NYT Best-selling historical romance author Sarah Maclean tweeted a link to a Tumblr conversation about the historical accuracy excuse in regards to period dramas erasing people of color from its cast of characters and its general landscape. It is a powerful indictment against lazy history and the laziness when it comes to building a diverse cast in our media. Yet, it also made me sigh.
There was a discussion about diversity on the Romance Divas forum a few weeks ago, and I believe #WeNeedDiverseBooks took off where #WeNeedDiverseRomance fizzled because diversity is treated as a “lesson.” We want our children to learn and accept everyone in order to become “good” people (this fostering of tolerance and acceptance also keeps order in the classroom and on the playground).
When it comes to the romance genre, it is built on the premise of escaping from life’s burdens. The hyperinflation of the fantasy is another pervasive aspect of the genre. Fantasy and escape does not include elements that discomfort and discomfit, nor does it include elements you don’t consider a personal fantasy (hence why some readers will never tire of billionaires or Navy SEALs or rakish dukes).
With regards to historical romance, it is hit with the double whammy of fantasy and escapism, which is deeply entwined with what readers think they know about the past. The average American mostly encounters people of color in history through lessons about Native American extermination, slavery and Jim Crow, Chinese exclusion, Japanese internment, etc. We are taught history from the outside in, from the top down–by and about oppressors, in literal oppression–which completely erases the inner lives of POC. Since romance is hinged on the inner lives of its characters, it is very difficult to see POC in the past. We only see what “they” said happened to them in the past.
Even though I am a black woman and an historian, I am not exempt from this difficulty in scooping the inners lives of POC from the fog of time. I can easily turn to a biography or a book of letters when I want to craft a white British character. It takes more work to build a solid understanding of who my POC in my books are because the written record is often missing, it is often coded–for the consumption of white audiences–, and it is often scattered in bits and pieces across a variety of mediums.
For example, I’ve been researching black women in WWI and the Spanish Flu in the US. I have been flipping back and forth between primary and secondary sources, obscure books, and general histories to get a proper picture of what they did. The primary sources are chock full of patriotism and keep-your-chin-up. The emotional ups and downs, the political reaction to war, etc seen in contemporary works by white women can be muted or absent absent from black writing. We don’t have books of letters written by a black mother to her son overseas, or memoirs of black women war workers.
This shaky historical foundation can often make it difficult to go “What If…?” (that old writer’s block standby) because you fall back on assumptions–“my heroine can’t do XYZ, it was racist back then!” Or, when desirous of including POC, you only frame them in the context of race and racism.
But this is where I tell you–and remind myself–to dig deep. Read the words of POC. Look at your setting and find works written by POC in that time period–plays, novels, poetry, autobiographies. Don’t be intimidated by academic dissertations and texts. Email professors specializing in a particular cultural group’s history. Read broad histories of these people. Seek photographs and paintings of these people. The same way you’ll eagerly seek information for the weather in London of August 1834.
And then go read historical romance written by AOC about POC.