Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Questioning the Segregation of Romance: Ruth Wind's IN THE MIDNIGHT RAIN

The United States Supreme Court's landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case, declaring separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional, was decided in 1954, more than fifty years ago. Racial integration in America's schools reached an all-time high in 1990, giving proponents of integration much to cheer about. But according to Dr. Adriana Villavicencio, senior research associate at the Research Alliance, New York University, segregation, not integration, has been the trend in American public schools since 1990:

In 1988, less than a third of Black and Latino students attended what Gary Orfield, Co-Director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, calls intensely segregated schools: schools with 90-100% minority students. Today, 40% of Blacks and Latinos—and less than 1% of white students—attend these schools. The percentage of white students nationally is only 56%, but on average they attend schools where more than 75% of students are white. At the same time, the percentage of Black and Latino students attending majority white schools has dropped by more than 10 percent.

As in our schools, so in our romance novels: romance publishing is still largely segregated by race. With a few notable exceptions, characters in the mainstream romance lines are largely white; black characters are largely segregated into their own separate (but equal?) lines, such as Harlequin's Kimani and Kensington's Dafina. We could talk ad infinitum about the whys and wherefores of such segregation. Instead, I thought I would honor the day set aside in the United States to celebrate the birth of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King by writing about one of the few romance novels I've read that features an integrated community: Ruth Wind's RITA finalist In the Midnight Rain.

White thirty-something Ellie Connor arrives in Pine Bend, Mississippi on two fact-finding missions. One is public: to research the early years of the subject of her latest biography, Mabel Beauvais, an African-American blues singer who disappeared in 1953, just on the cusp of achieving nationwide fame. One is private: to try and discover the identity of her father, a man whom her wild hippie mother, who died when Ellie was two, never named. When she arrives at the place she's arranged to stay, she finds two men sitting on the porch, one white, one black. By the end of the novel, the two men, and the two searches, will become entangled in ways Ellie, and perhaps the reader, never could have imagined.

Though the novel's action takes place in the present, Ellie's two research projects give readers a sense of race relations in Pine Bend during three different periods in American history: the years immediately before, and immediately after, World War II, when segregation was a given; the late 1960s, when the country struggled against the backdrop of the Vietnam War to figure out how the legal victories of the Civil Rights movement would play out on the ground, in their communities; and 1990, when many overt racial barriers had been taken down, but many racial assumptions and beliefs still attained. Deep into her research, Ellie notices that most of the people she's interviewed are black, and makes a note to herself to talk to white people who were around during Mabel Beauvais' early days, realizing that things then weren't the same for blacks as they were for whites, something she'll need to understand not just on an intellectual, but on a personal level if she is to convey the truth of Mabel's life.

Wind's novel is hardly a didactic tract about race relations; it's a heartfelt, beautifully-written, and in many ways a quite traditional love story. With her penchant for falling for wounded men, Ellie's been down the bad relationship path more than a few times, and spends much of the novel warning herself against succumbing to her attraction to the emotionally-damaged man whom she met via an online blues newsgroup and who, in his hospitably southern way, offered Ellie a place to stay while doing her research in his hometown. And she's not the only one issuing warnings; almost everyone in town, whether black or white, counsels Ellie to stay away from Blue Reynard, since the privileged white boy is known about town as a "dog," a charming love-'em and leave-'em guy who'll only break her heart. But Blue, who sometimes thinks of himself as Job because of all the personal losses he's experienced, can't help falling for his intellectual equal, just as Ellie can't keep her heart free from bad-boy/smart-boy Blue. In traditional romance-novel fashion, each must both struggle to cope with and accept their fears of abandonment before they can find their HEA together.

Yet race serves as the compelling backdrop to this love story, quietly asking readers to consider what race meant in America's past, and what it still means in our present. What makes one person black, another person white? What secrets should one keep to protect a fellow member of an oppressed group? What does an integrated community look like? When is integration a problem? What does friendship across racial lines look like? What does love?

It struck me as significant that In the Midnight Rain was published in 1990, at the height of American public school integration. Can you think of any other romance novels that have been published since then that depict not an interracial romance, but an integrated community against which a romance unfolds?

Photo credits:
Diverse hands: Unity in Christ Magazine

In the Midnight Rain
HarperTorch, 2000


  1. Thank you so much. I'm deeply honored by this post. The book came about because I realized I hadn't been writing much about my mixed race, multicultural life.

    The book has been re-released in print and ebook, and has been a most enduring favorite.


    1. You're very welcome. I'll definitely be ordering a copy for my keeper shelf!

      -- Jackie

  2. It's a beautiful story, beautifully written.

  3. This post feels so timely to me, so I ask in advance you please excuse my rant. It is a nice idea that romance novels feature integrated communities, but when written the reality is rarely as nice. Writers do not seem to be able to edit their own prejudices out, because of this I would rather read a book that does not have any minorities at all. I am not writing about interracial romance novels, but about novels featuring people of different ethnicities as supporting characters. I do read the ( yes segregated :( arr ) African American lines, and independently published minority romances.
    I am African American and have watched the romance industry try to include people with horrible results. Writers in the 90's started to write in an African American (AA) secretary in every novel. I could count on her popping around a corner smiling wearing red lipstick and large earrings relaying one piece of information, then she was never seen again. If the heroine needed to show a really caring side I could then count on her volunteering. This inevitable lead to the introduction of a down and out (AA) woman who thanked the heroine repeatedly, had braids, cursed profusely, but had a heart of gold.
    Then came the dark ages, 2000 and forward, of minority mentions. This is were good intentions bow out, and writers prejudices are let loose. Minority men as always stay in style, think the dark Italian, the Middle Eastern Prince, and the Greek or Spanish billionaire. Minority women however don't fair so well. The hero always desires the heroine not just because he loves her, NO he has to prefer her over the women of his own ethnicity. This HAS to be emphasized. If he has a love interest of his own ethnicity we can count on her being kicked to the curb, without any real reason given (why waste book space). This will in no way reflect on the hero's personality though, he is still great.
    If the romance happens in the United States things can get ugly fast. Reverse racism rears its head when randomly the heroin meets an Asian woman and just knows they are going to be friends. Somehow Spanish women still mostly pop up as maids, 2014 really! The (AA) woman can now expect to play a larger role than ever as the leading female bad girl in the romance, should she appear at all. In a popular novel who shall remain nameless the writer introduced an (AA) female character who she tells us the heroine does not like, no reason given. Then writes her doing something the heroine asked for but which we understand is ambiguously wrong, when fired the heroine does not speak up for her. No other (AA) women will appear in said novel.
    Oddly enough when not reading (AA) romance I read mostly British historical books just to escape from this sort of thing. Yet, even here occasionally a writer will take the time to insult minorities. East Indian women will find themselves cast as exotic mistresses easily dismissed by wonderful hero's, even though some novels simultaneously acknowledge they are considered wives while the hero was in India? African women should they pop up in British historical romances can look forward to a life of prostitution, period. Keep in mind this information will be given for no reason, the hero nor anyone else in the novel will be frequenting her. The writer just thought you would like to know. None of the women of African decent will be the product of a interracial union, the children of a African sailor and his wife, or the wife of a French émigré. By the way the last is as likely as anything else, marriage between second and third French sons on the Islands to free African women who were land and business owners was a very real fact of life, and yes some had moved back to France before the revolution.
    I read romance to distress, the last thing I want is to start reading and run into racism. It is as jarring as running into someone in blackface. For this reason I prefer to have no mention of minorities outside of there lines.

    1. Thanks, Anonymous, for stopping by the blog and giving us your take on the state of interracial communities in contemporary romance today. I can completely understand why you'd prefer that people of color not figure in "mainstream" romance at all if they're only going to be there as tokens, and/or in stereotypical supporting roles. When you're trying to de-stress, but you encounter unexpected racism, you certainly will end up "distressed"!

      What appealed so much to me about Ruth Wind's novel was the way it portrayed both black and white characters with humanity and depth, while also acknowledging cultural differences. Why is it so difficulty for today's writers to do the same?

  4. Love is universal, but you would never be able to tell that from what the romance landscape continues to look like. Not only are there issues of erasure, but I'd say ageism and ironically sexism in many of today's novels (but those are topics for another time). To be honest, it is past time mainstream romance writers integrated fully-realized marginalized groups and it makes me wonder about the ones who do not, just what kind of world do they live in. It certainly isn't the increasingly diverse world I live in. In fact, I've started giving a lot of urban fantasy books a HUGE pass for being set in cosmopolitan cities and yet having utterly whitewashed casts. In 2014 this should be unacceptable to ALL readers, and yet it seems very few are concerned. And I have to agree with Anonymous when it comes to some of the most face-palmingly BAD stereotypes I've had the misfortune to have come across. What's worse is that authors guilty of this expect a brownie button for "inclusion" then are offended when readers of color give them the side-eye for perpetuating stereotypes.