"It's mighty hard when you can't protect your woman."
One of the major themes running through all the different genres of romance fiction is that of protection. In particular, the naturalness, nay, even the inevitableness, of heterosexual males' need to protect the women they come to love romantically. Just this month, I've come across the theme in one form or another while reading science fiction/fantasy romance (in the first story in Robin D. Owens' Hearts and Swords collection), comic literary romance (Grahame Simsion's The Rosie Effect), category romance (Maisey Yates' Married for Amaris's Heir), and urban fantasy romance (Kit Rocha's Beyond Innocence). If I'd read more historical romance this month, no doubt I would have found the theme there, as well. I'm sure it wouldn't be difficult for you to add to this list from your own recent romance novel reading.
Whether the story offers the promise that a hero physically or psychologically protects the woman he loves, or, more often these days, demonstrates to the hero that his need to protect his woman is getting in the way of said woman's self-actualization and must be restrained, if not given over entirely, in romance, the hero's desire to to protect his mate is rarely called into question. More importantly, neither is his ability to do so.
Set in a small Georgia town in 1915, A Virtuous Ruby tells of the romance between two light-skinned African-Americans, one a doctor trained in the north, the other the oldest daughter of a local farmer and a laundress, a young woman whose outspokenness on behalf of factory workers' rights and against lynching met with white retaliation in the form of rape, impregnation, and the scandal of bearing a bastard child. Right from the very start of the novel, then, we are given a female protagonist who has not been protected—not by her father, not by her family or community, and especially not by her white male best friend, who, in a vicious inversion of the typical romance trope, is the one who is chosen to commit the violent attack upon Ruby Bledsoe's person.
Does the arrival of doctor Adam Morson in town signal a change for Ruby? Does Ruby just need the love of a good man, a man committed to her protection, to guarantee she will be free from future harm?
|Amos 'n Andy's Sapphire|
Stevens, whose character first linked
the name "Sapphire" with the African
American woman as domineering shrew
|A racist license plate deploys the Jezebel stereotype|
to denigrate black Democrats
The word "protect," or one of its other forms ("protection," "protected," "protectiveness") appears 43 times in the NetGalley version of Huguley's book. Black characters protect themselves from the elements ("The wide brim would protect her too pale skin from the June heat" ); they express a desire to protect family members ("you know we want to protect our little man," says Ruby's younger sister, referring to Ruby's baby ); they bemoan the ineffectiveness of others' protective efforts ( "the solid nature of the wood that John Bledsoe used to protect his family struck him. What a good man he was, and still, despite his protections of building this big porch for his daughters, they were still terribly vulnerable" ; they grieve their own inabilities to protect ("It was four or five of them. They all beat me down and had their way with me. I tried to fight them off, but I couldn't. I just couldn't.... "And they knock me out so I couldn't protect her." ). Whites use the word as a form of threat: "I'll do what I have to do to make sure he's protected" .
Towards the end of the book, Adam can not only not protect Ruby, he cannot protect himself: he is shanghaied onto a chain gang by a malevolent (white) sheriff. While working on the gang, he hears the words used as the epigraph above, spoken by a fellow prisoner:
"It's might hard when you can't protect your woman," James said.
Many of the men around the table nodded, agreeing. "Don't nobody blame you." (3047)
I wonder, though, if that "nobody" includes the average romance novel reader? Do expectations raised by romance as a genre, expectations that male heroes must and will always protect their women, make it difficult for some romance readers to embrace stories where such protection proves problematic? Might the woeful lack of African-American historical fiction be due in some small part to this opposition between, on one side, romance's protective imperative, and on the other, the painful historical realities of the African American experience, and the stereotypes whites have developed to protect themselves against acknowledging it?
Sapphire Stevens and LBJ license plate: Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia
Psalm 91:4: Spiritual Inspiration Tumblr