once tried to rein in their wives. It resulted in a disaster so cataclysmic that even today Nate could not get any of the elder men to discuss what had transpired. The women won, that was all Nate and his contemporaries knew. (1328)

(Shades of Lysistrata again…)

Unfortunately, resistance is also especially virtuous in courtship relationships. Both Vivid and Destiny’s Embrace present their heroes as generally irresistible: handsome, caring, moral  men who have dropped panties all over their respective landscapes. Destiny’s Embrace is particularly explicit about this, and features this memorable line from the hero’s internal monologue: “How dare she be immune to his charms. Did she not know his reputation with the ladies?” (3182). In my mind he was wearing a fedora for the rest of the book. Also from Destiny’s Embrace: “‘I believe you will be good for my son,’ Mrs. Yates was saying. ‘Other than myself, he’s unaccustomed to a woman who’ll stand her ground as you did today'” (1217). This was the point where the phonograph in my head began playing ‘Gaston‘ on endless loop.

In both texts the heroine’s unique resistance to the hero’s sexual appeal makes her different and therefore more desirable than other women. Both books also feature secondary romance storylines involving an elderly female relative of the hero — and these romances are even more adversarial than that of the main protagonists. Witness local curmudgeon Adam Crowley from Vivid, declaring his intentions toward the hero’s Aunt Abigail: “If Nate can court a recalcitrant female, then so can I … I’m putting you on notice. Before the snow falls, you and I are going to be man and wife” (3262). Note the absence of a question mark or any suggestion that Abigail is permitted to refuse this offer.

The result of such a dynamic is that real, earnest resistance to romantic overtures is erased or at best transformed into mere temporizing and game-playing. There is a passage in Destiny’s Embrace when local jerk Silas Cook decides Mariah would make him a fine wife: “She [Mariah] did not have a good time. One, Silas Cook kept referring to her as ‘sugar,’ and two, when she told him she was flattered by his proposal but uninterested in becoming his next wife, he refused to take her seriously” (3682). Hero Logan’s announcement later in the book that he and Mariah are courting only infuriates Silas — and the target of is anger, naturally, is the heroine: “Don’t you hello me, girl. You led me on” (4111). The only difference between his and Logan’s pursuit of Mariah is that Mariah secretly desires Logan — but her spoken interactions with the two men are nearly identical in many places. Throughout both texts, female characters will express resistance or refusal to sexual overtures, only to have everyone around them chuckle knowingly and wait until refusal magically becomes blissful acceptance. Such is the textual, sexual power of the romance hero.

Structurally, the patterns of these three layers of resistance — political, social, and romantic — serve to equate the position of men with the position of the state, giving the world of the text a patriarchal authority that may be softened, but never completely overthrown. Black citizens resist the state, but are still contained within it and subject to its racist laws. Women in Grayson’s Grove are educated and outspoken, but still subject to the tyranny of male opinion and control. That great passage about the prior generation of intelligent, active women? Their victory is hollow, because nobody currently knows how they won or what they were fighting to get (besides the vague ‘not reined in’).  It’s a little chilling to think that because the men won’t talk about it, nobody knows what happened — why, exactly, can they not ask the women themselves? Male silence on this matter erases the effects of female rebellion from oral history as well as from living memory.

And female resistance to romance slowly evaporates beneath the exertion of male desire. Female desire exists, but it is tempered by both Vivid’s and Mariah’s (highly fetishized) virginity, which renders their desires less than fully active. The hero’s good looks and sexual prowess frequently overpower the heroine’s physical and emotional reservations in ways that longtime romance readers will instantly recognize — unspoken attraction leads to bickering, arguments end when characters begin making out, etc. But because the sexual arena in these books is very much a sphere of masculine authority — the ‘let me teach you how to sex’ language is everywhere — the result is that feminine speech and self-assertion are subtly but consistently undermined.

Witness this climactic moment from Vivid. Nate and Vivid have gotten engaged and Vivid’s parents are on their way to town to celebrate. But another stranger arrives first — some weeks earlier, Nate had secretly sent out a batch of letters seeking a replacement doctor. Specifically, a male doctor, who has now arrived and proven to be lecherous and arrogant and generally gross. Vivid is naturally furious at Nate’s betrayal, breaks off the engagement, and storms out — but in the midst of her fury, we get this: “She knew she’d eventually be calm enough to hear Nate’s explanation, but damn him, she hadn’t reached that state yet” (4160). He has brutally undermined her career and lied to her (if only through forgetfulness, though that wouldn’t make me any less angry in her shoes) — but she’s already putting her own emotions aside, thinking outside herself and prioritizing Nate’s perspective over her own — all in less than a page after the reveal.

We have come a long way from the Vivid of the first few chapters, who fired a rifle at Nate’s hat when he tried to walk away mid-argument. Despite all the book’s description of women as formidable, as strong, as troublesome, as rebellious, the narrative arc shows a process of taming, muting, and restraint. (And don’t get me started on the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold character, really just don’t.)

This brings us back to the Ann Leckie quote, about the importance of the tradition for the marginalized. Black Americans in 19th-century Michigan were heavily Othered, and thus may have more stake in mantaining (a typo, but I’m leaving it) the politics of respectability. The excellent Trudy from Gradient Lair explains it perfectly this post; I’m only borrowing the most relevant sentence for my analysis, but please feel encouraged to click through and read the whole thing.

During the post-Civil War era and early-mid 20th century, the politics of respectability was viewed as a source of power or galvanization of Black middle class society, and a way to combat White supremacist myths of automatic Black inferiority associated with poverty and degradation.

I think it’s fairly safe to say that Nate’s urge to make Grayson’s Grove a successful, thriving community in a racist country definitely leads him into some oppressive, anti-feminist behavior. Female rebellion threatens Nate’s ability to counter the social pressures of white supremacy: his intentions are noble. This is precisely why intersectionality as a field exists: because this need to combat anti-black racism, both in history and in Vivid, has as a frequent consequence the erasure of black women’s identities and perspectives.

___

An interview with Beverly Jenkins was featured in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies.

The history of the romance genre is only starting to be written, and black romances in particular are often overlooked. For more reading, this past February RT Magazine posted a timeline of African-American romances. There is also this Multicultural Romance Roundtable from Love in the Margins.

P.S.: If anyone has read Jenkins’ Night Hawk and has insights to share, please weigh in!

___

Jenkins, Beverly. Destiny’s Embrace. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2013. Ebook.

Jenkins, Beverly. Vivid. N.p.: Amazon Digital Services, 2013. Ebook.

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10 thoughts on “B is for Beverly Jenkins

  1. As an addition to the events listed in the RT timeline:

    Scholars of the African American literary tradition and of popular romance have paid virtually no attention to romance found in the black press. On the romance side, the late 20th century has often been characterized as the starting point of black romance stories, with earlier short or serial stories, simply forgotten.(Kim Gallon)

  2. “Alpha heroes can be so adorably fragile, can’t they?”

    Yes! Yes they can. I stopped reading romance a long time ago, so I can’t give any concrete examples from memory alone, but secret insecurity seems to be a big personality quirk in the alpha hero’s personality. I suppose to soften them a little and make them more sympathetic.

    Great post, I really enjoyed it. 🙂

    Nicky @ http://njmagas.wordpress.com/2014/04/02/b-is-for/

  3. I was disappointed to not care for this book either. I’m going to have a stab at the much admired sequel and if that doesn’t do it for me, call it a day.

    Stylistically, Jenkins reminds me very much of Diana Palmer. A lot of simple, declarative statements… much tell, not so much show.

  4. Questions of taste aside, I think it’s also important to consider what Jenkins’ novels mean to her audience. If I want to read historicals with black heroines, she’s pretty much the only name in the game. And, it also the kind of narratives of black female sexual deviancy that the PoR we’re intended to guard against still exist. Jenkins’ novels are set in the 19th century, but I think we need to consider how much those politics still resonate with black women readers.

  5. Excellent points — I agree with you that historicals are at least as much concerned with the times of their publication as with the times of their setting. And that we’re still grappling with some pretty insidious and vicious strains of misogynoir. Of all the books I haven’t responded to positively in this series, Jenkins is the one where I feel like my opinion matters least, because she’s offering something so vital that my concerns are mere quibbles in comparison. I’ll still get my hackles up at the sexual double standards, but I don’t get the deep-seated distaste as I do for, say, the misuse of authorial power in Eloisa James.

    Also, a wonderful resource I just learned about: Ain’t I A Heroine?, a blog devoted to African-American historical romance books and authors. I am super-excited this blog exists and plan to look through the archives for recommendations.

    Thanks for commenting!

  6. I popped back in to say I’m now halfway through Destiny’s Surrender and it’s well worth reading. Unusually realistic take on a prostitute heroine. It’s set at a very interesting time historically, just when Jim Crow laws were starting to remove freedoms black Americans already had; the hero is a lawyer and his practice is threatened.

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