IT HAS EVERYTHING YOU COULD ask for in a romance novel: heaving bosoms, torn bodices and large muscular males who make the most of both. But Night Song, the first novel by Beverly Jenkins, brings something new to the mix—starting with the cover. The classically airbrushed lovers are black. The author, a former librarian from Belleville, Mich., is black. And the book, which features an all-black cast of characters and is set against a 19th-century midwestern setting, is the first of its kind to appear from a major publisher (Avon). In its own hot and heavy way, this novel has an agenda.
“Romance is a necessary part of life,” says Jenkins, 43, who worked 13 years on the book before quitting her job three years ago to write full-time. “But so many books about black people are studies in survival. Not everything has to be about the civil rights movement. I’m very proud to bring ‘heaving bosoms’ and ‘throbbing manhoods’ to black women all over America!”
They’re certainly ready. Pre-Jenkins, there were only some 30-odd romance novels with lead black characters despite the fact that the soft and sticky category accounts for nearly half of all mass-market paperback sales nationwide. “Publishers didn’t believe there was a market,” says Jenkins. “Like advertisers, they believed black people didn’t have the money to buy these things.”
Readers, like Jenkins, knew better, and in time a few editors learned what she suspected: that black women account for about one-third of the almost billion-dollar-a-year industry, even if they read stories, as one romance fan puts it, “with blonde-haired heroines.” And Jenkins had another notion: if you wove in some black history, you might draw even more readers.
“History books have a tendency to say we didn’t exist,” she explains. “It’s always black folks came to America, black folks were slaves, black folks were freed in 1865. Then we disappeared. History picks us up again rioting in Watts in 1965. But what happened for those 100 years?”
So while other black writers plunged into “contemporary ethnic romances”—many for Pinnacle Books’ all-new, all-ethnic Arabesque line—Jenkins tucked her throbbing manhoods into late-19th-century cavalry uniforms. Her experiment has been an unusual success. Avon gave Night Song a first print run last July of 78,000—large for the genre—and the book has been hopping off shelves ever since. That’s impressive when you consider that the shelf life of the average bodice ripper is one month. Even more impressive: it’s been chosen as an alternate book of the month by Doubleday Book Club and the Literary Guild.
Arlene Friedman, editorial director of the Doubleday club, says that “after Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale, the African-American audience spoke up, saying, ‘Why aren’t you doing more books for us?’ It’s unusual for a first novel to be chosen, but we thought we could sell it. And we liked the authentic historical background with the romance.”
Night Song is set in 1882, in one of the midwestern townships that blacks settled after fleeing the violent post-Civil War South. The romance concerns Cara, a young (and, naturally, passionate) schoolteacher, and Chase, a soldier from the all-black 10th Cavalry. Jenkins describes their romance as “steamy,” but the plot cools during long segments devoted to their early lives—plantation work, the black exodus from the South and the struggle in the new North. In fact, says Jenkins, “I have a tendency to write the history first. So I have to give them large love scenes to reward the readers. It’s a Twinkie with some meat in it.”
Jenkins’s devotees have found the combination irresistible. In scores of letters, fans have reported reading the 370-page book in one sitting or reading large chunks of it in bathroom stalls, shoe stores and parking lots. Says one young black woman: “My eyes zoomed in on her book. I’ve been reading them for 15 years, and I’d never seen a black romance. I snatched it up, and turning it over, I said, ‘Please be a black author, please!’ And there she was! I sat down in the middle of a mall and started reading. I’ve read it 20 times.”
Jenkins says she has devoured books the same way all her life. Her father, Cornelius Hunter, a retired high school science teacher, and her mother, Delores, who worked as an administrative assistant before retiring, filled their Detroit home with books. “It made me like an addict,” says Jenkins, the oldest of seven. “I had to have so much print every day. One summer, I’d read nothing but Zane Grey. Or Isaac Asimov. Every day.” At Michigan State, she majored in literature but dropped out, though not before meeting her husband of 23 years, Mark Jenkins, now 45 and a contract negotiator for the Michigan Education Assocation. “We were the honest-to-god hippie freaks,” he says. “Then we became responsible: we had children”—a daughter, Melaina, 14, and a son, Jonathan, 8.
Since his wife began the novel, Jenkins has been her No. 1 fan. “He bought me a computer and set me loose. And he never laughed,” she says—not during the years of writing nor during the four years it took to find a publisher.
Finally, an agent, Vivian Stephens, a longtime editor widely regarded as the godmother of the ethnic romance, stepped in. Although Stephens represents just one or two clients at a time, she eagerly joined up with Jenkins.
Once the book sold, its author went into overdrive, going so far as to track down a model she’d seen in Essence for the cover—and turning over domestic duties to Mark. “When I was on deadline,” she says, “he played mom.”
So how did her own mom feel about Night Song? “She tells people, ‘Forget about the sex, read the history,’ ” says Jenkins, laughing. Daughter Melaina, however, won’t be seeing the book, at least not this year. “It’s too hot for her,” says Jenkins. “When she turns 18, she can read to her heart’s content.”
By then there should be a few more of her mother’s books to read. Jenkins just finished a second romance novel, due out this fall. (The setting: Michigan, 1876; the dramatis personae: a black woman doctor from California and a Civil War veteran.) Eventually, though, she hopes to expand beyond the genre. “I have a great female detective in me,” she says, adding, “I want to write into old age. When they take me to meet my maker, I’ll be saying, ‘No! I’ve got three more chapters to write.’ ”
NANCY DREW in Belleville