The following is an excerpt from Black Love Matters: Real Talk on Romance, Being Seen, and Happy Ever Afters (2021, ed. Jessica P. Pryde), reprinted with permission.
In 2017, at the Emmy red carpet pre-show, a reporter from Variety asked Internet sensation and creator of the HBO series Insecure Issa Rae who she was rooting for to win that night. Rather than single out specific artists, she stated her priorities more broadly: “I’m rooting for everybody Black.” With millions watching and tweeting, the statement quickly became a sensation. More importantly, it stuck. And it transcended internet culture. There were tweets, and memes, but also news clips, t-shirts, and sweatshirts and, perhaps most importantly, discourse.
Rae’s sentiment resonated far and wide. The response was partly because what she said was pithy and concise, the currency of the internet memes. But it also really connected to the social and political climate in that moment (and has ever since). When the concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement are repeatedly met with racial resentment and backlash, a clear public expression of Black solidarity is no throw-away line. Though the killing of George Floyd in 2020 ignited a wave of racial reckoning and recriminations in mainstream publishing, in Black communities nationwide (creative, literary and general), heightened racial concerns and frustration have long been top of mind and Black love has long been at least a core part of the answer. The phrase Black Lives Matter first went viral with the acquittal of George Zimmerman for killing Trayvon Martin in 2013 and galvanized into a national movement with protests against police brutality in the wake of the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri in 2014. But the phrase has grown to encompass and symbolize a more holistic, renewed demand for Black freedom (at long last), or according to Gene Demby, “The Birth of a New Civil Rights Movement.”
With increasingly visible demands for justice, though, came renewed pushback. And in 2016, the election of a president with clear white nationalist ties only made the need for a reprieve from injustice more pressing and real. As revanchist white supremacy and racial resentment have become more publicly bold and omnipresent, the thirst, in truth, the heartfelt visceral and pressing need for cultural experiences of Black joy and Black love as a reprieve from all that, only grows stronger. As Hanif Abdurraqib writes in his recent essay collection A Little Devil in America, Black culture has long been an essential element in how Black Americans have coped with pain. In the seventies, Abdurraqib contends, soul music allowed Black people to be “their whole free selves” and the joy found within that was essential: “A people cannot only see themselves suffering, lest they believe themselves only worthy of pain, or only celebrated when that pain is overcome.”
I felt that. Outside of music, in the literary arts, no medium and no single genre expresses that particular irrepressible need to see one’s self—one’s whole, lovable, soft human self — on a more instinctual, elemental level than Black romance. For many African American readers, the 2010s saw Black romance as an answer to a new racial reckoning, in an intimate and visceral way. The reasons for this are many. Romance is known as the literature of hope for all readers, but for Black readers navigating a world that discounts the value of Black life, and denies the existence of Black humanity, Black beauty and Black people’s capacity for love, the idea of romance as hope has additional weight. That’s especially true in times of elevated external stress and obvious strife. On screen, we have Sylvie’s Love and Lover’s Rock. In literature we have Black romance novels, not just books by authors about Black people finding love, but rather stories specifically about Black people finding love with each other.
While mainstream publishing looks for racial redemption in interracial romance and multicultural stories about transcending race, my years-long deep dive into Black romance has affirmed one central truth: for many Black readers and authors, freedom and happiness can be found through the embrace of Black love that is inextricably bound up with Black solidarity. To be clear, “love is love.” But even as interracial marriages grow increasingly common in the United States, and multiculturalism and diversity are ostensibly core American values, there is a strong sense that nothing provides a greater sense of security and emotional fulfillment than Black unity and solidarity. One of the boldest statements artists can make is Black solidarity and joy over oppression and pain. One of the most resonant ways that Black writers express self love and find joy is in stories about Black love.
THE LINK BETWEEN LOVE AND JUSTICE IN ROMANCE
There are two dominant ways that Black love stories speak to Black readers under stress and striving for freedom. First, some Black romance confronts racism and the struggle for Black liberation head on. As African American literary scholar Rita Dandridge has shown, from its inception, Black romance has also had a strong social realist and activist bent running through it (), reminding ourselves and others of the fullness of our lives as well as our struggles. Black women are “agents of resistance” in these romances but they also find love. We see that in the work of Frances Harper and in the historical romances published starting in the 1990s by Beverly Jenkins and others.
That activist streak shows up in Black historical and contemporary romance today. The activist minded protagonist is a beloved romance archetype. The anthology Daughters of A Nation, for example, is a collection of stories about Black women in the fight for suffrage. Writing for Oprah magazine, Alyssa Cole called attention to the political concerns in her 2020 Runaway Royals novel: “While it’s set in a fictional kingdom, How To Catch A Queen, like so many romance novels, was clearly shaped by the politics of the world around me and—specifically, America today.” Cole has also made explicit connections between justice and joy in her Loyal League historical romance series about Black spies working undercover for the Union during the Civil War.
But Black romance also serves as escape and reprieve from the ongoing struggle for Black liberation— a place of refuge and fantasy and a way of finding Black joy that isn’t always accessible elsewhere. Plus, as historian Nicole Jackson argues, merely focusing on Black love has historically, often been an act of rebellion. Romance is arguably the genre that most consistently celebrates the fullness of Black life, and where many readers have looked to find refuge from the burden of racism and rediscover Black joy separate from its struggles. I feel that, and I see that sentiment reflected all around me in reviews, on social media, through Black bloggers and authors. Book blogger/YouTuber Shade Lapite of the CoffeeBookShelves blog likened discovering Tia Williams’ romcom The Perfect Find to finding water in the desert, but lamented not having more books like it in romance and other genres: “if there’s a group of people that deserve uplifting, joyful, life-affirming art, surely it’s Black people. Where is it?”
This is not to say that romance is ever purely apolitical. I strongly believe that who is centered and what a happy-ever-after looks like have political implications, and bringing to life a more just world on the page can be as political as delineating what makes this world unjust. Plus, like Cole and others, I understand that ideas about beauty and desirability have racial and political dimensions. As cultural scholars have long argued, desire is not born solely of individual preference no matter what we may want to believe. It is shaped by and reflected in culture, social hierarchies, and social conventions that help dictate which physical characteristics are highly valued and which are not. Context matters. Even the least explicitly political romance novels manifest these ideas about beauty and worth and they can also contest them. Some novels do so subtly, by putting on the page a vision of love in which Black celebration and joy far outweighs any burden, and racism is unlikely to be a pressing concern.
This essay explores how those two impulses— the confrontation of injustice and escape from it—have played out in an emphasis on Black solidarity as a conduit for Black Freedom and in the construction of extensive Black Community and even Black Worlds within the work of three leading authors of Black romance in the six years since the incidents that sparked the rise of the new civil rights struggle, the Movement for Black Lives.
RESEARCHING BLACK LOVE
In the midst of increasingly visible racial injustice in the United States and the resurgent grass roots activism of Black Lives Matter (BLM), it’s inevitable for this energy to increasingly find its way onto the page in some way. And it’s also inevitable for modern Black romance to have to navigate and find a way to reconcile those two impulses— the drive towards justice and the need for joy. The question is how. How has the Black romance community in America responded to and engaged with the values and ideas about identity and justice reflected in the Black Lives Matter movement.
More specifically, I’ve long wanted to know: How are Black romance authors channeling their concerns and anxieties about racial injustice onto the page? Is it by directly interrogating racial justice on the page through social justice involved plotlines or in other ways— by insulating readers from the injustices and ensconsing them in visions of what the “good life”, a more just life, could look like beyond White Supremacy’s reach? If and when Black romance authors do engage with racial justice on the page, which ideologies of race do they convey implicitly or explicitly in the texts? To answer these questions, I examined some of the most popular and often discussed Black romance. First I identified dozens of notable Black romances of the last six years based on ratings and reviews on Goodreads and Black blogs.
Looking at the six-year period beginning in 2015, what I found was that some of the most consistently beloved and widely read Black romances were those authored by Alexandria House, Christina C Jones, and Alyssa Cole—writers who engage in discussions of racial justice in a variety of ways that range from subtle/implicit to explicit. These three authors consistently support their Happy Ever Afters by wrapping their couples in Black communities of support and who engage in the kind of sophisticated world-building that spans series as well as individual books. So, while Black romances often hinge on universally popular tropes like fake dating, fated mates, friends to lovers, enemies to lovers, and second chances, many authors take these universal tropes and make them new by grounding them in culturally specific Black experience. Situated in predominantly Black contexts, the world-building around Black community and institutions can be just as essential to these stories as the romantic trope. By ensconcing their characters in Black worlds—not just tight knit Black family and friend groups (though those are essential) but also environments in which happiness and safety is secured through predominantly Black institutions, Black businesses and Black communities and Black political power— they help to blunt the reach and impact of white supremacy. In fact, the pull of Black community is so strong, so central to well-being of Black people in these books that when Alyssa Cole wrote her first novel outside of the romance genre, the gentrification thriller When No One is Watching, she centered her story on the polar opposite of Black safe space, a historic Black neighborhood under attack.
Still, these books don’t just idealize a Black utopia in the absence of white folks on the page. They both long for and reckon with justice within Black communities as well. That is to say, the vision of justice on the page is often noticeably intersectional. Concerns about class, color and gender roles, for example, often loom large. And social issues sometimes play a big role. In a way, freeing these communities from the relentless concern about racism frees them up to focus on dealing with issues within.
In The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto, Charles Blow argued much the same. Believing that chasing acceptance in white-dominant worlds to be a losing proposition, Blow contends that Black people could best mitigate the harms of white supremacy by reversing the Great Migration. His advice: those who have the flexibility to do so should turn their backs on the North; reclaim population majorities and power in the South.
As both an avid reader of romance and an academic specializing in media and politics, I was struck by how much Charles Blow’s vision resembled what I was already seeing on the pages of some of the most popular Black romances. The Black majority communities and businesses and institutions Blow dreams of in his manifesto vividly come to life in the fictional worlds of writers like Alexandria House and Christina C. Jones, and, transferred to a fictional African nation just as in Black Panther, Alyssa Cole. Though their aims and styles differ, much of the vision is the same. Decenter whiteness; reclaim Black solidarity, Black Power. Black Freedom. All this can be located through an expansive application of Black love.
These ideas about Black love, freedom, and solidarity are perhaps most clearly expressed in some of the most popular works by three prominent Black romance authors: The McClain Brothers and Romey U by Alexandria House, The Love Sisters by Christina C. Jones, and Reluctant Royals and Runaway Royals by Alyssa Cole. In this essay I use examples from books in these series—specifically Alyssa Cole’s How to Catch a Queen, Alexandria House’s Let Me Free You and Christina C. Jones’s I Think I Might Love You— to provide insights as to the multitude of ways that ideas about Black freedom and Black solidarity are bound together with representations of Black love, all intrinsic elements in the HEA within Black romance.
I chose these books specifically after two years of my own journey into reading Black romance. Once I started to research Black romance in a more focused way, I looked for books that were both widely read and highly respected/rated within Black romance communities. I identified potential titles using the “Black romance” or “African American Romance” tags on Goodreads, lists, and the Sistah Girls and Women of Color in Romance websites as well as a variety of Black romance blogs. And I also looked for titles with 1000 total ratings and a 3.5 or higher average reader rating to ensure the titles I identified were embraced and discussed within the Black romance community. These themes of Black solidarity and community emerged throughout across many dozens of works in a myriad of subgenres. But the books I eventually choose to focus on here stand out for their clear vision of what a good and just life looks like and/or protagonists who are politically engaged concerned with social justice themselves.
WHAT THIS BLACK LOVE HEA LOOKS LIKE ON THE PAGE
In the works of House, Jones, and Cole, these underlying themes of Black solidarity, liberation and power show up as intrinsic elements in living Happily Ever After in Black love. That manifests most concretely in: how financial security is attained, dependence on Black economic self-determination; Black community and institutions; a reverence for Black aesthetics/beauty independent of European ideals; and in Black power. All three novels also take an intersectional view of justice that acknowledges that oppression has many forms and justice is not accomplished just by neutralizing white supremacy alone but also by attending to social problems within Black communities.
BLACK BEAUTY, BLACK SPACES AND ECONOMIC SELF-DETERMINATION IN LET ME FREE YOU
Let Me Free You, a soapy dramedy about a green card marriage, is the highest rated novel in House’s McClain Brothers series (4.73 stars out of five). It manages to be both supremely romantic, tropey and overtly political all at the same time. It takes place in predominantly Black spaces; interrogates the standards of Black femininity, questioning the internal social hierarchies of class, color and desirability that still hold sway in Black communities; boldly confronts a controversial archetype of modern Black masculinity; and includes a brief but explicit discussion of the influence of white supremacy in American culture.
Neil McClain and Sage Moniba are both a bit bruised by life and love. Neil has never lacked female company. He’s conventionally handsome and comes from a tight-knit working class family that has attained a significant level of wealth because of the professional success of Neil’s three brothers: one a rapper, another a professional athlete and the third a businessman. Sage is a good girl and a good friend to the women in Neil’s closest circle including his eldest brother’s wife. She is also a successful makeup artist with a growing clientele. Neil is a college-educated writer, artist, and bookstore owner, but he’s also recently out of rehab and feeling kind of shaky. When Sage is threatened with deportation, their friends come up with the idea of a green-card marriage, an arrangement to help Sage stay in the country she’s called home since she was a small child. Sage gets to stay and Neil gets to do something good and pay forward some of the goodwill and good fortune from which he’s benefited.
Despite the nature of the arrangement, however, it soon becomes clear that Neil and Sage are supremely well-suited to bringing out the best in each other. Neil has struggled with substance abuse and self worth and he’s known somewhat pejoratively as a screw-up and as “Hotep Neil.” He’s the sensitive and intellectual brother, the one most concerned about culture, Black identity, and race. Sage is darker skinned, short and big with a big laugh, big personality, and an infamously loud voice. And she doesn’t possess the external validations of success that some would expect Neil’s partner to have. Neil initially recalls her as “The little thick one? Loud as hell?” To be clear: none of that bothers him, but he’s not keen on marrying a stranger. Sage has endured more than her fair share of verbal abuse and denigration by other Black women and sexual partners, which makes her vulnerable to manipulation that plays on her insecurities. They both feel like underdogs and they’re attracted to each other intellectually and physically. And yet, according to some of the secondary characters, especially their exes, their coupling is anything but natural. Some people in their circle communicate the idea that Sage is unworthy of Neil’s attention and love because of her darker complexion and her larger size, both qualities which place her outside of the standards for a good looking, well-off and well-connected Black man. That Sage is stable and Neil has struggled with substance abuse does little to lessen his worth on the dating market according to some hierarchies, even within some Black communities.
The fact that Neil and Sage get on like a house on fire and are simultaneously perfectly matched and considered an unlikely couple according to social standards becomes the best argument for questioning the legitimacy of those standards. And yet, even with those problems, unlikely couples like this—ones that are perfect for each other but flout social convention and endure social sanction to wield symbolic power. Portrayals like this are potent vehicles of social criticism. In this case, Neil’s devotion and passion resoundly call into question the validity of the intra-community biases around class and color.
Portrayals of characters who defy conventional standards don’t always need to be contested on the page. I’ve written before that it’s important to just have these characters of size be cherished without having them go through the shaming. But House’s handling is effective and her portrait of Sage has real depth. House isn’t the only author to represent a character like Sage, but she’s doing something with this storyline that is effective and heart-wrenching and she makes Sage a unique and striking figure. Sage is someone whose voice and personality receive as much censure as her size. It speaks to the constricting standards imposed on women, Black women especially, who are often told they don’t fit the feminine ideal. That’s a phenomenon many Black women recognize. What’s also lovely is that Neil fully embraces Sage. Their chemistry is palpable, and social pressure doesn’t make him question his choice. But those pressures do lead Sage to question his sincerity. It also makes them targets of jealousy and resentment and harassment by their exes. Their HEA directly hinges upon not simply rejecting those problematic and false standards (some of which are direct holdovers from white supremacy), but really working through them as a lie about Neil’s reason for staying in the marriage brings both main characters to a literal precipice in the book’s dramatic climax.
Although questions about the relationship between beauty and Blackness are of particular importance to Sage in Let Me Free You, since she both withstands criticism for her looks and works within the beauty industry, these issues are implicitly the subtext of a wide range of Black romances. One of the many reasons Black romance is a safe space is that aesthetically and culturally, these novels have a commitment to the beauty and culture of people of African descent. Natural hairstyles from afros to locs and braids are all common, styles that are recognized initially as Afrocentric. They find beauty in a Black woman’s body with thick thighs and full hips, in dark skin, in faces with broad features. Traits treated as flaws by Eurocentric American standards, those most often associated with Blackness, and hairstyles that might be banned in corporate and government environments, are celebrated in Black romance. Conversely, people who don’t have an appreciation for Black beauty, those who practice colorism and feature and size discrimination, are misguided and suspect at least, antagonists in thrall to internalized white supremacy at worst like Neil’s ex-girlfriend and Sage’s boyfriend. Frequently that kind of destructive attitude goes along with some broader villainy as is seen here.
Black Entrepreneurship as Liberation
Economic independence is another key part of the HEA for Black protagonists in Let Me Free You. Sage and Neil’s HEA is also tied up in their lives as Black owned business owners catering to Black clientele. Neil owns an Afrocentric bookstore. This aspect of Neil’s backstory combines both the freedom of entrepreneurship with his interest in Afrocentrism and Black liberation. One of the ways Sage and Neil bond is by sharing and discussing books. Sage hasn’t had the formal educational opportunities Neil has had but they read and discuss books together.
Freeing oneself from the compromises involved in working for white institution is a key part of the heroine’s struggle and journey to happiness in many Black Romances, including I Think I Might Love You by Christina C. Jones as well as Let Me Free You. Protagonists often end up as entrepreneurs that cater primarily to a Black clientele. That means freedom from a boss but also freedom from white judgment. This theme also appears in Let Me Love You by Alexandria House, book 1 of House’s McClain Brothers series, though that’s the beginning of her journey. By the end, Jo Walker controls her own fate. She ends up married to Everett McClain, a major recording artist who controls his fate by producing his own records, running not just his own record company but also, eventually, an entertainment company. To be fair, achieving self-determination and financial independence are often part of the character arc in romance. And problematic whites supervisors/employers and white power structures are a source of struggle in interracial romances like A Lowcountry Bride by Preslaya Williams and Snapped by Alexa Martin too. But the employers and businesses that are part of the HEA in Black romance tend to have a race conscious aspect, more consistently falling under the heading of “for us”, by us.
Afrocentricity and White Supremacy
Even though Alexandria House locates Neil and Sage within Black community and Black entrepreneurship, and even though she also surrounds Neil and Sage with a fair amount of insulation which allows many Black romance novels to take the focus off of whiteness and white people, she makes a conscious choice to confront the controversy in Black culture around how the spectre of white supremacy haunts how Black people judge each other. Sage, who is originally from Liberia, is a target for that particular brand of toxicity derived from internalized European norms. Plus, by making the male protagonist a supposedly infamous hotep, House calls into question what a hotep really means and why so many Black people hold the idea in such contempt when its core value is Afrocentrism. The figure of the hotep has come to signify not pride in Black identity and African cultural affinity, but rather a parody of it according to Damon Young, writing for The Root (Hotep Explained). In addition to questions about gender roles, Neil’s reputation as a hotep leads Sage to ask not just “Why are you a hotep?” but also “why you hate white people?”
Neil’s response has two pieces. First, he points to the centrality of white supremacy in American culture and education:
“Well, because ever since I was little, I didn’t understand why everything we learned was so…white. We’re taught that classical music is white, classical art is white, classical dance is ballet—white. All the great thinkers—white…I just ain’t never bought into that Eurocentric bullshit.”
Second, he draws a clear line:
“I don’t hate white people, I hate white supremacy. I hate white lies and not the innocent lies they label as white lies. You see how perverse that shit is? A white lie is an innocent lie? What the fuck is an innocent lie? That shit don’t exist. But that’s what they do…they make stuff benefit them.
Given who Neil is, an intellectual and a generous and devoted husband, putting those words in his mouth makes a powerful statement. Let Me Free You is brilliantly titled because in the end Neil and Sage rescue and free each other emotionally and intellectually. They find not just love, but freedom. The title and their journey as couple reminded me of a line I knew from Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” but which originated in a 1937 speech by Marcus Garvey: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds.” Neil would approve.
BLACK POWER AND SOCIAL JUSTICE IN ALYSSA COLE’S HOW TO CATCH A QUEEN
Black community, world-building and debates about social equality and the legacy of white rule play an even greater role in How to Catch a Queen. Alyssa Cole’s boldly, intersectionally feminist novel takes place in a world apart from Sage and Neil, in the tiny fictional African nation of Njaza. Following the success of her award-winning Reluctant Royals series, in 2020 Alyssa Cole launched the Runaway Royals with a romance about a temporary and volatile arranged marriage of convenience between two people who, unlike Neil and Sage, are near polar opposites emotionally and do not easily mesh.
King Sanyu II was born to lead his small African kingdom. Shanti Mohapti is a former farm girl from a neighboring nation; she has great ambition but no pedigree. And yet, defying both fictional and reader expectations around gender and class, between these two, Shanti Mohapti is the natural born alpha. Sanyu has major doubts about whether he wants that life or is even suited to it. So he mostly leaves the decision making to his advisors and when the novel opens, he’s a few steps from fleeing the throne. While King Sanyu II fights chronic, almost debilitating anxiety daily and secretly dreams about finding true love, Shanti spends her time dreaming of and planning national leadership. Plus she has confidence, experience and political savvy to spare. Shanti not only believes with unshaking certainty, against all odds given her humble roots, that she was born to be a queen; she has worked to make that dream a reality. She studied relevant subjects at university and identified potential matches—countries in need of a female monarch for their single king.
No one inside Njaza’s palace expects this pairing to last, much less for a love match to grow between a man who was born to be king but doubts his own fitness to rule, and a woman who has craved and planned for power her whole life. The match only comes about out of desperation. Sanyu’s father is dying and wants to see his son settled before he goes. Shanti, meanwhile, has struggled to find a home. Despite beauty and many qualifications, her lack of pedigree rules her out as a desirable match for most monarchs. Timing is everything, though, and Njaza lacks the time to find someone else. So in addition to differences in temperament, the hasty, slapdash nature of their match creates distance between the two potential lovers.
HOW COLE PUTS POLITICS IN THE SPOTLIGHT
While genre conventions place Shanti and Sanyu’s romantic relationship at the center of the story, Cole puts their political partnership and Shanti’s secret political activism on equal footing with their romantic coupling. To be clear, this queen can do both. Shanti is a beautiful woman, thirsty for companionship, and bursting with ambition. Among the many feminist elements in the novel, Shanti’s unabashed desire to lead and to do so by starting at the top as a monarch is among the boldest. That type of ambition isn’t often a quality we see praised in women. But Cole makes it clear that any kingdom would be lucky to have her. Shanti is one of “University of Thesolo’s most valued students, having completed degrees and certifications in multiple disciplines to prepare for the eventuality of taking a throne—and, truth be told, for the slim possibility that she wouldn’t, because a queen always has a contingency plan.” And she arrives in Njaza armed with big dreams and a binder full of research and strategic plans. Personally and professionally, with her beauty, openness, education, confidence and political savvy, she is the partner Sanyu needs to break out of his protective shell and move his country forward.
Nonetheless their road to partnership is far from easy and that struggle is what makes How to Catch a Queen such an explicitly political novel. Cole places Shanti and Sanyu’s journey towards a multifaceted romantic partnership and the country’s journey towards gender and social justice hand in hand. One can not succeed without the other. In Njaza Shanti finds herself immersed in a deeply unequal and rigidly sexist system uninterested in her talent or her plans. Shanti is truly sidelined, excluded from taking part in her new country’s governance, both substantively and ceremonially. This isn’t, contrary to her expectation, an opportunity to lead or show what she can do. It’s an invitation to go through the motions of a temporary, sort of probationary marriage in which she’s never supposed to succeed, or even play the role of temporary figurehead.
After months with little contact between them, a candid conversation exposes the gap between Shanti’s hopes and reality. Shanti is not just disappointed. She’s bewildered by how marginalized she’s been:
“We’ve barely spoken since the wedding. You’ve paid less attention to me than a pet hermit crab. You haven’t checked on my comfort or even if my water bowl was filled! You haven’t included me in any aspect of the running of the kingdom either.”
He stopped and looked down at her. “Why would I include you in running the kingdom?” he asked, completely straight-faced.
Despite having grown up in neighboring nations, culturally they’re worlds apart. Shanti came of age in a kingdom in which the king and queen ruled “together,” as partners:
“They’re a team, each having their strengths and weaknesses, and their advisors and ministers support that team—in political matters, that is. It’s hard for a person to run a kingdom on their own because one person never has all the answers. “I thought you and I might be a good match because I want to help your kingdom and I assumed you did, too, and that’s more of a shared interest than many arranged marriages have. And I thought the choice of me as your bride had been strategic because you wanted to forge ties with Thesolo.”
Sanyu’s words and his expression reveal how foreign that notion is to him: “I had no choice in you as a bride, and I doubt your connection to Thesolo was taken into account,” he said. “You were likely chosen for your looks.” ‘ And yet, she thinks, ironically, she’s “not even allowed to be arm candy.”
In contrast with Shanti, who had both her parents’ marriage and the egalitarian monarchy to look up to, Sanyu was explicitly raised not to believe in love, or to trust, or to think that a woman could be his true partner, let alone that they could work together as equals. He grew up without a mother, seeing a parade of temporary queens pass through the palace, never staying long enough to really bond. Time and again, “He’d been reminded every time he’d been told his mother was gone because she hadn’t been strong enough or smart enough or cunning enough—or docile enough or sweet enough…” Between this talk and archival research into her new home, Shanti realizes that Sanyu’s upbringing, his maternal abandonment and his socialization by male elders (especially a domineering, very old school senior advisor Musoke) have made gender equality, the egalitarian model of marriage as partnership and even love completely foreign concepts: “She thought about Musoke, and his rigid point of view. Of a little boy who watched queen after queen arrive and be sent away, and what kind of man that boy might become.”
As their conversation illustrates, despite growing up in neighboring countries, Shanti and Sanyu’s differences— not just in temperament but ideology, culture and family upbringing — are stark. He obviously doesn’t understand a woman like Shanti, let alone know how to work alongside and love her. Between his upbringing, her identity as an outsider, and a woman, and the jockeying for power among different factions working against them, her plans for partnership appear almost impossible. But this Black romance is a literature of hope and change. Sanyu is willing to learn. Eventually it’s something they both fight to make real.
HOW INTERSECTIONAL POLITICS AND SOCIAL JUSTICE FIT IN A FAIRY TALE
Culture and ideology also play a central role in the story. How to Catch a Queen is a beautiful distillation of the way culture and politics intersect and the importance of taking an intersectional view of social justice. Njaza is an African country. Black leadership dominates at every level. And they are proud of their heritage, in particular their defeat of European colonial rule. But that doesn’t eliminate injustice in the nation. So while there are definitely fairy-tale like elements in the commoner who married royalty, it’s also a story that’s mostly interested in belief systems, political realities, and models of change. Cole herself disclosed that Sanyu and Shanti’s happy ever after could not have come about without them working to make their world more just: “The “happily ever after” comes only after Shanti and her king, Sanyu, navigate toxic masculinity, a government made of old men who refuse to respect fresh ideas from younger generations, and a community of marginalized people who organize in the back of a bookstore to help drag their country into the future.”
Fortunately, Cole excels at distilling real world politics into story and myth. How to Catch a Queen very effectively examines how culture and belief systems function and how change is sometimes made. Njaza is a young country whose cultural identity is largely focused on their story of independence from colonial rule. Unfortunately, Njazan leaders use that origin story to justify their biases and privilege. Following its independence, after a brief democratic experiment, Njaza has been ruled by two men, revolutionary warriors and founding fathers: a king, who was Sanyu’s father, and his closest advisor Musoke. Democracy, the story goes, was contentious and messy: “They tried that. And it led to civil war.”
Cole also cleverly gives the country an origin story about a missing queen that, somewhat like the Biblical Story of Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden, blames a female ancestor for an entire culture’s deeply ingrained sexism and misogyny. Though the story sounds like a myth because it’s dressed in tales of heroic soldiers and kingdoms, Cole is really modeling how Ideologies truly function in society. She has given the kingdom of Njaza a controlling image of women, an ideologically driven stereotype that provides justification for the existing social relations. Controlling images, according to sociologist and leading Black feminist Patricia Hill Collins, provide cover, making it seem that the the way things are is how they should be.
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Njaza’s origin story also makes loving a woman a weakness. This (in addition to anxiety) is why Sanyu spends the first three months of their planned four-month trial marriage almost completely avoiding his wife.
Cole also addresses how the governing structure of Njaza reinforces social inequality. After a disastrous public appearance in which he’s heckled and experiences a bout of anxiety, Shanti passes Sanyu a response to a question posed by a member of the public, which he later contemplates in bed: “How can women and other marginalized genders feel like full citizens when we have no voice in this kingdom?” Just beneath that, was a handwritten quote:
If a troop of lions gather to make the rules of the land, they will agree that eating antelopes and aardvarks is in the best interest of everyone. If a group of lions, antelopes, and aardvarks gather to make the rules of the land, the final decision will look very different, don’t you think? —Queen Ramatla of Thesolo
Despite the fictional setting, Cole’s depiction of the connections between politics, identity and ideology, and the wary relationship between former colonies and their colonizers are spot on.
Ultimately, finding a community for herself outside the palace walls is an essential part of Shanti’s journey. Neglected, restless and bored, Shanti decides to explore Njaza on her own at night and stumbles upon a whole community inside the aptly named LIberation Bookstore. Not just potential new friends but progressive like minds and an outlet for her prodigious talent and energy. The bookstore gives Shanti a window into the Njazan people’s point of view and their frustrations—on gender and patriarchy for example:
“I’d hoped the queen would bring Ingoka’s fire to us, to smite Omakuumi and his cult of strength and Amageez and his logic that makes no sense,” she said as she stacked papers. “It’s such silliness! As if to be fierce and intelligent, one must be born male.” “Or as if you should crush your true self to retain Omakuumi’s blessing or Amgeez’s,” Salli said. “I sometimes still feel guilty, but my husband and wife remind me that I am their blessing, and that all of this stuff they say to make us feel bad about ourselves isn’t the true way of Njaza.”
Here Salli alludes to the idea that a more fluid vision of gender and sexuality is part of true Njazan culture suppressed under colonialism. Sanyu’s best friend and advisor Lumu is also in a triad with a husband and wife. Yet, it’s also clear that internalized holdovers from European rule are only part of the problem. Njazan founders forged their own traditions and myths in independence. That includes the myth of the True Queen which turned the King’s wife into a legendary figure, a standard no human woman ever seems to meet, and the ritual of the marriage trial, which never succeeds. Time and again, “Somehow, none of the wives had managed to fit the role.” Here again the intersection between identity and ideology emerges. At the bookstore, Marie, an elder, exposes the ideal of the True Queen for what it is: convenient justification for gender inequality, a reason no woman is ever fit. The myth robs women at the top of the social ladder of opportunity to lead and that devaluation flows to those many rungs down:
“These decisions that seem wasteful to us always benefit someone. A queen without power who can be replaced at any time,” she said darkly, then shook her head.
“Whatever the initial reason for it, it lets every woman in Njaza now know her place. If the most important woman in the land is little more than a temporary trinket—not even a trophy, which is shown off—then the seamstress and shop owner and the shepherdess shouldn’t expect any better.
Though technically an insider, despite enjoying the trappings of privilege in theory, both because of Njazan culture and because of the nature of her marriage, Shanti Is marginalized. So she finds her own community, a refuge and a safe space, outside of it. Among activists, at the bookstore Shanti finds her purpose, putting her political education and energy into helping those who are powerless in Njaza building a political movement, to agitate and bring pressure for change from the outside. She mentors the protestors, sharing information about effective methods of public confrontation in a place like Njaza that hasn’t had a culture of protest for fifty years. And Shanti and the activists’ efforts bear fruit. Soon, “the streets are full of debate about what the king is doing for us, and why some of us are said to be equal when paying taxes but don’t get to determine how the tax money is used.” Plus, “people no longer feel a need to whisper their complaints.” For once, Shanti sees the success and gets the credit she is due, for her contributions and ideas and for sharing vital information about activism around the world.
Still, it’s an odd position to be in, playing both the outside and inside game, and Shanti has mixed feelings when credited with the success of events that cast Sanyu in a critical light: “It felt like treason now, to hear Sanyu spoken of this way and not defend him, but Marie and the others had every right to be angry.” Even worse, when the activists get creative, remixing a patriotic anthem into protest rap, Shanti is more ambivalent rather than triumphant, “proud of her friends, but wondering what it meant that a queen was complicit in the heckling of her king.” She’s especially reticent about calls for insurrection, attempting to diffuse the more bloodthirsty radicals’ not entirely metaphorical cheers for the guillotine and to make things go “Boom.” Her goal, she thinks, “was to prevent it, not stoke the flames.”
Ultimately, community is central to how Shanti and Sanyu finally find their way forward. Once Shanti and Sanyu start to work together and become lovers, they collaborate on a raft of proposals for economic development and equality. But he’s plagued by worry and torn between his old advisor and tradition and Shanti’s drive for progress. So, at the last moment, without warning Shanti, Sanyu drops the equality aspect of their plans in front of the Council, fearing that it’s a step too far that might jeopardize other initiatives. His betrayal pushes Shanti out of the palace and on the run. Shanti discovers a community of former Njazan queens, who tell her the nation’s true history, and the role the first queen played in independence. Shanti and Sanyu’s reconciliation and their HEA then essentially hinges on Shanti bringing the missing pieces of Njazan history, the parts involving women specifically, to light. Those stories help Sanyu understand his personal history as well as the country’s past. They become the basis of a restorative justice project which Shanti leads, one which will form the basis for transforming Njaza and ensuring that it has a more inclusive future. Other types of community, close friends, and Shanti’s community of activists in particular, play essential roles in their love story. But it’s the support and guidance of those elder women that help Shanti and Sanyu make the final leap from estranged lovers to permanent and true partners.
THE LIGHTER SIDE OF BLACK SOLIDARITY IN I THINK I MIGHT LOVE YOU
While Let Me Free You and How to Catch a Queen reflect the richness and depth of the ideas manifested in Black romance, they both occupy the more explicit serious side of spectrum in terms of how ideas about a just and good life are communicated in Black romance. Christina C. Jones’s I Think I Might Love You on the other hand, demonstrates how ideas about Black solidarity are subtly manifested at the lighter side of the spectrum, within romantic comedy. Jones’s novella is a great and subtle representation of solidarity, Black power, and the corrosiveness of internecine conflicts about class.
In fact, despite savvy and subtle commentary on ingroup respectability politics and Black solidarity and, in its own way, Black power, I think I Might Love You is the funniest novella I’ve ever read. The story begins with a meet disaster—after a category 5 breakup involving a cheating man and an angry wife, Jaclyn Love seeks shelter in what she thinks is her sister’s empty apartment only to find a naked man there whom she attacks. She thinks she’s defending herself against an intruder when he’s really her sister’s subletter. The tenant, Kaden Davenport, is a hot animal doc. Jaclyn’s a kind of hot-headed woman who’s already had a run in or two with the law.
When we first meet her, at the door of the apartment fumbling for her keys, Jac’s twerking her worries away and rapping along to an angry song on the night she finds out her live-in boyfriend is actually married. Her attitude, captured in the music, the dance and the thought, “Oh well. One fuckboy don’t stop this show,” reflect admirable resilience. Unfortunately her irrepressibility and an indomitable spirit are also captured on surveillance cameras when she takes her anger out on the ex-boyfriend’s very expensive car:
Surveillance, from the parking garage. With audio. The tires were already flat, and the brick was already through the window. But there I was, locs swinging, rapping Wrong Bitch at the top of my lungs while I spray-painted those same words on the hood of Victor’s precious black Mercedes.
The penalty Jaclyn receives is harsh: “Four hundred hours of community service. That was the price to be paid for my drunken shenanigans with Victor’s car. Carrie Underwood and Jazmine Sullivan had me out here bad.” We learn two things from Jac’s run-in with the law. First, this is not Jac’s first time encounter with the legal system: “The judge had given me a specific list of places where I could fulfill my service hours, and I was not trying to end up raking leaves at the park, or picking up trash off the side of the road. I’d already done both of those.” Second, despite the extensive community service, it’s also clear that Blakewood is a place where a volatile young Black woman can get into a little trouble and not lose her life or her livelihood. But it’s not so welcoming and supportive that a strict Black judge can’t impose punitive punishment. “I would’ve gotten jail time if Vic hadn’t dropped the charges. The community service is purely punitive, cause the judge is tired of me. Jaclyn Love, you been in and out of here too much over the last ten years. I don’t wanna see you again!”
With this setup, many writers would have made Kadan uptight, bougie and judgmental and Jaclyn tragic. They might try to work the opposites attract trope primarily based on class. Christina C. Jones does not do anything that simplistic. Jaclyn is going through some things but she’s also fabulous—beautiful, effervescent, spirited, and already beloved. Jac is also a small-business owner and a college student close to finishing her college degree. They’re not that different when you get past the surface. In fact, Jaclyn Love is exactly Dr. Kadan Davenport’s type and everyone knows it. When Jac brings a wounded stray cat into his veterinary clinic, his colleagues are amused because it’s immediately obvious from the way Jac and Kaden greet each other that she’s the woman who inflicted his black eye (and a knee to the groin). And yet, even as Kadan tries to act out indifference, he has to admit at least to himself that Jaclyn Love is his preferred type of crazy and fine:
So… I couldn’t even front on Jaclyn. Ol’ girl was fine. Like extra fine. Risk it all fine. Problem was, she was a lunatic, evidenced by her busting me in my shit in my own house, getting arrested on the street after – which I saw through the window after I looked out to make sure Jemma’s assurance she’d left the building wasn’t a lie – and now, her ass bringing an injured cat in a bowl of chicken in here.
But Kadan, ain’t that the type of shenanigans you’re a sucker for? <- the question I could count on from anybody who knew me, especially if they laid eyes on Jaclyn. The locs, the deep brown skin, the lips, the thighs, goddamn. Her whole erratic thick snack situation was exactly my type. Like… exactly my type. Exactly.
That repetition. The detail. Beyond being a sucker for drama, Kadan’s thoughts reflect so many things, subtle and overt. Being inside his head, it’s clear that this vet loves brown-skinned Black women and he also appreciates Jac’s bold, conscious style. To Kaden, “She looked like the afrocentric answer to everything that ailed me, especially as my eyes traveled lower, taking in the way she filled out the simple dress she was wearing.” His instinctual attraction to Jac’s brand of Black beauty permeates every interaction. The descriptions of her appearance are specific and loving:
There she was behind the counter, her locs tucked away underneath a vibrantly printed headwrap that popped against her deep brown skin. Big flat wooden disc earrings hung from her ears, swinging as she turned to greet her customers – us. Her fuchsia-painted lips curved into a big, pretty ass smile – maybe my first time seeing that, and damn.
Given the politics of desirability and the sanctions Black women often operate under, this kind of full-throated, heartfelt celebration of beauty is not a small thing.
Jac’s distinctive brand has multiple dimensions. In addition to being beautiful and volatile, she’s also more than a little profane. She and her sisters share jokes that are as explicit as they are hilarious. Kadan loves her quick, irreverent personality. But with her record and her brash attitude, she violates the standards of femininity that are held up as ideal among Black folks with upper class aspirations. Jones doesn’t hide the fact that this is frowned on by some of Kadan’s relatives who represent the town’s Black establishment. The Black female judge who imposes Jaclyn’s unusually harsh sentence is Kadan’s aunt, and she staunchly objects to Jac dating her nephew. But Kadan doesn’t play by her rules. And he’s really clear about that, standing up for Jac, when Judge Cali Freeman tries to shame her.
Jones’s depiction of Black class dynamics are very real. The social dynamic around Jac and Kadan reflects the complexities within Black families, especially socioeconomic diversity, which is rarely reflected in mainstream (white dominated) media. Jaclyn’s cousin is one of Kadan’s best friends and she’s also related to some of the oldest families in town. Kadan’s aunt is the judge who presides over Jac’s case. Families can both belong to exclusive Black elite institutions like the Links and Black sororities and have generational ties to Black institutions and still have members who are struggling economically and/or with the law. They can have elite ties and still not pass muster with aunts that practice the politics of respectability. That complexity was reflected in the Black Entertainment Television (BET) series Being Mary Jane, and it’s broad to life in the Love Sisters series, but it’s typically absent most everywhere else.
Black Spaces As Places of Safety And Solidarity
Though Let Me Free You and I Think I Might Love You are situated in contemporary American settings, they have so much in common with Cole’s fictional African world of How to Catch A Queen. The protagonists all live and work in predominantly Black environments, work for themselves and are reciprocally supported by Black community. In a still unequal and unjust world, one of the ways modern authors of romance bring a sense of justice and inclusion for marginalized characters within the literature of hope is to create pockets of freedom and empowerment, just spaces or refuges, within which their main characters can thrive.
Sometimes it’s the tiny private space between two people against the world. At other times, it’s bigger, a circle of friends who are like family, or extended families or small towns. In romances, like K. J. Charles’s queer historicals A Seditious Affair (The Society of Gentlemen series) and Band Sinister and Courtney Milan’s feminist Victorian historical romance series The Brothers Sinister, that safe space exists in the friendship circle or communal organization in which the usual rules of society don’t apply and members hold each other’s secrets dear. There is safety and power in numbers. Every romance carves out a version of the world which makes space for living happily ever after.
In I think I Might Love You, just as in the Black romances of Alexandria House and Alyssa Cole, though, the worldbuilding and Black infrastructure are comprehensive. These authors locate their stories in predominantly Black towns, or towns with thriving Black communities within them, on Black university campuses, and in fictional Black nations. This is one of the ways they decenter whiteness. The Love Sisters operate in a connected universe with the Wright Brothers series and both are full of such settings. The same is true of House’s McClain Brothers and Romey U series. Even though Black solidarity is largely communicated through setting, Jones clearly also conveys this racial consciousness in Jac’s point of view. Like Issa Rae, Jaclyn Love is openly rooting for everybody Black. Even when she’s doing something as simple and urgent as searching for a local vet, she’s making a deliberate choice about who to support. As Jones writes, “A quick glance at their website showed enough melanin from the various images on the home screen that I was comfortable giving them my business.”
Of Skinfolk, Kinfolk and the HEA
If romance in general is the literature of hope, some Black romances can be seen as the literature of hope and progress, HEAs made possible by Black solidarity and community as well as love. And yet even in these books, it’s clear none of these Black communities are inherently safe spaces for all. Racism isn’t front and center since these protagonists work hard to carve out lives that aren’t dominated by its influence. But that doesn’t mean their worlds are free from injustice or even free from white supremacy, which can be deeply internalized and take many forms. Along with their partners, these women work to build truly safe spaces for themselves and others within imperfect worlds. After her immigration status is secured, Sage and Neil fend off attacks based on inherited hierarchies and expectations that should be extinct. The survival of Shanti’s marriage hinges on equal partnership and the inclusion of women and marginalized groups in Njazan political life; Jaclyn literally fights people who denigrate her because of her size; the resulting criminal record placed her outside of standards of Black respectability imposed by Black elites. In all three novels, the values and aspirations invoked in “I’m rooting for everybody black” buck up against the received wisdom of “all skinfolk ain’t kinfolk” without diminishing that quest for community and love. Some folks hold onto divisions that don’t serve us, but we keep it moving and keep loving anyway. It’s fascinating and affirming to see Black women triumph supported by community on the way to their HEA.
Carole V. Bell. “I’m Rooting for Everybody Black: Black Solidarity, Black World Building and Black Love.” Black Love Matters: Real Talk on Romance, Being Seen, and Happy Ever Afters. Edited by Jessica P. Pryde. pp. 36-64. ã 2022 Penguin Random House. Reprinted with permission.
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Bell, Carole V. “The Troubling Gap between Fat Representation and Fat Acceptance in Romance.” Book Riot. (2020). Accessed 2020-09-10. https://bookriot.com/fat-representation-in- romance/.
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Cole, Alyssa. “I’m a Romance Novelist Who Writes About Politics—And I Won’t ‘Stay In My Lane’”. Oprah Magazine, December 17, 2020. https://www.oprahdaily.com/entertainment/a34995007/romance-novels-politics-alyssa-cole/
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