African-American historical romance authors have a unique challenge in crafting the Black male hero. These alpha males must be subjected to dehumanizing experiences at some point to keep the story true to the historical settings: slavery, bounty hunters, lynch mobs, segregation, and limited employment opportunities just to name a few. Even if the hero in the historical romance is not African-American, he still has to navigate these obstacles to get to the Happily Ever After (HEA) with the woman he loves. It is a wonder that authors are able to find ways for their male characters to keep their dignity and still be sexy.
My current work-in-progress is set during World War II. Right now, I’m working through how to make my hero feel and act like a “man” in a world where there are limited job opportunities (even with the war production boom) and even fewer meaningful assignments given to Black men who enlisted in the military at that time. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to live during those times. Even Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball, faced court martial for refusing to give up his seat and move to the back of a bus in what is now Fort Hood, Texas. (This was in 1944, a decade before Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.) Robinson was member of the decorated 761st Tank Battalion that distinguished itself during the Battle of the Bulge. Robinson never made it to Europe with his Battalion due to the court martial.
The movie “42”, which depicts how he broke the color line in baseball, shows glimpses of how hard it was to maintain his dignity while trying to provide for his family and be a loving husband. (Sidenote: I would love see to a romance novel that fictionalizes how he and his wife Rachel got together. The chemistry between those two was burning up the screen.)
However, it is possible to show these men as loving providers despite the horrible realities of their times. My favorite example is the Nikki Giovanni short story in the Best Black Women’s Erotica anthology entitled “Bring On The Bombs: A Historical Interview”. In it, Giovanni describes how her African-American hero comforted and protected his woman with a prejudiced mob outside their home, threatening to bomb it for her Civil Rights activism. Woo-hoo!
Feel free to share your favorite stories and/or scenes that show how our men could be “men” in the face of prejudice and tragedy.
Giovanni, Nikki. (2001). “Bring On The Bombs: A Historical Interview.” Best Black Women’s Erotica (anthology). Cleis Press: San Francisco, CA.
Vernon, John. (2008). “Jim Crow, Meet Lieutenant Robinson: A 1944 Court Martial.” Prologue Magazine. Spring 2008. Vol. 40, no. 1. Retrieved from: http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2008/spring/robinson.html
Cover image used courtesy of Prologue Magazine, Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration, retrieved from: http://legacy.stripes.com/baseball/article7.htm
This is a fantastic post, and one that is forcing me to dissect how I approach the heroes in my AA historical romances.
When I look at my baseball historical, the hero’s frustrations, insecurities, fears, doubts, etc are focused tightly on the romantic relationship with the heroine. Racism and segregation shapes their lives–my hero’s father was murdered by a white man–but I don’t frame his or her personhood through this…if I’m making any sense, lol. Like, it’s there, the double-consciousness is present, et al, but the narrative overwhelmingly layers the romance over the realities of the time.
Thanks, Evangeline. I am so glad this post had that kind of effect on you. You might even want to watch the Eddie Murphy/Martin Lawrence film “Life” with new eyes to get a sense of the African-American male experience in the early 20th Century. The television movie “Queen” also shows an African-American male in that era struggling to support the woman he loves.
Also, look back on which historical events would have shaped his worldview while growing up. For example, my WWII heroine was born right before her father was killed during the 1919 Charleston, SC race riot. That event has a major impact on her relationship with her mother and colors the whole backstory even though this story opens in 1943 New Jersey.
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