Romance, Race and Resistance in Best-Selling African American Narrative
Smiles, Robin Virginia
Washington, Mary Helen
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This dissertation critically examines popular romantic fiction by African American writers and argues for its inclusion in the canons and curricula of African American literary studies. While novels that privilege themes of love and romance and that appeal primarily to a mass-market audience have tended to be cast as antithetical to matters of racial uplift and social protest, my work reverses this bias, establishing such texts as central to these concerns. I argue that popular romantic fiction and its authors have a particular story to tell in the history of African American literature, one that reveals a desire to address racial concerns but also, as importantly, to reach a wide audience. Using the work of critical race theorists and feminist studies of the romance and sentimental genres, I identify the "racial project" undertaken in the popular romantic fiction of three best-selling African American writers in the latter-half of the twentieth century-- Frank Yerby, Toni Morrison, and Terry McMillan. I begin my study with a discussion of the "contingencies of value" and the need for an ongoing process of canon revision in African American literary studies. In Chapter One, I argue that in his first published novel, The Foxes of Harrow (1946), Yerby uses the platform of historical romance to illuminate the instability and unreliability of racial identity. In Chapter Two, I argue that in Tar Baby (1981), Morrison integrates the narratives of romance and race to critique the popular romance genre's lack of racial diversity and perpetuation of white female beauty. In Chapter Three, I argue McMillan uses her first three novels, Mama (1987), Disappearing Acts (1989) and Waiting to Exhale (1992) to advance new paradigms of contemporary domesticity that for the young, urban, upwardly mobile black females portrayed in her novels both disrupt idealized notions of love and marriage and redefine gender roles within heterosexual unions. This study illuminates the critical biases that have shaped African American literary history, calls for a reassessment of those practices, and most importantly, in arguing for the serious study of popular romantic fiction, provides a critical framework for taking on the study of fiction - popular romantic or not - that has been similarly neglected by literary critics.