I can’t think of many people who deserve the Romance Writers of America Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award more than Beverly Jenkins. She has been writing romance novels since the 1990s, telling stories set in African American communities at different times in history (as well as some contemporary novels.) Her books have strong heroes, even stronger heroines, and a lot of warm and humor to balance out the steamy scenes.
Whether you are a romance reader or not, Jenkins’s acceptance speech at the RITA Awards this July is a must watch. She traces the power reading has impacted her family as they moved from being illiterate former slaves in the 1870s, to her own decisions to work in a library and later to become a writer. (And the end of her speech is a doozy. I dare you to watch it without sniffling a little.)
(The video is of the entire ceremony, but it should start at 49:38, the beginning of the speech.
Jenkins’s books are rooted in historical research and communities of well-developed supporting characters. I recently read Forbidden, which draws inspiration from an archeological dig in Virginia City, Nevada, and the details about an African American saloon that operated during the late 19th century.
Rhine, the hero, is a former slave who passes as white, and has gained wealth and the respect of the white community. Eddy, the heroine, leaves Denver due to increasing anti-black discrimination in Denver, and dreams of owning a restaurant in California. Eddy gets stranded in the dessert, Rhine rescues her, they fall for each other, but they both know the relationship can’t go anywhere. What makes the book shine is the the side characters who (mostly) help Rhine and Eddy sort out their feelings about themselves and each other, as well as have their own stories.
The big draw to romance is the Happily Ever After, that despite many obstacles, people can find happiness and love. Jenkins shows that not only is happiness possible even when the couple faces inequality, but that a couple can’t find joy alone, and it’s through helping build strong communities that our dreams really come true.
Jenkins writes some contemporary novels as well, including Deadly Sexy (she’s working on turning that into a movie) You can find several of her print books at the different library branches, and we have a few more (including the Destiny series, which I need to finish) on Overdrive.