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