Story posted September 25, 2007
Picture this: A woman drawn to a man by feelings too powerful to ignore.
But wait! She is African American, he is white. To love, they must risk losing family, friends, co-workers. They are shunned by a world that is haunted by its painful past. They face a future fraught with difficulty. Can they surmount these obstacles? Will love prevail?
Many would call this romance-novel plotline plain old cheese. For Assistant Professor of English Guy Mark Foster, however, it's rich ground for scholarly investigation. Foster specializes in the emerging field of interracial studies, an understudied and often overlooked area of American culture and literature.
Foster recently published a paper, "How Dare a Black Woman Make Love to a White Man! Black Women Romance Novelists and the Taboo of Interracial Desire." The work offers an insightful analysis of some of the historical, societal, legal and psychological aspects of interracial heterosexual coupling, as they are reflected in African American romance novels.
"Although the contemporary romance novel may initially seem an unlikely textual site upon which to examine ... complex, overlapping issues of sexuality, race and cultural politics," writes Foster, "... the subject of contemporary black women's sexual relationship to white men largely comprises an unmapped terrain within the mainstream African American literary canon."
Romance novels typically have been written by white women, featuring white protagonists. Since the 1980s, says Foster, women of color have begun writing romances, with black-white lovers featuring prominently. In some ways it is a genre uniquely suited for an examination of race, culture and sexuality—with its recurring themes of forbidden love overcoming great obstacles.
"African-American romance novels," he observes, "offer a ready-made genre for black women authors to address internalized norms about interracial intimacy, about their own lingering phobias, and about the societal challenges such couples face. Each couple struggles with their own beliefs, and by the end of the novel they have earned their love."
The characters' internal struggles reflect very real ones, says Foster. "We like to think that we have moved beyond our past oppressions of people of color, but the under-representation of interracial couples in mainstream media belies the rhetoric that we are a color-blind society. Our public language of integration often masks ongoing struggles that interracial couples face."
While interracial marriage is now legal—the last anti-miscegenation laws were struck down in 1967—black-white couples are a minority.
"Many interracial couples continue to experience forms of harassment," says Foster. "They get stares and comments in public places. Some get attacked when they are with their spouses. Their cars or houses are spray-painted. Their children face challenges in schools. America is still fragmented. We forget there are still places that are resistant to the changes we see around racial and sexual norms."
One of the societal barriers interracially coupled African Americans face is within their own community. Strong cultural nationalism is part of the legacy of the Civil Rights era, notes Foster, a codification of the "Black is Beautiful" movement.
"For a person of color to choose a white partner," Foster says, is "perceived as a kind of losing of one's way. It means you don't like other black people romantically, or even your own blackness. It means you are more invested in white culture."
On the other side, whites romantically linked with people of color face stereotyping as "exoticists," or the perception that their choices are driven by a rebellion against their parents or society.
Foster argues that interracial-themed romance novels offer heterosexual black women a chance to divert their imaginations from the dominantly race-driven themes of African American literature. They can explore the boundaries of personal longing and sexual desire and redefine their power by exercising freedom to choose the object of their affection, even apart from considerations of the racial "collective."
"Traditionally," says Foster, "the black literary canon was designed as a form of protest against anti-black racism, therefore, interracial intimacy has almost always been portrayed as an impossibility that cannot work. In many of these works, black-white intimacy functioned as metaphor for black-white group conflict. If such relationships worked in literature, it would imply that white people had transcended their racism and accepted black people as equals — but in fact, all kinds of disparities still exist.
"In romance novels, there is a resolution that alters the canon. The resolution exceeds the messiness of life," says Foster, "offering a fictional corrective."
Foster says he was driven to study the genre because he "wanted to look at literary texts that explored the tensions between individual desires and collective demands for black Americans.
"Unlike lesbians and gay men of color, who since the late 1970s have developed a rich literary and cultural tradition of validating their unique desiring identities, blacks who are interracially coupled with whites are in the early stages of developing a 'reverse discourse' with which to validate and affirm their own sexual object-choices."