Rebekah was one of the first people who joined Heroine Week. When she told me that her Happily Ever Afters came in every color, I knew her contribution would be interesting and invaluable. I was right, and you're about to see why.
For Colored Girls Who Can’t Find Themselves Between the Pages by Rebekah Weatherspoon
They handled other witnesses poorly as well. Jennifer Lauer, the neighbor whose 911 call picked up the sound of the gunshot, was asked the same questions over and over and was even accused of following George Zimmerman’s brother on twitter by the prosecution who didn’t understand how twitter works. She was not following the brother. Twitter had just suggested she follow him, probably because they are both associated with the case. In the following 24 hours I didn’t hear much about Jennifer Lauer, but I heard A LOT about Rachel Jeantel.
First came the Precious jokes, making fun of her weight and her skin tone (side note: Gabourey Sidibe is a beautiful young woman who acted the hell out of an intense role so the comparison shouldn't even been an insult, but...ya know), and then people went right after the way she talks, calling her stupid, ghetto, and unsophisticated. She was memed as a drug addict whose weight impacted her testimony. Did Rachel do anything to deserve this treatment? Nope. She showed up and did her civic duty and I think told the truth to the best of her ability, but if you Google her you will find the most vile comments about a young woman whose only crime is being black and heavy.
What does this have to do with Heroines in Romance? Oh, I’ll tell you. I love love. I’m a sucker for it. I love watching romantic comedies. I love reading romance novels. I love fixing people up. I’m really a sucker for fixing people up. But I don’t see whole of women like me or Rachel getting to fall in love on my screens or in the books I read. As much as I wish it wasn’t the case, everything we consume has a bearing on our sense of self-worth. Film, television shows, magazines, newspaper articles, popular blogs, advertisements, photographs, the words from the mouths of our teachers or employers or friends and family, and books all influence how we see ourselves and each other. That’s where female identifying folks like myself looking for positive representations of ourselves in these outlets run into a little bit of a problem.
Often we’re missing altogether. Just flip through a list of the mainstream films and books released so far this year or check the primetime line-up for every cable and network station. The landscape is pretty white. White and thin and straight. For me and many others, that’s a problem. Why?
Let me take you back to the early 90’s. Remember a little show called Friends? Remember the Rachel haircut? Some of you younger folks might not. Look it up. It was some haircut. I was the only black girl in my middle school. For 2 years I was the only black kid period. EVERYONE went out and got the Rachel. Even one of the Chinese girls in my class got the Rachel. I would have looked ridiculous with that haircut, but I felt left out. Sometimes being left out makes you feel like you means you don't matter. And you know that old (old as in Pretty Woman old) saying, if you hear something enough times you start to believe it.
Luckily for me I had mother who made sure blackness was thrust upon me at every turn and by the time I hit kindergarten I knew me and my blackness mattered. But what about people who don't have parents or siblings or even teachers to show them how necessary it is that they feel visible and important? Well, they’re left with film and TV and books. And when those mediums leave you out, then what? You're left feeling invisible and invalidated and that’s a lot to handle especially when those mediums are the average American's means of escape.
When we aren’t missing altogether, we’re unreasonably selfless friends, co-workers, or employees. The characters meant to represent us typically don’t have families or full lives. Those characters are incomplete people. Depending on the point of view, this makes sense, sometimes. But it happens enough that nearly all the media non-white woman consume tells us that we’re just nameless, faceless employees, or bitches and hos, or walking sex toys, or like in Rachel Jeantel, and every woman who looks or sounds like Rachel, we’re nothing but hurtful joke to be circulated around the internet.
This leads to our claims of injustice, racism, rape, or domestic violence being ignored or again, turned into a joke. Why? Because the leading sources of influential information say we aren’t complete people. We’re here to offer sympathy and wisdom. Or recipes. But we’re not here to be listened to or defended and we sure as hell aren’t here to be loved.
I’m of the mind that every woman deserves to be the star of their own story. I’m not the sidekick in my own life. I’m not the support or the help or the sassy black woman. Sometimes I do give a little more than I should to fair weather friends, but I think a lot of people are guilty of that, but I’m not at their service no matter what it costs me. I’m not invisible in my own life. I might be invisible to others, but my own life is pretty full of me. I’m in a relationship with an amazing human being, who happens to be pretty freaking cute. Funny thing is, I don’t see myself much of anywhere else. The only woman on TV I can remotely relate to in relationship to the way the world sees me is Amber Riley’s character Mercedes Jones on Glee, but Mercedes is in high school and that I know of Mercedes’s character can’t keep a man that she actually wants and she doesn’t have a visible family, even though her family took in a pregnant Quinn when her parents, who were featured on more than one episode, tossed her out. I love me some Olivia Pope, but Olivia and I have very very little in common. I do wish I had her wardrobe though.
I have NEVER seen myself in a romance novel. Ever. Maybe there’s a character out there who is a lot like me, but I haven’t found her yet. And why is that?
We can start with the money. White people sell, on the surface. The truth is people of color sell too, when their stories are given the proper exposure. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is always a movie I like to point out. Amazing, award-winning film and not once have I heard anyone say, “That really could have used more white people.” It did well in the US market because it was a great film that got proper exposure. Marketing matters, people. When it’s really difficult to find positive and realistic stories about people of color, white and people of color alike think those stories don’t exist. When people think those stories don’t exist, those stories don’t sell, so publishers and production studios put out less of those stories. The ones they do released get a fraction of the marketing push or they are only marketed to who that publisher or studio thinks will like that type of story.
I swear if I ever find the jerk who is making this crap up, we will have a very unfortunate conversation, but there is some awful rumor going around that women of color don’t read romance. We also don’t like sci-fi or fantasy. I’ve heard this many times. It’s been said to my face. I’ll let you think about that too. I, a black woman who writes romance, have been told to my face that women of color don’t read romance. Tell that to Charlaine Harris, and JR Ward, and Stephenie Meyer. Women of color have helped them out quite a bit. They’ve taken a nice chunk of my money. Not only do we like romance, we write it too. Just ask Francis Ray*. I hear it’s working out pretty well for her.
I let that roll around in my head for a while and realized that some people really do see an effort to include people of color as doing too much, as being unrealistic. But here’s the thing, when I leave my house I see all kinds of women. I try to walk every morning. I pass a few schools and every more I see Asian, Black and Latino moms taking their kids to school. I see them with their husbands and friends. They have lives. They have full stories. That’s real, no trying too hard about it. I feel like that reality to continue over into the media we consume because being visible creates a connection and often times, a connection can make a huge difference.
I see color, but I see people as well and it’s important to see different types of women in our entertainment. It’s important that we see different kind of women in different professions, in different situations and in love. Love humanizes us all. In my life, I needed I had to know that Beverly Jenkins and Farrah Rochon were out there writing about black love different from the love my parents shared. I needed to know they are out there writing the type of fiction that I wanted to write and read. They not only continue to show me, where films and tv fail, that black people are out there, falling in love. And they showed me I could that I could write about those people falling in love too.
It's not enough for women of color to think “I can be a doctor I can be a lawyer. I can go to space.” And still a lot of women aren't receiving those messages. There needs to be voices out there saying I am worthy of love in its simplest and spine tingling forms. I can be the princess. The damsel. I can save the prince and it won't change a thing between us. I can be a writer whose expression is taken seriously and not as an under-selling niche to be marketed not at all and sold separately. It's important for other women of color to know that they too, can be.
Here are three books featuring heroines of color that I rather enjoyed.
Parties In Congress by Colette Moody (lesbian romance between an Indian woman and a white woman written by a white woman)
Back to the Good Fortune Diner by Vicki Essex (contemporary romance between a Chinese woman and a White man written by a woman of color)
Night Song by Beverly Jenkins (historical Black romance written by a woman of color)
*The day after I submitted this post to Brie, author Francis Ray passed away. I only had the pleasure of talking to Ms. Ray online, on two separate occasions, but both times were wonderful, not only because she was enthusiastic and kind, but because it meant so much to me as a black author on the come up to be able to speak to another woman of color who had carved out such a fantastic, prolific career in romance. I’m just one of the many people who has been touched by Francis Ray and her work. If you haven’t picked up one of her titles, I highly recommend you do so. http://francisray.com/
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