Scarlett Peckham


#100Romances: INDIGO

The most trenchant lesson I am learning in Week 2 of my #100Romances project is that I am bad at blogging. Because what can I possibly say about noted Rad-as-Hell author Beverly Jenkins that the internet has not already said 100 times, eyes misty with admiration? 


Maybe only this: I wish more historical romance novels, like Ms. Jenkins' INDIGO, needed to include bibliographies. 

Let me back up. 

For those who have not read it, INDIGO is the story of Hester, a former slave whose hands and feet are permanently stained purple from her childhood on the indigo plantations of the Sea Islands, who grows up to become an operator on the Underground Railroad in free territory in Michigan in the decade before the Civil War. Her work as an Operator introduces her to the hero, Galen, a wealthy man of Creole descent who moonlights as the Black Daniel, helping slaves escape into free territory. Galen falls for Hester almost immediately, but she resists returning his affection due to her belief that love is a terrible thing. This would be a pretty a standard-issue trope for, say, a regency duke, but Hester's fear is borne out of the fact that her free-born father sold himself into slavery for the love of her mother.

INDIGO ends with a happily ever after for Hester and Galen, of course, but after the final page it concludes with an unusual coda: a long list of works cited. And that is because this book is not just a romance novel. It's also a purposeful excavation of an under-examined piece of Black American history. It portrays in great detail the strength and determination of the communities of free Blacks who fought against the institution of slavery long before the Civil War.

INDIGO captures the determination, bravery, hope and fear that marked this period in history, when the boundaries between freedom and slavery were terrifyingly porous and reversible even for Blacks born free. Ms. Jenkins does not play fast or loose with the facts. Every chapter includes detailed asides noting the laws of the day, the political currents surrounding them, and the ways they could be manipulated to tear apart families and force free men and women into slavery. But every chapter also includes a glimpse of the simple fact that life went on anyway. The communities, families, schools and businesses that were built and in many cases thrived in this period before abolition are a fascinating aspect of American history, and one that this random white lady never learned much about in my public school growing up. 

So what are we getting from our most beloved romance novels? In the case of INDIGO, for me at least, an education about a piece of my country-of-origin's's history I don't know nearly enough about, and a long list of further reading.

But of course, that's not all; INDIGO is *still* a romance novel, after all. And it includes some excellent romancery.

Miss Bev, as she is known among the romanceheads who rightfully and universally adore her, has described her work as "edutainment," but I think that term could make INDIGO sound like an episode of Sesame Street.

And Sesame Street is missing one thing INDIGO has in abundance, alongside its history lesson: orgasms, baby. 

So many orgasms. Mostly of the female variety.

Part of Hester's character arc is about her resistance to believing that she, a dark-skinned woman with origins in slavery and the stained hands to prove it, could truly be loved by a wealthy, light-skinned man. Galen makes it his mission to prove her wrong. His principal strategy is to do this by bodily worshiping her, from head to toe, focusing exclusively on her pleasure for the majority of the book, and doing it with a debonair, French-inflected wit and a twinkle in his eye that makes clear he is thoroughly enjoying himself. Many, many orgasms are delivered to the lovely Hester by the time the book concludes, and almost as many long, languorous bubble baths. (Sometimes both at once; Miss Bev knows what's up.)

Every young lady who has ever googled "sex on horseback?" after putting down a highlander book knows readers do, in fact, attempt to learn things from romance novels. They are, for many, an early primer on courtship, and a lens into the mystifying world of adult sexuality. 

It is therefore an important thing to give women of color the exact same heady, romanticized GODDESS TREATEMENT in our romance novels that your standard-issue white regency heroine enjoys. 

It implicitly demands equity for those characters. It asserts that all women deserve happy endings, of the narrative and orgasmic varieties. 

It is thus blindingly obvious that we need more books that send this message about the breadth of people who deserves happy endings, who should be getting the hero and heroine treatment -- and more authors well equipped to deliver it in their #ownvoices. The findings of The Ripped Bodice's recent survey on racial diversity among romance authors made clear, in stark numbers, that there is a woeful shortage of work being (traditionally) published by writers of color in this genre. Facts are facts. And the facts here are embarassing.

So here is to Miss Bev, and to those gemlike historical books that open our eyes to bits of history we might not otherwise be aware of, and to authors and publishers who celebrate all kinds of people being adored, being treasured, and being made to see they are, to someone, the most precious and beautiful thing in the world.

Next Week: I will attempt to finally finish reading OUTLANDER, a book I like and yet have mysteriously been stalled in the middle of for at least two years.