Hearts of Darkness: The Racial Politics of Popular Romance

University of Maryland, College Park
Publication year

Here's the abstract:

This dissertation examines how codes of whiteness and darkness function in several sub-genres popular romance fiction, where tropes such as the “tall, dark, handsome” hero and the “creamy white” heroine are part of a larger pattern of racial coding. Drawing on critical race analysis including Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark. I argue that the interplay between whiteness and darkness in various popular romance sub-genres participates in a racialized literary discourse—one that relies on and reinforces typical associations of feminine whiteness with innocence and purity, and of masculine darkness with danger and sexuality.

I argue that the fetishized racial boundary of white desire created by popular romances establishes a racial/ethnic hierarchy that invests white and Native American characters with a host of heroic erotic potential. Black sexuality (both male and female) is correspondingly beyond the pale, existing as a threatening presence which, as Toni Morrison says, “hovers in implication, in sign, in line of demarcation,” in the construction of literary fantasies of white freedom.

I confine my literary analysis to four particular sub-genres. In Chapter One, I look at the racial iconography used to encode the mysterious “dark” heroes of the Silhouette Desire mini-series, The Men of the Black Watch. Chapter Two examines the Savage series of historical romances, which features love between Native Americans and white settlers. Chapter Three moves from the ways that popular romance re-writes racial history to the ways that Dara Joy's science-fiction Matrix of Destiny series projects the utopian possibilities of racial amalgamation into the future. I conclude with a chapter on the African-American romances of Sandra Kitt. Her work undermines the white-centered aesthetics of popular romance, and therefore serves as a counter-example highlighting the constructions of whiteness and darkness that are the ideological mainstay of the other three sub-genres.