Beverly Jenkins has always enjoyed a good love story. As a girl growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, she watched the romantic comedies of Doris Day and Rock Hudson and borrowed romance novels from the library. Of course, she did notice that none of the ingénues she saw onscreen or the heroines she found in books looked like her, and romance remained a white-dominated genre when Jenkins first started writing. Times have changed—sort of. In 2017, the owners of the Ripped Bodice—the only all-romance brick-and-mortar bookstore in the United States—reported that 60 percent of their bestsellers were written by authors of color. At the same, the percentage of romance novels being written by nonwhite authors decreased from 2017 to 2018.
Jenkins is actually optimistic about the future of diversity in the genre, and she is “so proud” of the Romance Writers of America for making a commitment to “inclusion for everyone writing romance.” To the extent that inclusion has become part of the conversation for romance authors, publishers, and readers, Jenkins deserves a great deal of the credit both as a writer and as an activist—a fact that her peers have acknowledged. In 2017, Jenkins received the Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award from the RWA. This July, at the RWA’s national conference, her publisher announced the Beverly Jenkins Diverse Voices Sponsorship, a program that will cover the expense of RWA attendance for authors from underrepresented communities. “That they named this initiative after me is truly humbling,” Jenkins says. “It also made me cry.”
While she is now one of the most respected writers in genre fiction, when she was just starting out Jenkins collected “enough rejections to paper my whole house.” She is quick to point out that breaking into commercial publishing is a challenge for most authors. She notes that, initially, editors didn’t know quite what to do with her first manuscript. The story featured an African-American heroine and hero, and it was set in the 19th century, but it was about free people living in all an all-black township, not about slavery. Ultimately, the book found a home at Avon, and the success of Night Song (1994) demonstrated that there was an audience for historical romance highlighting the African-American experience.
Romance is often described as escapist, and Jenkins certainly gives readers the pleasures they expect from the genre, but she’s committed to authenticity and introducing readers to aspects of history that might be new to them. In her second novel, Vivid (1995), the heroine is a doctor serving an African-American town in Michigan. Midnight (2010) follows the adventures of a black woman who becomes a rebel spy during the Revolutionary War. Regardless of the time period in which she sets her fictions, Jenkins is attentive to the realities of African-American life. “I’ve never shied away from reality. My characters deal with Jim Crow and segregation and how the enslaved navigated through the tumultuous years after the Civil War,” she explains. “African-Americans have always found ways to make lemonade out of the lemons given to us by this country. That tenacity and strength help me strike the balance I need to give readers a great love story featuring characters rooted in their times.” Jenkins takes her research seriously, and she might be the only writer in her genre who appends a bibliography to her novels.
Now something of an elder stateswoman in the world of romance, Jenkins remains an enthusiastic advocate for emerging writers. She mentions connecting with first-time authors as one of the highlights of this year’s RWA convention, and she is happy to offer this guidance to aspiring novelists: “Finish the book, then learn as much as you can about the business of writing and publishing.” That’s solid advice from one of the most successful, and most esteemed, writers working in romance today.
Jessica Jernigan is a writer and editor living in Michigan. She is a 2018 Kirkus Prize judge.