Race and Romance: Coloring the Past

Arizona State University
Publication year

Here's the abstract:

Race and Romance: Coloring the Past explores the literary and cultural genealogy of colorism, white passing, and white presenting in the romance genre. The scope of the study ranges from Heliodorus’ Aithiopika to the short novels of Aphra Behn, to the modern romance novel Forbidden by Beverly Jenkins. This analysis engages with the troublesome racecraft of “passing” and the instability of racial identity and its formation from the premodern to the present. The study also looks at the significance of white settler colonialism to early modern romance narratives. A bridge between studies of early modern romance and scholarship on twenty-first-century romance novels, this book is well-suited for those interested in the romance genre.


Why make colorism the focus of this book the gentle reader might ask? Isn’t romance a genre that celebrates love, despite all obstacles, and happily ever afters? The answer, dear reader, is in the question. Because the romance genre trades in happily ever afters and love, it is easy to overlook its participation in the formation of early modern English white supremacist logic. By the time non-white romance authors became an active presence within the romance industry, romance and whiteness had become nearly synonymous in the arena of love. What attention to the racecraft at work in the writing of romance fiction generates is a portrait of colorism and negation. What I hope to illustrate is beginning with the translation and circulation of Heliodorus’s Aethiopica, circa mid-sixteenth century, the romance genre, the idea of “romance,” and colorism have long been intertwined in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. (Introduction)


Translations and adaptations of Aethiopica persisted into the eighteenth century, alongside the continued republication of sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries works. Aethiopica is also one of the earliest romance novels that can legitimately be labeled an interracial romance in the modern sense. Finally, the novel importantly cements both the form (novel) and the idea of romantic relationships in the reader’s imagination as expectations of what a romance does. (Introduction)


In Chapter Four, I argue for seeing Beverly Jenkins’s romance novel Forbidden as the disruption of the terrain cultivated by the romance texts of Heliodorus, Fairfax/Tasso, Lisle, and Neville. In essence, Jenkins’s character Rhine Fontaine is the metamorphosis of the white-presenting figure into the white-passing subject with all its conflicting intersectional social narratives. In Rhine Fontaine, romance meets white supremacy and the logic of white supremacy implodes. Unlike Clorinda or the Phils, Rhine’s Blackness and his whiteness may be policed but not erased precisely because it is a performative identity. Jenkins interrogates the colorism that marked not just the enslavement of dark-skinned Africans but also the presumption that whiteness is always white. (Introduction)


Romance structurally confounds as much as it organizes. In other words, romance is viewed as an adventure or quest located more often than not in “nature” and predicated upon the notion of a wandering heroic figure. Concepts such as salvation or redemption, realism, possibility, and punishment are thematic hallmarks of the romance plot, while love and a happily ever after are its generic conventions. In the end, what is important in these studies of the romance genre is the idea of the social act. (Chapter 1)


Works in this collection