If Beverly Jenkins had her way, her novels would have many more history nuggets than they do. But then, she says, she has to remind herself that she is writing romance, not a history book. The veteran award-winning writer of African-American historical fiction novels has dozens of books under her belt and knows it’s a fine line to walk between sharing all the fascinating historical facts she unearths from her research and having her readers eyes glaze over. So she steadfastly works what she learns into plotlines saving delicious morsels for later books.
Her latest novel, Breathless, the second in a series (Forbidden began the series), is set in the Arizona territory in the nineteenth century. The story’s heroine, Portia Carmichael, is a strong-willed African-American woman, a manager of a reputable hotel looking to strike out on her own with a bookkeeping business. Her love interest, Kent Randolph, is an old acquaintance who finds work at the hotel. The chemistry between the two slowly smolders over the novel’s pages. Kent, a cowboy who calls Portia “Duchess” for her inaccessible nature, is smitten by Portia nevertheless and tries to win her over.
The whitewashed image of the Marlboro Man notwithstanding, there were a large number of African-American cowboys at the time, Jenkins points out. “I like to put my stories where people of color actually walked so you don’t have to have the conversation of did people of color actually do this or did you make this up,” Jenkins says.
It’s also why Portia has a real job—it’s important to Jenkins that African Americans be portrayed in literature as being the active contributors to the society they actually were. “Portia embodies the spirit and the drive of African-American women of her era in wanting to expand their lives, to take the education that they were given and do something with it to not only benefit their families but to benefit their race,” Jenkins says. “I like to have my characters wear the history.
“We have such a rich history in this country and a lot of it has not come to the surface,” Jenkins points out. “You don't hear or learn about the African-American female doctors of the nineteenth century. You don’t learn about Maggie Lena Walker who was one of the first female bankers in this country and an African-American woman.” Representation, Jenkins says, is important.
The hotel which Portia manages is modeled after a real Arizona equivalent owned by a woman and her husband who were both mixed Native-American and black, Jenkins says. The novel also has references to Apache history with warrior Lozen, a legend in her own right.
Brewing in the background of the story is the women’s suffragette movement; Jenkins teases out the nuances in the African-American experience of the same. “A lot of people don't know that the suffrage movement consisted of black women,” Jenkins says. “Or they don’t know about the discrimination that they faced as black women within the suffragette movement.
“Most of the history that I feature in my books, it’s not typically what we were taught in school. I like to say that it’s pieces of the American history quilt that have been either intentionally left out or torn out or hidden,” she adds. “I like to think that I’m stitching it back in because it's all American history. It’s not just African-American history. It’s American history.”
Jenkins calls her historical fiction romance novels “edu-tainment” for their mix of education and entertainment. Does she ever get tempted to just write a plain old history nonfiction book once in a while? “No, it’s not my bailiwick,” Jenkins says, “I tend to stand on the shoulders of the people who do the real scholarship.”
Poornima Apte is a Boston-area freelance writer and editor with a passion for books.