Romance vs. Black Consciousness

By Laura Vivanco on Tuesday, 11 August, 2020

I'm always interested to see discussions in romances about romance fiction and writing. Also of interest is how romance appears in works which are not romance. Here are recent examples I came across in Postcolonial Literatures in the Local Literary Marketplace: Located Reading by Jenni Ramone. Ramone discusses "Kwame Kwei-Armah’s play Fix-up (2004)":

Fix-up takes place inside a Black Consciousness book-shop which is under threat of closure because Brother Kiyi who runs the shop can no longer afford to pay his rent as a result of his working practices: he lends books which invariably come back in an unsellable condition, if at all, and buys books that he thinks are worthwhile, valuable, important—books that Black people should read—rather than the books that they choose to read (frequently, Black romance novels). The play remains ambivalent on the question of who is doing more for Black Consciousness: the sincere and highly principled Kiyi, or the apparently more forward-thinking militant and capitalist Kwesi, who wants to run a Black hair products business from the bookshop’s current location. Kiyi wonders about the difference between Black and white romance novels, asking “stories of Black love. I wonder how that differs from say stories of white love?.” Unable to find a clear enough distinction, he removes them from the shelf to make space for three sets of twelve volumes, described as accounts of the last remaining 2300 people to have been slaves, interviewed by social anthropologists in 1899 (10). Alice, a young mixed-race customer hungry for books that she is certain will help her to find herself, sees value in the Black romance novels that are, for Kiyi, symptomatic of a lack of consciousness. For Kiyi, Black romance novels are “nonsensical nonsense” that distract from the valuable reading and knowledge that his customers should be acquiring—Van Sertima’s Africa, Cradle of Civilisation!, Chancellor Williams’ Destruction of Black Civilisation, Peterson’s The Middle Passage, Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery [...] books on the Dogons, the Ashantis, [...] the pyramids of Ancient Zimbabwe’ (38). The play contains references to, staged audio recordings from, and discussion of Black Consciousness books and historical figures (among others, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Marcus Garvey, Claude Mackay). This means that the play operates very much like the Black Consciousness bookshop: it educates through close reference to texts that fill gaps in knowledge about Black history and culture. Having become a regular visitor to Kiyi’s Black Consciousness book-shop, Alice discovers two things which derail her burgeoning sense of self, or consciousness: she finds proof that Kiyi is her biological father, and she discovers that he has written the interviews with former slaves himself, revising and displacing similar, genuine narratives in order to fill what he perceived to be a historical omission. (144-145)

Scorn for romance fiction is also evident in another text discussed:

In the 1981 film Burning an Illusion directed by Menelik Shabazz, the act of reading is a visual referent of Pat’s journey towards consciousness. After Pat’s partner Delroy is imprisoned for four years after intervening in an argument and injuring a policeman, her immediate response is to rip up the book she was reading while sat in bed as a signal that nothing can help her to understand her new situation. The book’s title is not visible on screen but it is recognisable as a slim Mills and Boon orange-topped romance paperback. Her romance reading is emblematic of her lack of consciousness up to this point, so the act of destroying the book is a recuperative act. (164)

and

the contrast between experience and reading is apparent again at the film’s close when Pat reorganises her books, keeping only those perceived to be important and throwing others into a waste incinerator (she throws away romance books, Barbara Cartland’s name visible on screen). (165)

Two more examples of the rejection of romance:

Verona, the protagonist of Joan Riley’s novel, Romance (1988), has an obsession with reading romance novels: “She would read until the heating came on and the room warmed up. She picked up the book that sleep had interrupted. She had been in the middle of the last chapter; she might as well finish it before getting ready for work” (27). For Verona, reading is pretence—fantasy and escapism, even denial, but the central motif of the text is the unsuitability of her reading matter. Instead of taking action or even telling her family when she loses her job, Verona goes to the library and avoids her situation by “getting comfortable in the cushioned Black chair” and arranging “her four romance novels in a neat pile” (40). Repeatedly, her friends and family call it “trash”, “white trash”, “rubbish”. Her family criticise Verona’s habit—“all you do is read them stupid books” (22) and analyse her motivations; her sister accuses her of pretending to be the white heroine in the novels: “That’s why you’re always reading these trashy books, isn’t it? So you can pretend. What’s the matter with you anyway? What’s wrong with a Black man?” (69). Verona only understands the real events in her life through cross-reference to the romance novels: “It was just like in Concertina Love, she recalled” (172), excusing misogyny in a white man because it replicated the misogyny in the books that gave her so much pleasure. Only the realisation of an unplanned pregnancy interrupts her reading: “She couldn’t even lose herself in romance any more, feeling too unwell and worried to concentrate” (200). The term “lose herself” seems particularly apt here. Ultimately, reading romance novels has a potentially destructive effect because losing herself in a book is, in fact, losing her self, her identity in racial, cultural, social terms: pretending to be “an innocent blonde-haired virgin” (74), reading is undertaken at the expense of attention to her brother, sister, father, her job, and ultimately her awareness of her identity. By the end of the novel, Verona begins to consider other reading material, having acknowledged that her reading choices are in conflict with the values of the people she respects, the people who run Black Consciousness meetings. She is given “a children’s book by a Black writer” (229) and this implies not only that she might restart her reading, but also that she might in the future share her reading with her unborn child, and that the child might have a more worthwhile experience of reading, signalled by Verona’s more positive ideas about the future at the novel’s close. What emerges from an analysis of these reading instances is a conflict between losing the self (in fiction—in white romance novels) and finding the self: locating the self, or locating consciousness is, in Romance, inseparable from reading texts that are acknowledged to be of merit in intellectual and activist terms. In Joan Riley’s The Unbelonging (1985), the pattern is similar in a narrative that follows a young woman’s aspirations to go to university and the conversations between Black women about what should and should not be read: Hyacinth becomes obsessed with Mills and Boon romance books she finds left behind in her lodgings, and initially rejects her friend Perlene’s suggestion that reading Walter Rodney’s book (How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, 1972) would make her better aware of the causes of racism. (166-167)

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Ramone, Jenni, 2020. Postcolonial Literatures in the Local Literary Marketplace: Located Reading. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

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