Beverly Jenkins Is Romance's Tough Pioneer—and Its Queen

Posted by Cybil on December 7, 2020
By Adrienne Johnson
Goodreads Contributor 

It’s perhaps a little too early to talk, so while she’s dealing with a morning-voice rasp, Beverly Jenkins is doing what she has to do.
“So, me and my coffee and my cigarettes are sitting here trying to get my brain on,” she says.
If you’ve read any of her contemporary or historical romances, it’s the kind of wry, salt-of-the-earth comment you’d expect from Jenkins. Her women are strong and funny and they work. Jenkins might not be writing versions of herself, but she’s clearly writing from her ethos. This is the author of some 40 books (not including the anthologies she’s been in) and counting—Wild Rain arrives in February—that center on the lives of Black women and men.
And there are the screen deals, there’s the active social media presence, and there’s her ardent support of other authors. Jenkins surely is a queen in Romancelandia, but the more fitting honorific for Ms. Bev, as she’s commonly called, may be Auntie.
As the coffee kicks in, Jenkins begins telling her story. The Detroit native was raised, she says, in an environment made for a writer. Her mother “would tell us about her growing up in the craziness and the wonderfulness of being a little Black girl in Detroit in the ’40s, in the ’30s. My mother’s side of the family had incredible comments on things, just being Black in America.” At night, Jenkins would tell stories to her sisters.
She had writing talent, too. In high school, Jenkins’ English teacher wanted to enter a short story she’d written in a city-wide contest, but Jenkins declined. “Me being a little kid from the east side of Detroit and not having a whole lot of confidence…at least on that level for that. And I was like, ‘Nah, nah, nah, I’m not gonna get on that,’ and she was really disappointed.”

It was just that writing wasn’t her dream. Jenkins wanted to work at a library, and that’s what she did, happily, for years. In libraries, she could indulge her love for facts, for history. As head clerk at the graduate lab at Michigan State University, she honed her research skills and had access to full sets of The Journal of Negro History. On her lunch hours, she’d grab a handful to read.

She didn’t start reading romance novels until she was in her 30s, borrowing them from a neighbor out of curiosity. Intrigued, she decided to try her hand at writing one, for her own reading pleasure. One day, a colleague came in with news—she’d gotten her romance novel published. Jenkins mentioned the book she’d been working on. Her friend asked to read it, liked it, and told Jenkins she should try to get it published. Jenkins wasn’t interested, but her friend kept pushing.

Jenkins says she doesn’t remember the details, but somehow she connected with Vivian Stephens, a now iconic Black literary agent and editor, who’d already made history by publishing Entwined Destinies, the first category romance novel by an African American author featuring African American main characters. Yet even with Stephens on her side, the rejections piled up.

“I didn’t care. I’m sure if I’d had my heart set on being published, it would have probably broken me down, but I was like, ‘OK, I wasn't planning on being published anyway,’ ” she says.

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And then, on June 3, 1993, she got a call from Avon. They wanted to buy her book.

That book was Night Song, the story of a handsome Buffalo soldier in pursuit of a pretty, independent schoolteacher, and it showcased the revolutionary characteristics that made her work distinctive and also made those gatekeepers believe it wouldn’t sell. Along with a compelling story and terrific writing, it was about 19th-century Black life on the plains of Kansas—without focusing on enslaved people. At the time, there was nothing comparable. 

The former librarian deeply researches her work; in fact, she includes a bibliography of sources at the end of her books, allowing readers to dig deeper. That thoroughness impresses Bowling Green State University history professor Nicole M. Jackson, who, before Jenkins, wasn’t a fan of historical romance. Now she is working her way through Jenkins’ backlist and, before the pandemic canceled the event, was scheduled to do a presentation on Jenkins’ work.

“Part of what I was shocked by is how historically accurate her books are,” says Jackson. “So much of what she’s doing, you read articles every now and then, or you’ll see people on social media say, ‘I never learned about this in school,’ or ‘Historians never talk about...’ And historians absolutely talk about these things, but no one reads their work. And yet, if you read Beverly Jenkins’ work, she’s reading their work, right?”

Jackson, too, notes that although Jenkins doesn’t write in a way that excludes other audiences, she absolutely writes to Black readers. “There are these moments, where she literally will never explain a thing that is very obvious if you grew up in a Black family or a Black community, and she just expects her readers who don’t know that to do the work, and I love that.”

That quality is, in part, what attracted Sarah Johnson, a producer and host of RomBkPod, an inclusive podcast, to Jenkins’ books. It was, she says, “the idea that she was unearthing and sharing these stories that nobody else was talking about, and that she’s essentially presenting an American history that you’re not seeing anywhere else.”

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As Johnson was launching her podcast in 2019, she wanted to find a way to connect with more Jenkins readers. So, she created the hashtag #JenkinsJuly to try and get people’s attention. It worked, opening up a community and helping to inspire a project to examine the historical eras of Jenkins’ books.
“I never knew about the exodus, I think it’s 1876, exodus from the South into the West.... Everything I know about that I learned from her books, and that’s how you get the small Black town in Kansas and Oklahoma, people fleeing the violence of the South and establishing their own communities in the Western territories,” Johnson says.
This year, Johnson revived the hashtag and made a family tree illustrating how all the characters in Jenkins’ books are connected to one another. (The characters in Jenkins’ contemporary romances are descendants of the characters in her historical romances.) “[Jenkins] saw it, and she seemed pretty thrilled by it, which was the greatest validation of all,” says Johnson. “She’s not just a leader because she’s a Black author; she’s a leader because she is writing to a higher standard, because those are the stories she wants to tell.”
For Jenkins, it’s simple: “My stories are told through my gaze, and the gaze of those who came before, and the historians whose shoulders I stand on, and the folks who made a way out of no way so that I could tell these stories.”
But there’s a profundity, even a subversiveness, in Jenkins’ approach. In the wake of the controversy over Confederate monuments and The New York Times 1619 Project, there’s been much debate about the ways America has framed its history. Meanwhile, Jenkins has quietly been sharing the full story of this country in book after book after book.
“I really feel like she is maybe the most prolific and best chronicler of American history,” says fellow historical romance writer Alyssa Cole. “But the books get overlooked because they are romance and because they are about Black people and other marginalized people. She’s written so many books covering such a breadth and really diving into so many overlooked aspects of American history and is not given credit for that, and it’s really annoying because she’s smarter than so many people who you will see on TV talking about American history.”
Cole says reading Jenkins’ Indigo, a story that references Michigan’s Underground Railroad network, was game-changing because although she loved historical romances, she’d never read one with characters that looked like her. Now Cole’s Loyal League series features three historical romances (she also writes contemporary romances and recently hit the bestseller list with her thriller No One Is Watching). She remembers being tongue-tied when she first met Jenkins at a Romance Writers of America conference. Now as a friend and colleague, she values Jenkins’ support and admires her championing of others. Partly, she says, Jenkins is just happy to not be the only one.
“I think about in my experience [as a Black romance writer]...I have never been alone,” says Cole. “And it was still really hard.”
Ask Jenkins, and in a matter-of-fact tone she’s both pragmatic and compassionate.
“Yeah, we've got issues and people separated and folks are fussing and all of that, but we’ve still got books to write and we still have books to promote, and I think it’s my job to make the path wider. And you can’t make the path wider if you’re shutting the door. So, I promote everybody.
“When you have a big platform, and, yeah, I don’t have a platform as big as some people, but there’s enough light for everybody, and if I can shine my light on somebody who’s just coming out, or somebody who’s struggling, or somebody who just needs a little slight push to the center of the stage, why wouldn’t I do that? It doesn’t take anything away from me. I still got the light, I’ve still got my platform, so it’s much better to be kind than be a bitch.”
Leah Koch, co-owner with her sister Bea of The Ripped Bodice Bookstore in the Los Angeles area, has seen the influence of Jenkins’ advocacy in action at readings. “Beverly will always talk about the women coming up behind her and the books that she’s enjoyed reading, and you can see that endorsement and action, because then I sell a bunch of those books,” Koch says.
That’s why when the sisters landed a deal with Sony Pictures Television, Jenkins’ Forbidden was at the top of their list. The book tells the story of fan-favorite Rhine Fontaine, who is passing for white in a Nevada town, when he falls for beautiful Eddy, passing through on her way to California. The executives at Sony, Koch says, were looking for their next Outlander, the hit Scottish time-travel romance.

“OK, so you want something that has a huge built-in audience, an author that’s built up this incredible fan base, and that’s something we haven’t seen on TV before,” says Koch, mimicking her Forbidden pitch to the studio executives. “It does also happen to be historical, and it has this sort of epic feel to it. This is what you want. And they agreed, thankfully.
“I think for me it was, ‘OK, I've been given this incredible opportunity to bring romance projects to the forefront. Who are the authors that really could thrive on television and are creating the kind of stories that I would want to watch on television?’ And Beverly is top of the list.”
Things move slowly in Hollywood, says Koch, but she’d gotten a call about script notes that day—it’s getting there. In the meanwhile, there’s Jenkins’ other deal with Al Roker Entertainment, Inc., to create a television series based on her Bring on the Blessings series, about a wealthy divorcée who buys a failing town founded by freed slaves to turn it into a foster-family community.
Jenkins is humbled and tickled that suddenly, finally, at 69, she’s a bit of a hot commodity.

“Girl, it’s kind of awesome,” she says, her voice now awake with delight. “I was telling my girlfriends, ‘I need a helmet ’cause all these blessings are falling out of the sky and hitting me on my head.’
“And my thing, too, is, if we can do this, maybe it will open the door for other projects from some of the other writers, because they’re writing incredible stuff. So, if we could make the path wider for somebody coming up behind me, then that’ll be ideal also. We gonna make it do what it do.”

Check out more recent articles, including:
Steamy Romances to Heat Up December
Goodreads Staffers Share Their Top Three Books of the Year
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Comments Showing 1-50 of 70 (70 new)

message 1: by K2G (new)

K2G Thank you for this wonder article about one of the greats. A living legend with the Pen

message 2: by Cf (new)

Cf Love this lady and her writing. Thank you for this article.

message 3: by Keysha (new)

Keysha Thank you for featuring Beverly Jenkins! We love her books <3

message 4: by Vivian (new)

Vivian Cox Awesome article on Ms. Jenkins!! I began reading her books in 2001 and have loved everyone of them. What an amazing writer!😍

message 5: by CJ (new)

CJ I read a lot of Jenkins' stories when I was younger. This knowledge makes me want to revisit her stories. Great article!

message 6: by Santa (new)

Santa Great article on an outstanding author. I am making my way backwards & forwards through her backlist and it's been absolutely wonderful!

kittykat AKA Ms. Tortitude I had my first Beverly Jenkins Experience this year and was totally blown away. Can't wait to get stuck into some more.

message 8: by EuroHackie (new)

EuroHackie Ms. Bev is an absolute icon of Romancelandia. As someone who loves learning even when reading fiction, I've gobbled up her historicals not only for their wonderful relationships, but because of the communities she builds around her characters, and the aspects of history that are never covered in textbooks.

I'm not surprised to learn that she was a librarian before she was a writer. I love that she supplies author's notes at the ends of her books, too, to follow up on the primary sources that inspired or supported her idea. I wish more fiction writers would do that!

message 9: by Nyssa (new)

Nyssa Which work would you recommend to a newcomer?

My romance reads are usually of the paranormal variety, except for the collection of short stories by Jill Scott, which I started reading a few years ago. Plus, the first two novels of the Forged Steel series by Brenda Jackson.

message 10: by kittykat AKA Ms. Tortitude (last edited Dec 07, 2020 10:57AM) (new)

kittykat AKA Ms. Tortitude Nyssa wrote: "Which work would you recommend to a newcomer? ..."

I'm not a romance newbie (far from it) but I am a historical romance 'almost' newbie only having read a handful before 2020.
Wild Sweet Love by Beverly Jenkins My first by Ms Bev was this and I LOVED it. my review is here

message 11: by Nyssa (new)

Nyssa kittykat (Jo Tortitude) wrote: "Nyssa wrote: "Which work would you recommend to a newcomer? ..."

I'm not a romance newbie (far from it) but I am a historical romance almost newbie only having read a handful of historical before ..."

Thank you, I'll check it out.

kittykat AKA Ms. Tortitude Nyssa wrote: "Thank you, I'll check it out. "

You are welcome. I've added my review link to give more detail as to why I loved it.

message 13: by Edwina (new)

Edwina Putney Thank you for this incredibly in-depth article about one of the greatest authors. Love her and her books.💗

message 14: by J.D. (new)

J.D. Mason Great article! I'm a huge fan of hers.

message 15: by Saundra (new)

Saundra A big fan have read just about all of her books. Love the old
historical romances awesome.

message 16: by Traci (new)

Traci I love Ms Bev's book. I love continuing to read up on the historical significance. Makes me proud of my history

message 17: by Tanesha (last edited Dec 07, 2020 01:24PM) (new)

Tanesha Thank you for this article on Auntie Bev! I can still remember seeing Night Song on a shelf in Waldenbooks in the early 90s and being SO excited to see Black characters on a romance book - amongst a sea of Fabio covers lol. I've been hooked on her writing ever since, will buy and read WHATEVER she puts out, no hesitation. She is not just a great romance writer, she's a great writer, period!

message 18: by Janice (new)

Janice 'Ms_jae' I've read every book by this literary icon. Beverly Jenkins is too awesome for words! Love her!
Excellent article.

message 19: by Denise (new)

Denise King Thank you for this great article about my favorite author. Love her work and her teaching of our history.

message 20: by Sara (new)

Sara Mcdonald Thank you for featuring Mrs. Jenkins! She has been a beautiful answer to my wish for historical black fiction and her Twitter feed is FIRE!

message 21: by Marilyn (new)

Marilyn Diamond When Ms. Jenkins agreed to sign close to 17 of my books I almost fainted. I love her humility an pray nothing but the best for her. She deserves it.

Lois is recovering slowly I adore Ms Jenkins by far my favorite romance writer.
I hardly read the genre but read her historical romances.
And reread them🤷🏾‍♀️

message 23: by Parker (new)

Parker Cole Hooray Ms Bev!

message 24: by Toni (new)

Toni Thank you for sharing this article with me.
I am anticipating the television series as well as the movie!

message 25: by Brenda Larnell (new)

Brenda  Larnell Love Ms. Bev’ s books. ALL OF THEM! She is so deserving of every award, deal, and interview. A prolific writer!

message 26: by Duezette (new)

Duezette All I can say is Henry Adams!

message 27: by reader (new)

reader Wonderful interview! I actually just started reading her book Rebel and am truly loving it.

message 28: by Bigedsgirl1 (new)

Bigedsgirl1 Great article! Beverly Jenkins is a truly awesome storyteller and every book of hers is a must have for me.

message 29: by MK (new)

MK Adore Ms Bev. Thanks so much for writing this! Reminds me that Indigo is still on my TBR pile...

message 30: by Yolanda (new)

Yolanda Odom I've long read romances, but 10yrs ago my life changed when I read Something Like Love. My world was opened up to the rich history we have which has been ignored. Ms. Bev is a national treasure.

message 31: by Rosemary Ross (new)

Rosemary Ross Enjoy the article. Love Ms. Jenkins books.

message 32: by Brenda (last edited Dec 13, 2020 10:59PM) (new)

Brenda I have always been a reader and when I was 18 my older sister (who has since gone home) gave me a book, “Night Song.” “Here,” she said, “you’re gonna love this.” She was so right and I have been a loyal reader ever since, always eager for the next story. Because of the interest in African American history; sparked by reading Ms. Jenkins, I went on to get degrees in Black History and Library Sciences.

Thank you for doing this work.

message 33: by Zanette (new)

Zanette Easton I have loved and respected the writing of Ms. Jenkins for some decades now. She is the Grand Dame of Historical Romance and it was wonderful to read this article on her by Goodreads. Thank you and more, please!

message 34: by Sasha (new)

Sasha Erin Nyssa wrote: "Which work would you recommend to a newcomer?

My romance reads are usually of the paranormal variety, except for the collection of short stories by Jill Scott, which I started reading a few years ..."

Indigo is a classic.

message 35: by David (new)

David Parker No

message 36: by Kellie (new)

Kellie What a wonderful article about a phenomenal writer. I have enjoyed Ms. Jenkins writing for years and have shared her works with others. The first novel I read of hers was Indigo, it simply took my breathe away. To see myself and my kinfolk in the pages of this novel was healing and cathartic. Here were our people, in the midst of an atrocious institution called slavery, bold, strong and dare I say sexy...I learned and continue to learn from her writing, our history, our collective story in a way I never imagined. Thank you MS. Jenkins for opening eyes, hearts and minds to black American history.

message 37: by Marquia (new)

Marquia Edwards Thank you for this article! I absolutely LOVE Beverly Jenkins' books! Currently reading Rebel!

message 38: by Latricia (new)

Latricia I have read all of The Blessing series books of Ms Jenkins. This article has cause me to look at her other books. She is a great writer.

message 39: by Brenda (new)

Brenda Hillmon I am hooked on the Blessing series I read them all more that once

message 40: by Brianna (new)

Brianna Ruikka me to

message 41: by Lawana (new)

Lawana Dinkins Congratulations Beverly Jenkins!!!! I read one book, Midnight, and have been a fan of hers ever since!!!

message 42: by Brianna (new)

Brianna Ruikka me to

message 43: by Brenda (new)

Brenda Knight David wrote: "No"

No? No to what? Please explain. Thanks.

message 44: by Ramona (new)

Ramona Loved every bit of this article. I simply love Ms Bev!!!

message 45: by Tayari (new)

Tayari Jones What an inspiration!!!! Love this article and Ms. Bev. She is such a treasure!

message 46: by Kella (new)

Kella Campbell Great article about one of the finest authors in romance.

message 47: by Alessandra (new)

Alessandra Torre Fantastic article.

message 48: by Nyssa (new)

Nyssa kittykat (Jo Tortitude) wrote: "Wild Sweet Love by Beverly Jenkins My first by Ms. Bev was this and I LOVED it"

Thank you again. I loved it!

Sasha wrote: "Indigo is a classic."

Thanks. I'll take a look at this next.

message 49: by Judy Simpson (new)

Judy Simpson Beverly Jenkins is one of my favourite writers. I enjoy every book I read by her. I am looking forward to her next book.

kittykat AKA Ms. Tortitude Nyssa wrote: "kittykat (Jo Tortitude) wrote: "Wild Sweet Love by Beverly Jenkins My first by Ms. Bev was this and I LOVED it"

Thank you again. I loved it! ..."

I'm, glad I didn't send off on the wrong path for your first BJE!

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