Cover for Sandra Hill's Frankly, My Dear. A tan-skinned shirtless man with dark hair holds a tan-skinned, dark-haired woman in a yellow historical gown. Red background. The cover pose references the famous movie poster for Gone with the Wind.

F is for Fuck’s Sake, Frankly, My Dear

{Content note: this post discusses slavery and pernicious anti-black racism all the way down.

Click here for the complete A-Z of intersectional feminism in romance.}

Let’s imagine you are a slave on a sugar plantation in 1845 Louisiana. Which of the following things do you think you want most?

  1. Modern makeup
  2. Aerobics lessons
  3. Group psychotherapy (from amateurs, not professionals)
  4. Cosmo-style sex tips

If you answered 5. My fucking freedom or at least a decent working wage, you bigoted asshat, you are correct. But if you picked 5, you would be far too astute to be any of the characters in Sandra Hill’s Frankly, My Dear — not naïve time-traveling white supermodel heroine Selene, not emo slave-owning Creole hero James, and certainly not the cheerful and well-fed slaves on the Bayou Noir plantation, who are just so happy to have our heroine’s opinion on their physical attributes, mental health, and sexual adventures.

And yes, the aerobics lesson actually happens on-page, while everyone sings “Achy-Breaky Heart.” Hand to God, head to desk.
Cover art for Frankly, My Dear by Sandra Hill. Red background. A shirtless man with dan skin and long dark hair stands. In his arms he holds a woman with tan skin and dark hair, in a butter-yellow off-the-shoulder gown.  White formal text reads: SANDRA HILL above and FRANKLY, MY DEAR below.

This novel reads as though someone is lovingly pulling out every mint-condition antiquated racist stereotype of black characters from all of comedy and film. Every black woman is a Sassy Black Woman, except for the ones who are Eeeeevil (and inaccurate) Voodoo Priestesses. (Many thanks to Virtual Chaplaincy for that link.) There are multiple Magical Negroes (can I posthumously apologize to Marie Leveau for her cameo in this book?) and the heroine’s time-travel is accomplished through a voodoo spell — which felt like such a waste of a premise. Imagine a world where black people had the secret of time-travel in 1845: wouldn’t that be the best way of escaping from slavery? It would be the ultimate Underground Railroad. Can somebody write that book, please? Because I would really love to read that. {Update: this trailer comes pretty close! And has a great soundtrack, to boot.}

Instead, a black woman’s magical powers are leveraged to serve the white protagonists. What we have here is a romance where a slave plantation is a Fun Unique Setting!, starring two preposterously shallow and self-involved white people. How appropriate that this entry falls under the letter F, as there are many, many f-words in my Kindle notes for this book.

Ms. Hill’s text makes heavy use of the language of appropriation. Black experiences of dehumanization and torture are merely a useful metaphor with which to describe the lives of our white hero and heroine. In other words — do you know what is just like slavery? Western beauty ideals (all emphasis mine):

  • “Besides, I don’t have to diet now … In fact I feel as if I’ve been emancipated.” (507)
  • In deference to the temperature, she scandalously insisted on wearing only one crinoline — one too many, in her opinion. Apparently, most ladies wore five or six. They must be masochists, Selene decided, or else slaves to the dictates of a fashion-conscious society, just like modern women. (1028)

Also just like slavery: paid work:

  • Five years of working side by side with the natives on a Santo Domingo sugar plantation as an indentured servant had taught him good and well what servitude felt like. (1368)

(Side note: you weren’t working with the ‘natives,’ James honey, you were working with imported African slaves and their descendents. The native Taino people of Hispaniola were wiped out centuries before by your slave-owning asshole forebears.)

Also especially like slavery: hating slavery but still choosing to acquire slaves to work your land for you:

  • Escape… that was what he yearned for — escape from the burdens of running a struggling sugar plantation, escape from the responsibilities of a family that was splintering apart, escape from the loneliness of his self-imposed exile. Most of all, escape from the system of slavery he abhorred and yet benefitted from. Sometimes he thought he was as much a prisoner as his slaves.(1386)

In the face of such rank, self-aggrandizing, unempathetic bullshit, I lose all critical distance. My notes for this passage are a motley collection of all-caps and swears and ludicrous errors by the Autocorrect.

But don’t worry about all the black people, the text assures us in this same passage — our hero James is nice to his slaves. (Surely some historical slaveowners were nice, too, right?) He lets them earn their freedom after five years of good slavitude, followed by five years of indenture, during which he pays them not in wages but in land they can farm and sell the proceeds from. He pays them in extra work after their slaving work is done. What a champ. But at least it’s better than nothing, right? Give the poor heartbroken slaveowner a break: he’s a motherfucking job creator: “If I don’t make this land thrive, not only will my future be bleak, but there will be no future at all for the hundred slaves who depend on me” (2125). There is no sense here of slaves as people with independent dreams or desires: if James does not provide them with work, clothing, and food, they will have nothing. Black people in this text have no agency of their own — despite not only the historical fact of the Underground Railroad and various slave uprisings during this time period, but also all the free black people we saw living and thriving in California in Beverly Jenkins’ books. In fact, when the hero and heroine of Frankly, My Dear move to California at the novel’s end to avoid the future Civil War, many of the slaves go with them willingly. Because of niceness, or something. It’s a blatant narrative move to justify our hero and heroine morally and ensure the reader’s sympathy: if the slaves choose to stick around even in free territories, it proves James and Selene weren’t Real Slaveowners ™ at all. The subject of back pay for years of unpaid labor somehow never seems to come up.

I  might forgive this set-up (though it’s a long shot) if James had inherited the plantation and the slaves and was making the best of a shitty deal — but James bought into this toxic system, his mother explains:

  • “For more than ten years, he worked as little more than a slave until he earned enough to return for me and purchase Bayou Noir.” (3728).

Heroine Selene is shamefully quick to abandon her initial distaste for slavery: “I don’t know why I’ve been sent to the past, but somehow I know it’s wrong for me to be trying to change history — impossible, actually” (4066). Why is it wrong or impossible? Because fuck you, that’s why. This little moment of gut-feeling is all we get for an explanation, and soon our heroine is leveraging slave labor as though she’s been doing it all her life (but she’s really nice about it, so that’s okay, right?) and boinking the slave-owning hero.

You know what else is like slavery? Dirty talk during sex:

  • She moaned and nodded, a willing slave to his graphic questions. (5394)

But then James’ dead wife turns out to be alive — and an addict! and our villainness! and she uses the n-word! which is how you know she’s evil, because good people obviously feel terrible about forcing black people to work for them for free. Upon seeing how difficult opium withdrawal is for the not-dead wife, Selene is seized with angst and remorse. Because you know what’s worse than slavery? Adultery:

  • Selene had trouble reconciling her morals and making love with a married man. (6155)

Sure, keep a hundred human beings in perpetual bondage for your own material gain — but no consensual sexytimes with another white woman’s husband! That’s immoral.

Lest you think I am being petty by taking a rocket launcher to the fish in this hapless book-barrel, I should point out that as of press time this staggeringly heartless novel, though first published in 1996, was reissued this year in both print and digital by Avon, and currently has a 4.02 star average on Goodreads, from a total of 480 ratings. That’s not too far from the same average as Octavia Butler’s Kindred, a time-travel sci-fi classic featuring a black woman who gets pulled back in time to save her white slave-owning ancestor in 1815, which was published in 1979, and which is much, much better by any legitimate metric.

Granted, Frankly, My Dear‘s high ratings are partially the result of self-selection, as anyone cognizant of the subtler omnipresent forms of modern racism (microaggressions and benevolent prejudice ahoy!) would run screaming away from this book’s blurb. The most common reason the 33 text reviews give for their scores is this: the book is funny, hilarious, an escape. One reviewer describes it as “pure fantasy,” and even a few of the negative reviews mention how much they laughed, especially at the blond jokes, because the parts of this book that aren’t about racism are about how stupid and slutty blond women are. Hi-larious. I’m sure all those five-star reviewers would hasten to say that I am overthinking things, that it’s all just a joke. I have been told such things before.

But it begs the question: precisely whose fantasy is this?

Merrian Weymouth‘s idea that romance reading functions as an escape into privilege has never been more clearly illustrated. Heroine Selene and presumably plenty of this book’s readership want to ‘escape’ into the romanticized Scarlett-esque version of the Old South. Big (white) ballgowns. Aubusson carpets. Hepplewhite, Duncan Phyfe, Hitchcock and Seignouret furniture. All of these are explicitly name-dropped to underscore the desirability of Bayou Noir as a home, in the same way that plantation tours today emphasize the luxury  and emotional content of the enslavers’ lives but soften their treatment of slaves. It’s presented as simply an unfortunate accident of history that this particular fantasy comes with a genocidal price tag. It’s not like we mean to say that we wish we could get slavery back, you know. We just want everything else from that time. Oh, and also not to do our own housework, because nobody likes housework, amirite? Come on, it’s just a joke. It’s not like most modern domestic service workers are people of color or anything like that, right? I’m sure that’s just an irrelevant coincidence.

This is the petty tyranny of inconvenience — just as the heroine believes that her individual comfort somehow justifies the enslavement of roughly a hundred other human beings, romance readers feel it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable to reflect on the ways the genre not only has marginalized but continues to marginalize not only characters, but also readers and authors of color. This book was not written by an obscure self-published writer with a small niche audience. Sandra Hill is a New York Times bestselling author, a genre mainstay for the past two decades; she is still writing books set in the contemporary South, though I am certainly not going to read them. And lest you think maybe she has rethought some of these depictions and dynamics in the years since this book’s publication, let me tell you that not only is this ebook a recent release, Sandra Hill and Avon are reissuing the sequel next month. Interracial romance doesn’t sell, they’ll tell you, but racist books apparently do;  there’s nothing troubling about an HEA for a slave-owning couple in the antebellum South, but you’ll get called out for depicting anything close to adultery, even if it’s clearly consensual and the wife is cool with it. Because adultery is too immoral to stomach but owning slaves is not. Because fuck you, that’s why.

Are we really supposed to believe this is all just an enormous coincidence? That there’s nothing to interrogate about our readership, our genre, and our cultural history of systemic anti-blackness?

Whether or not you consider Gone With the Wind a ‘real’ romance novel, there is no doubt that it is part of the genre’s discourse. The plantation has been a stock romance setting for half a century, from Rosemary Rogers to Kathleen Woodiwiss and onward. It’s still fairly easy to find romances with Union or Confederate Army soldiers as heroes, especially when you add Weird West and steampunk stories to the mix. I chose Frankly, My Dear for this blog series because I thought it would help showcase a particularly troubled thread of the romance genre’s history — Margaret Mitchell would be worse than Sandra Hill would be worse than some imagined novel yet to come. (I didn’t trust Sandra Hill not to have a few broad stereotypes, after all — I’ve read her before.) As they say, be careful what you wish for: a feminist reading of this book only shows how deeply the genre continues to fail in matters of race and ethnicity.

Where is the Save the Pearls-type backlash to this book and others like it? Or the thoughtful critique, as we see with depictions of rape and dub-con? Is the book’s light tone really a good enough cover for the steamingly obvious racism at the core of this premise? Is it really enough for so many readers that our hero and heroine pay lip service to the idea of racial equality, while continuing to perpetuate a violent, degrading institution? Slavery is wrong, unless you’re polite and/d or angsty about it. How is this an acceptable position for a character we are expected to sympathize with and root for?

Is it really so difficult for us to do better?

___

I haven’t even touched on all the other problems with this book — such as the moment when our heroine gets twisted up with sexual jealousy over a THIRTEEN-YEAR-OLD girl she describes as moving “with the body language of an oversexed Sharon Stone” (2029). Then she calls the girl a “Lolita” (2047). We never see this girl again and she’s not important to the plot: her appearance is just a cute narrative trick to artificially raise the sexual stakes between the hero and the heroine. Or the highly racist use of dialect to Other all the black characters. Or the scene where our heroine sits down with a copy of Jane Eyre two years before Jane Eyre was actually published — which is not at all on the same level as the other things but which does speak to the idea that the author cares very little about the actual facts of the world she is trying to reflect in her fiction. Or the moment at the end when two slaves announce they’re getting married, and everyone congratulates them, when in fact slaves had no legal standing to marry and the idea that they could have happy and undivided families is a pernicious way of recasting slavery as both beneficial and inevitable. I don’t think a single page goes by without some obviously racist or sexist fuckery that should make any author ashamed in the year 20-fucking-14, and I need to stop talking about this since my fingers are shaking too hard to type.

In this keen and necessary post, Olivia Cole discusses 12 Years a Slave and its resistance to myths about white women’s role in slavery and violence in the antebellum South. There is also a romance-focused discussion of whiteness-as-default in this post at Heroes and Heartbreakers.

For fiction, if you value yourself and your blood pressure, do not read Sandra Hill’s book. Instead choose anything else from Fuck Yeah Interracial Romance Novels on Tumblr, or one of the books recommended in this post from The Toast, or if you really must read a romance novel that deals with slavery, please try Beverly Jenkins’ Indigo instead.

___

Hill, Sandra. Frankly, My Dear. New York: Avon, 2013. Ebook.

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15 thoughts on “F is for Fuck’s Sake, Frankly, My Dear

  1. “Where is the Save the Pearls-type backlash to this book and others like it?”

    This one’s got so much in it that’s so blatantly wrong you’d think there ought to have been some. I was pretty horrified by Bettina Krahn’s The Book of True Desires and it won a Rita in 2007. It used racial stereotypes for humour (as I discussed at considerable length at Teach Me Tonight because I was so surprised that a book with this sort of thing in it could be published and successful in the 21st century). Maybe with that and the Hill the humor’s supposed to make everything OK so (mostly/almost exclusively white, I assume) readers can say it’s not meant to be taken too seriously?

  2. I definitely think the humor acts as a cover: it’s like when a guy uses a really sexually blatant pick-up line, and if you respond positively then he meant it, but if you respond negatively then it was ‘just a joke.’ Privilege often disguises itself as humor.

  3. 1. I stopped reading Krahn over the book Laura references above.

    2. I am so grateful I self selected out of this book both now and back in the day. I am also unable to do anything but stand on my chair and applaud this illustration of privilege reinforcement reading.

  4. Yeah, that really does sound offensive and problematic on many levels.

    I’m actually wondering, if you take the voodoo powers and the underground railroad/fighting for freedom aspect, is time travel necessarily the best place to jump with that? I’m no expert on voodoo magic, but I’d love to do a little research and figure out what there is in the real voodoo tradition that might lead to interesting conflict between slaves and the southern slave-holding powers.

  5. This is a great analysis. I hope no one comes along and says something as they have for other blogs that don’t adopt an emotionless tone -because everyone is supposed to be emotionless about racism- “Y so much cussing, now I can’t understand all the problems with this book because cusses magically blind me or rather gives me an excuse not to listen to something I don’t like.” I liked the parallel you drew with Jenkins. It really illustrates what we mean when we say, “read authors of color; it’s not adequate to read characters of color written by white authors,” even if they’re not glaringly privileged like this.

  6. Oh my god! That sounds like a terrible book. I can’t believe something like that was published. I almost want to read it, just tor cringe.

    Truly, I agree with Sarah; you write amazing reviews!

  7. This is quite eye opening. I don’t usually read in this genre so I am unfamiliar with it but whoa… you are thorough. I wonder why more people/readers don’t stand up and ask questions or throw educated letters to the publisher. I just don’t get it.

    Julie Jordan Scott
    The Bold Writer from A to Z

    Thank you for writing this and happy A to Zing!

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