February 9, 2021


The importance of Black love in romance novels

For Julie Moody-Freeman, reading Black romance novels isn’t a guilty pleasure - it’s an area of study. Moody-Freeman is the director of DePaul's Center for Black Diaspora and a faculty member in the African and Black Diaspora Studies Department. On this episode, she discusses the history and importance of Black love in romance novels, which inspires her work as the host of The Black Romance Podcast. She also reflects on her conversations with Black romance writers, editors and scholars and the importance of their oral histories.



​LINDA BLAKLEY: Welcome to DePaul Download. I'm your host, Linda Blakley, vice president of University Marketing and Communications. 

Many people use their free time to read books for comfort, pleasure, relaxation and education. For me, reading mystery and crime novels has always been a favorite pastime.  

Professor Julie Moody‑Freeman, the director of DePaul's Center for Black Diaspora and the African and Black Diaspora Studies Department faculty member, finds romance novels simply fun. 

When she arrived at DePaul in 2003, one of her colleagues inspired her to take her personal passion into a scholarly pursuit, launching the Black Romance Podcast. On each episode, she delves into the history of popular romance novels written by, for and about Black women and highlights the Black women who brought the genre to the forefront in the late part of the 20th century. 

Now, with Valentine's Day right around the corner, Professor Moody‑Freeman joins me today to talk about her favorite genre and how it's evolved, what listeners can expect from the podcast's second season, and what she's been reading for fun.  

Julie, welcome to DePaul Download.

JULIE MOODY‑FREEMAN: Thanks so much for having me. I'm so excited to be here.

LINDA BLAKLEY: We're so glad to talk with you. This is the season. Many people might consider romance novels a guilty pleasure, but you study them as a scholar. How did you arrive in this area of study and why is it important to you?

Well, for me, Black representation matters and Black love matters. I have always studied writers who have this sort of activist‑type writing, so they're either challenging colonialism or they're challenging racism, sexism, homophobia and representing Black love.

I have taught a class on Black love, where I focused on Martin Luther King and Bell Hooks and writers who want people to understand the history of Black love and that it matters in terms of representation. 

And so, arriving at this area just is sort of a natural evolution, you know, but the personal sort of merged with the academic and that's basically how I came to romance because the romance writers that I tended to go towards or to read were the ones who, they were, they felt that Black representation matters but they also set their novels within centers. 

So, like, I started to see a pattern where writers had the love story set in a center, in a community, like, for example, the love story happened in an HIV center for children ‑ for children with HIV/AIDS or set in a center where they were educating students. 

And so I didn't know that ‑ I was reading it for fun because I wanted ‑ I had always read romance novels since I was very, very young, you know, when I snuck my mother's romance novel in Belize. 

But I started I think, and I kept it, and I always kept it separate from the academic because I felt like I didn't want the academic to mess up my pleasure. But I started to see this pattern where these novels, the love story, and I started to wonder what was going on. 

Why was it so important for these writers to set it in centers and to so focus on service to the community? And that's where, that's where, like, when I started doing all my research because of that. I wanted to know why.

So, for listeners who may not be aware of the Black Romance Podcast, can you tell us more about it? What inspired you to launch it?

JULIE MOODY‑FREEMAN: That's the very thing. So, again, this sort of, this curiosity. I had been working on an article for a romance companion that was coming out, a Rutledge Romance Companion, done with a colleague of mine, Eric Selinger, who is in the English department at DePaul.

And Eric wanted me to look at the history of African romance and all that had been written about it, the scholarship that had been written about it. And in doing that research, I realized there wasn't much that was out there, and so I, when, and then simultaneously I always listened to podcasts. 

And so when we went into quarantine, and I think that that's probably where this podcast, I don't know necessarily that the podcast would have come to life if we didn't go into quarantine, because once we went into quarantine and the Center for Black Diaspora, you know, that I'm the director of, once we went into quarantine, we pivoted immediately into talking about, because, again, Black representation matters for us and so we wanted to find out how COVID was shaping ‑ you know, how was it affecting the Black community. And that was when I was, like, “Oh, podcast, we could do the podcast! And we could talk about writers, and then we could build an archive, this oral history of Black writers." 

And so it was just ‑ you know, like if I could kind of trace back the line, I don't know how - it just sort of all came together, where I felt that it was important for ‑ and I love ‑ just like with the Center and what we do at the center, I like for us to reach diverse scholarly communities but also communities of readers and writers who are global. 

And so with the podcast we're able to reach anybody. A student, scholar of romance can always go back and listen to these first‑hand experiences because it's in their own words. They're talking about what they have done and about their experiences. So anybody, my mom in Belize can listen to it. Anybody who loves it can listen to it. But then we bring in that scholarship dimension in terms of publishing it in the "Journal of Popular Romance Studies." 

And so I'm not sure if I answered your question totally, but that's kind of what was in my head, that we could have the piece, that everybody would listen, and then we could have the written portion of it, the published, the peer‑reviewed journal with these writers, and then anybody, there would be this archive that anybody who comes behind me wanting to do this type of research, it would be there for them. It would be there for them orally, but it would also be there for them written in a library.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So the podcast is situated in DePaul's Center for Black Diaspora. Why is that important to you?

JULIE MOODY‑FREEMAN: It's important for me because the Center was established in 1993. That was, I came in 2003. Right?  So and it had always, it had been established to promote and support the production of scholarly, cultural and creative works related to the experiences of African descent and people throughout the world. So that's the purpose of it. 

And so what a place to be able to actually locate an archive of work for writers who had, who had paved a path in a very, in a publishing industry that did not believe that love stories of Black people should be published. So that was why I think it was important.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Let me ask you a little bit more about that.  Some of the authors you've interviewed weren't always encouraged to write novels that depicted Black women as heroines. How did they break through in the industry?


Before they even broke through the industry, they had been writing. So, first of all, they were, like if you, when you listen to the podcasts, they are readers. They read everything. But in terms of the love stories, they didn't see themselves, just like myself reading the novels, we loved them. Love is universal. But we wanted to see ourselves and they wanted to see themselves on the pages and didn't see it. 

So they started writing and naturally they took it to the publishers, and the publishers told them, “Listen, nobody wants to read love stories with Black characters. If you change them to white…" they were literally told that, “…if you change them to white, we'll publish them." 

And some of them did. Some of them did publish stories, Black writers wrote white characters and wrote romance novels. Some of them chose not to and they held on to these novels for years. So that's the first thing. 

The second thing they did was, there was the Romance Writers of America [RWA], and so they joined that organization and then they started to network. They said, they told me, like, Brenda Jackson, for example, who's one of the writers, for years they attended the Romance Writers of America, they attended classes that Nora Roberts, who, you know Nora Roberts is huge in the industry. Attended her classes that taught you how to write.  

They did everything and it wasn't until the early 1990's that Walter Zacharias, who were, owned Kensington Publishing, he decided to open up a line called "Arabesque" and hired an editor, Monica Thomas. 

And Monica Thomas was at RWA and put out a call, you know, put out a call to all these Black writers. It was so, it was so funny in the podcast, Brenda Jackson said and Rochelle Alers, who is, like, a huge writer, said, “you know, they were all ‑‑ all the Black people were going to a room ‑‑ the Black writers were going to this room, and everybody was wondering, what's going on?  What's going on?" 

And it turned out that she was starting this line and because they had seen each other for years and they had networked, she got the books that they had had for years, read them and then made contract with them. 

And that was how they broke through. And one of them told me, Brenda Jackson said that they offered them very little, like, you know, I'm going to sort of estimate. This isn't a specific figure. So, like, if a white writer made $3,000 for a book, you know, they would maybe get marginal, half of that, if. 

But they didn't care because they were professionals. They were, Brenda Jackson was working in insurance you know? People were teachers, they were lawyers. They had a profession. They just loved writing and so they took very little money to get their books published. 

But when the books were successful and they were sold, you know, they sold really well, that's when the contracts started coming and then they started getting more money for what, you know, for what they did. 

So it was very, very tough for them to break through in this industry. But they were just persistent, like I love to hear their stories. They were persistent, and they didn't wait for people to say, "hey, we're opening this way." They had the novels ready. Three, four novels written before anybody published them.

LINDA BLAKLEY: And still they persisted.

JULIE MOODY‑FREEMAN: They persisted.

LINDA BLAKLEY: What have been some of the most surprising or moving moments on your podcast so far?

JULIE MOODY‑FREEMAN: Those stories that they told me were moving, because I think when I was reading, like I was waiting by Waldenbooks, I was a grad student in the 1990s and I was waiting for these books to come out, but I didn't realize, and I guess I should have, but I didn't realize how challenging it was for them.  And so to hear writer after writer after writer recount these stories of having these books and being told Black, you know Black characters, you cannot have Black characters in love. Like this is not real. People literally believed that Black people couldn't love. Right? That was very moving for me hearing those stories over and over. 

I think, also, one of the things that was moving to me was listening to Brenda Jackson, who talked about her husband. He passed away. He's no longer with us. But they believed so much, so, for example, they could have taken contracts that would turn their romance novels into films, but she did not want that to happen because she did not feel that they would represent the characters the way she felt that Black people should be represented, and her husband believed in her so much that he took his retirement money and put it into her son producing, directing a film to turn her books into film. 

And so, it's not only the fact that he did that, but he just, throughout her life, he believed in it, you know? And their relationship sort of embodies the type, the truth that you see in these books about Black love.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So, for listeners who have never read a romance novel, do you have any suggestions on how they can find titles or authors that interest them?


Some of the ones that I follow on Twitter, and they have websites too, but I tend to follow them on Twitter. There's Women of Color in Romance. And you can find them @WOCInRomance. They promote works of women of color, Native and Indigenous Women in Romance. There's also Love Africa Press, @LoveAfricaPress and they're a digital publisher that celebrates African romance. There is Romance Writers of West Africa. So there's that site that you can look at. Romance in Color. And you can find them @RomanceinColor. 

And I'm focused on that because that tends to be the type of research that I do, but if you're interested in romance written by all writers, right? White, Black, Asians, et cetera., you can look at All About Romance. And they are on Twitter @AllAboutRomance. That's where you'll get all the new features, the up‑to‑date features. Yeah. 

Then once, you know, once you find your favorite writers then, of course, you can get onto their Twitter and their websites, and you keep following them, which is what I do also. But I think if you need a hub, a place to go where you can just make your own choices, these would be the places that you would go.

LINDA BLAKLEY: So back to the digital library, so to speak.

JULIE MOODY‑FREEMAN: Yes, digital. And they have their, they have their websites too, but Twitter is, you know, the stuff is live. It keeps happening and then you can go to the websites.

So one last question. What are you reading for fun right now? Are there any books or authors that you're excited to read in the future?


So right now, right now I'm reading Beverly, I'm rereading probably for the third or fourth time because just for fun, I'm reading Beverly, Beverly Jenkins, who writes historical romance. Black historical romance and she has a book called "Indigo."  It's set in the 1850's with a young woman who worked in the, in South Carolina with dyes, you know, the slaves did dyes and her hands are purple. That's why she's called Indigo. That's a lovely story that I'm reading right now. 

But I never am just reading one thing! I'm always reading several. So when I'm, like, walking around the house in the kitchen just kind of, you know, relaxing to, listening to my audiobook, and my audiobook is, I think it's called "The Untethered Soul."


JULIE MOODY‑FREEMAN: Yeah. This is sort of a more, this is a book that talks about the voices inside your head, you know, and who exactly are you, and you are the watcher, et cetera. So it's sort of a more philosophical book, so that's the one that I'm listening to. 

And what I'm looking forward to in terms of romance, I'm looking forward to a lot, but there's one in particular that I'm waiting to be published. 

There's this series by this Black romance writer, who's an academic, because that's a thing too. There are lots of academics who write romance. 

And one of them, Margo Hendricks, she's emeritus professor from the University of California system. She writes as Elysabeth Grace. And she was a Shakespeare scholar, so her writing sort of tend, tend to, they're paranormal but they're set in these sort of historical times, and she has this whole "Daughter of Saria" series and her last one is coming out called "Fate's Promise." And I've read the ARC for it. I'm lucky I read the ARC for it but I'm waiting for that to be published so I can see it in print.

LINDA BLAKLEY: A number of these authors remind me of you.

JULIE MOODY‑FREEMAN: Yeah. It's funny; right?


JULIE MOODY‑FREEMAN: Yes. Yes, they do.

LINDA BLAKLEY: Thank you, Julie, for joining me today. I will be adding a few of those titles you mentioned to my to-read list.

JULIE MOODY‑FREEMAN: Oh, I can't wait to talk to you about them, and thanks so much for having me on your show. Such a pleasure.

To catch up on the first season of the Black Romance Podcast before the second season launches next month, visit DePaul Download for a link. 

I'm Linda Blakley. Thank you for listening to another episode of DePaul Download, presented by DePaul's Division of University Marketing and Communications.