Celebrating Black History Month | Seeing Myself on the Page by Renita McKinney
I started reading romance before there were authors who looked like me. Before there were characters who looked like me. Before I could get a library card because . . . I looked like me.
Simply put, looking like me was being Black. Not to say there weren’t people in books who looked like me. Black. We were the maids, the porters, the cook, the servants, the nannies. We were indispensable as characters. And vaguely written by authors.
But I kept reading even though I never wanted to be the white Barbie doll heroines I read about. I never wanted a blond-haired Ken to come sweep me off my feet. But what I did want was to see myself on those pages. Heroines who had dark, rich umber skin tones, heroes who stood tall with their presence demanding attention, who carried the weight of the Black man with the same suave and debonair swagger as their white counterparts.
But I kept reading even though we weren’t the hero or heroine in said novels, yet the great thing about reading is you can create your version of the characters in your head. My swashbuckling heroes were deep, dark, and sexy. The heroines were curvy, mysterious, and melanin-kissed.
But I kept reading, realizing while we as characters had evolved . . . sorta, we were still stuck in the arena of servitude. We were now the trainer, the best friend, the bodyguard, perhaps the confidante, and, oh yeah, still the nanny.
But I kept reading until a great friend introduced me to an author by the name of Amy Harmon and The Law of Moses. It was December of 2014. I dove in with the same enthusiasm I did with all my other books. Ready to devour the words of someone new. And I did. I devoured them. Until I didn’t. Until I sat that
book to the side and cried. Not because the story is sad. It is a beautiful love story. I cried because Moses was Black. It was the first time in my 54 years on this planet I had read a Black hero written by a white woman. And with the elegance, the respect, and the dignity she gave Moses. I started that book over and I no longer devoured the words, I relished them.
But I kept reading, realizing no one had followed in the path of Amy Harmon. No one was attempting to represent me as anything other than that sidekick. Everyone was scared to attempt to put me on paper in all my Black glory. Fear was manifested by hatred, racism, and antiquated ideas.
But I kept reading, realizing not only was I not represented but rarely was any one of a marginalized group of people. How? Why? Don’t we live in a multicultural society? Don’t we eat together? Sleep together? Workshop together? Love together? But we can’t coexist in the confines of a book together?
But I kept reading because words are my kryptonite. Because invoking change is my driving force. Because educating about culture is my mission. And how do I combine all three—words, change, and education—into romance, my favorite genre? By pushing for diversity. By teaching white authors they can write marginalized characters, not just people and it’s okay.
And then I started teaching that I don’t want my heritage, my culture, swept under the rug. That I don’t want only those who look like me to write about me. Where is the growth in that? Where is the experience in that? Where is the unconditional love in that?
As a military spouse by the age of 21, I was becoming used to interracial relationships. I was living in Germany by the age of 22 and most of our military career was in Europe. Being a military spouse taught me to expand my horizons and realize the world was much larger than this Southern girl from Texas and Arkansas knew. People of different walks of life, ethnicities, religions, genders, sexual orientations, and races could live and love. Love is Love.
Sit down, write the story, create your characters, and make them as diversified as the world in which we live. Allow romance readers to have a Black billionaire hero, an Asian CEO heroine, a different-needs child, an LGBTQ love affair. This is the world in which we live, sleep, eat, and play.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you cannot as a white author write diversified characters. The work is a little bit harder, the digging goes a bit deeper, the research is necessary, and a sensitivity editor is a must.
Saying you are scared to write about me feels the same as stepping back and clutching your purse when someone that looks like me gets on the elevator. Crossing to the other side of the street when you see my son walk by. And the excuse that authors say “don’t” is the same to me as all the other naysayers you ignored when you wrote your book.
Let’s make Bookverse as diverse as the world in which we live.