At one point, DePaul University associate professor Julie Moody-Freeman didn’t want to mix her love of romance novels with her academic life. She said she didn’t want work to interfere with her mode of escapism.
But eventually, the walls between research and romance came down, and now Moody-Freeman focuses on romance as scholarship. The result is an HEA (a happily ever after) for romance fans, a la Moody-Freeman’s Black Romance Podcast. A creation born from the pandemic, the first season of the podcast featured conversations between Moody-Freeman and Black romance writers, editors, and scholars of historical and contemporary popular romance fiction. Guests share their myriad experiences of trying to publish love stories with Black characters and the impetus for writing books that focus on inclusion and racial uplift themes.
With every interview, the Black Romance podcast is building an archive on the production and publication of Black romance. Romance aficionados such as best-selling romance novelist Sarah MacLean are taking notice.
“There are podcasts out there that did one or two episodes, where they would talk about Black women writers. Then I thought, ‘I could do one,’ ” said Moody-Freeman, director of DePaul’s Center for Black Diaspora and faculty member in the African and Black Diaspora Studies Department. “I could combine it in terms of what the center does, because the center is always doing scholarship … (to) collect the history and understand the history of Black experiences globally.”
We talked with the Moody-Freeman, producer and host of the Black Romance Podcast, before the second season begins later this month — funded in part by a grant from the Romance Writers of America. The following interview has been condensed and edited.
Q: Romance as scholarship, explain that.
A: I seem to be drawn to writers who set their romance novels in centers and institutes that are devoted to the Black community. For example, Sandra Kitt in the early 1990s wrote one of her novels that was set in an HIV/AIDS center for young children. Writer Maureen Smith also sets her novel, written sometime in the 21st century, in an HIV center. If you read historical novels set in the 1850s, right up to the late 1800s post-emancipation, they are oftentimes talking about the ways in which people got together to create institutions to educate the former enslaved. I knew that the historical novel was doing it — scholars like Rita Dandridge talks about this — but contemporary people are doing it too. Why? If you study Frances Harper’s “Iola Leroy” written in the 1800s, you see Iola Leroy also talking about that.
It’s always about service to community. Black writers, even when they’re writing something that you would consider to be entertainment, for them, the romance novel becomes this sort of activist thing. When the writers are writing, they’re absolutely conscious of these things. These things that you think are fluff can entertain people without being didactic — actually teaching that Black people do love. I think that’s why I feel like it’s important to talk about that Black representation matters and that Black love matters. When you think of Black romance, there are so many layers to it.
Q: After 2020, do you think the gates will be opened more for Black romance writers?
A: I’m hopeful. In season 2, the podcast will be devoted to a number of self-published writers. I definitely want to talk to people like Shirley Hailstock, who started in the early years with Brenda Jackson and Rochelle Alers. Rebekah Weatherspoon is able to navigate both — traditional publishers, but (also) self-publishing. And Elysabeth Grace who is Margo Hendricks (professor emerita of literature at University of California-Santa Cruz). She told me that she has this “Daughters of Saria” series, which has two brothers; there’s this battle between the two of them. When she took the book to the publisher, they wanted her to change it and to have a threesome. She didn’t want that for her novel, so she gave up with that avenue and said, I’ll just self-publish it, so that I can write it the way I wanted to.
Black writers would love to have these opportunities, because their books are equal or of higher quality than what you sometimes read coming out from traditional publishers. The thing is that sometimes the industry just has to catch up. You wish that they would.
A: I think that they’re trying, and of course Black women are always central to that. There are several Black writers who committed to coming back. Some were frustrated and wanted nothing else, but there were certain Black writers who were committed to being on the board and overseeing things. They’ve always had the RWA grant program, but this year they definitely pitched it to Black scholars who are working in areas for women of color. I was able to get that grant, because they wanted to make sure that people of color were able to be acknowledged or highlighted. Nothing really comes easy. The freedoms that we have have not come from those in power freely giving it; they have come from struggle, and … from activism.
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