Where were you the very first time you read a contemporary urban novel? School? Home? The library? When I was growing up, Black girls like me lived in libraries. My friends were mostly other Black Caribbean girls who were navigating the dual identity of being Black and immigrant in the U.S. Most of us also came from homes where we were routinely slut-shamed into either remaining abstinent throughout our teen years, or desperately concealing the fact that we’d had sex. Our parents had not come to this country for us to end up as teen moms. The horror! The more religious the parent, the stricter they were. Many of us, self included, were barred from dating until a high school diploma was handed to us. This is why “romance” novels were such a vital part of my adolescent development. I put romance in quotes because most of these books were little more than literary pornography, but in a household where the only way I could experience sex, even pornography, was from the pages of a book, they were more than good enough.
I had started with Harlequin romance novels (The “Blaze” line were my favorites!) and quickly sated my curiosities about how heterosexual couples copulate, but constantly reading stories which, no matter how “diverse” the characteristics of the heroines were, were almost always centered around White couples, got old really quickly. Most of what I got from these novels is that romance, specifically lasting, romantic love, was something for attractive White people. The message was then internalized that I either needed to be White or date White to find anything even close to resembling what was in these books. Probably just as harmful was the narrative pushed by Harlequin that mutual attraction, especially if the woman is a virgin, followed by all-consuming lust, was the road to love, that lust and love were extensions of one another, and that if two people are in love, the sex will always be perfect, right from the start. Wanting sex without love was abnormal, bad sex was a sign of weak love, and there’s no way that great sex won’t lead to love.
Even as a very sheltered teenage girl with zero dating experience, I knew that this narrative was the exception, not the rule. Up until that point, I had been wholly ignorant of authors writing contemporary novels centering Black leads (sad, I know). Novels set around Black characters, who spoke like real people, had real problems, and were created by Black people? Novels where Black people had sex? It was like a small miracle. The only times I had ever read of Black characters were in my beloved Toni Morrison and Alice Walker novels. Their stories were real, and relevant, but also pretty intense, and not set in the present. Reading contemporary urban novels gave me the escape of Harlequin, with characters who I could actually relate to.
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