6.1 “The right of Representation”: Popular Culture

Popular culture’s ability to promote racism is clearly illustrated by D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation which, as Huguley’s novel notes, contains a happy “resolution of the white love story” (159). Griffith’s movie was based on “a popular novel about the Civil War and Reconstruction by southern author Thomas Dixon Jr.” (Lehr xii) which can perhaps also be considered an early romance novel. Dixon’s The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905) is a work which he described as a historical novel into which he had "woven a double love-story" (n.p.) and it is this latter element which ensures that the novel conforms to the criteria established by romance scholar Pamela Regis: it is "a work of prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines" which, among its “narrative elements” includes "a definition of society, always corrupt, that the romance novel will reform" (14). That this reform, in Dixon’s novel is abhorrently racist since its agents are the Klu Klux Klan, does not, per se, disqualify it from being considered a romance. Rather, it demonstrates how popular culture, including popular romance, can act to strengthen prejudices and spread hatred for some, even as it promotes love between others.

The Birth of a Nation includes a depiction of “a Negro trying to rape a young white girl” (Huguley 158). Given that both Ruby and her mother have been raped by white men, Huguley's novel provides an antidote to the movie's “wrong-headed portrayal of Negroes as greedy and lascivious” (Huguley 158). The binary opposition between white femininity and darkly dangerous male sexuality is one which has long been present in romance, albeit usually presented in a less explicitly racist manner: “the interplay between whiteness and darkness in various popular romance sub-genres participates in a racialized literary discourse—one that relies on and reinforces typical associations of feminine whiteness with innocence and purity, and of masculine darkness with danger and sexuality” (Burley Abstract). To the extent that dangerous darkness in romance has been eroticised yet largely limited to non-Black protagonists,

the fetishized racial boundary of white desire created by popular romances establishes a racial/ethnic hierarchy that invests white and Native American characters with a host of heroic erotic potential. Black sexuality (both male and female) is correspondingly beyond the pale, existing as a threatening presence. (Burley Abstract)

The movie also depicts “Negroes as lazy” (Huguley 159) and this, too, has relevance to popular romance. Stephanie Burley notes that it took a long time for romances with Black protagonists to be published, in part because “First among the obstacles, according to Vivian Stephens, Michelle Allers, and other African-American romance authors, was the industry’s misconception that African Americans 'don’t read'” (132). In this context, the depiction of Ruby’s intellectual abilities acquires wider implications. Her parents have insisted that she and her siblings "study and read and talk" (Huguley 73) and she is talented, “garnering A’s in nearly everything she studied” (155). This depiction of Black dedication to academic achievement stands as a rebuke to all those who assume that people like Ruby lack the skill or inclination to read.

Another obstacle to publication, at least according to mainstream publishers, is a perceived "lack of ‘quality’. Arguments around quality, however, often seemed disingenuous and showed how little reflection there was about how notions of ‘quality’ are shaped by an individual’s particular class and education" (Saha and van Lente 2). Anamik Saha and Sandra van Lente's report, Rethinking 'Diversity' in Publishing (2020), was focused on the UK publishing industry, but is also applicable to publishing in the US. US publisher Suzan Tisdale, founder of Glenfinnan Publishing, made arguments about quality in 2019 when she attempted to refute concerns about racism:

When we receive a manuscript from anybody for Glenfinnan, we don't know who's written it, 98% of the time we don't know the author. It's just a blind submission. The only thing we look at, ever, is the manuscript. Is it beautifully written, is it funny, is it compelling, is it intriguing, is it written well? (qtd. in Vivanco 2019)

Such criteria are not, of course, objective. It is fully possible for an editor’s feelings about what is “compelling” and well written to be shaped by their prejudices. However, by claiming to be judging all submissions impartially, the blame for a lack of success is transferred wholly onto rejected Black authors: the implication is that their manuscripts were badly written and neither funny, compelling nor intriguing. Adam, who has "dedicated" himself "to his studies" in order to become “the virtuous and best student” (Huguley 16), and who is certainly a better student than his white brother David, yet whose ability to find work will be shaped by his race, undercuts claims that Black authors fail to find agents or publishers, or fail to win contests, solely because their work lacks merit.

Ruby and Adam’s talent and courage is, moreover, part of the pastoral care Huguley offers her readers. As she revealed in an interview, her ministry as an author has been profoundly shaped by

An essay by Langston Hughes called “The Need for Heroes” [which] impacted me deeply and called to me to write historically. The situation that compelled Hughes to write about the need to celebrate the ancestors as heroes in story [...] still, unfortunately, exists. (Webb)

In his essay, published in 1941, Hughes addressed other African Americans, arguing that:

In our books and plays, our songs and radio programs, Negroes have a need for heroes [...]. We have a need for books and plays that will encourage and inspire our youth, set for them examples and patterns of conduct, move and stir them to be forthright, strong, clear-thinking, and unafraid. [...] It is the social duty of Negro writers to reveal to the people the deep reservoirs of heroism within the race. It is one of the duties of our literature to combat—by example, not by diatribe—the caricatures of Hollywood, [...]  the endless defeats of play after play and novel after novel—[...] there is a need, more than anything else, of great patterns to guide us, great lives to inspire us, strong men and women to lift us up and give us confidence in the powers we, too, possess. (184-185)

There is, in other words, a pastoral need for positive representations of Black people, written by Black authors. Specifically in romance, Black protagonists, through their lives, loves and happy endings, counter both the omissions of Black lives elsewhere in the genre, and the stereotypes about Black people which still lurk within romance fiction. Black romance authors like Huguley are, then, claiming their “right of representation” in fiction and many, too, are calling for greater Black representation within what might be thought of as the legislature of romance: the ranks of editors and other decision-makers of romance publishing.