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Writing the Multi-ethnic Romance Novel: African American by Patricia Woodside

Monday, May 12, 2008

I’m pleased to introduce (for those of you who don’t already read her blog regularly) Patricia Woodside, a dear writing sister I met online and whose writing journey I’ve been following for the last couple of years. 


I love romance.  I especially love Christian romance.  It’s uplifting as well as feel-good romantic, and like secular romance, it comes in multiple varieties:  contemporary, historical, suspense, etc.  However, there’s one flavor that’s all too often missing:  African American Christian romance.  In fact, there is such a dearth of these books that when one looks at bookstore or library shelves, one has to wonder such a thing even exists.

Before I get hit on the head, let me point out there are a number of successful African American (AA) authors writing and publishing Christian fiction.  Victoria Christopher Murray, Jacquelin Thomas, and ReShonda Tate Billingsley are longstanding successes.  Tia McCollors, Claudia Mair Burney, Marilynn Griffith, and Angela Benson are among the more recent multi-published AA Christian authors.  Then brand new authors, like Sheila Lipsey, Keshia Dawn, Leslie Sherrod, and Kimberly Cash Tate are making their debuts. 

However, most AA Christian fiction is more than plain, simple romance. Many are ensemble stories featuring multiple heroines, and are bigger, broader stories that are more likely categorized as women’s fiction. 

On the secular side of the market, pure AA romance can be found in offerings from Harlequin and a variety of other publishers.  In fact, the sub-genre was popular enough that in 2007, Harlequin purchased Arabesque/BET Books and now releases eight or more romantic stories monthly of varying sensuality featuring African American heroes and heroines under the Kimani Press imprint.

But where is the African American Christian romance?

One might ask why there is a need for AA Christian romance.  After all, if it’s the spiritual message that African American readers desire, they can find that in a host of Christian books.  Harlequin also publishes the Steeple Hill Love Inspired imprint, which has included AA stories by Felicia Mason, and Heartsong Presents has published AA stories by Aisha Ford and Cecelia Dowdy.  So there’s been limited success at least in category romance, where recently even a few white authors have taken on multicultural characters, an effort I wholeheartedly applaud.

For me, it is not an issue of exclusion but rather one of inclusion.  Although our God is the same and we may even worship together, AA Christians daily reside within our darker skins.  Like it or not, that aspect of our being colors our world.  Occasionally, when reading a book where the author doesn’t dwell on the physical characteristics of the characters, or where those characteristics are somewhat ambiguous—dark hair and dark eyes, for example—I find myself picturing the characters as looking like me.

Just as years ago the need for African American dolls was proven in order to build and support the self-esteem of young African American children(1), I argue there is a need for AA Christian romance.  AA Christians need to read about characters who look like them, talk like them, and who may act in a culturally familiar manner as they are challenged and grow in their faith.  Heroes and heroines of like ethnicity as the reader removes the final barrier preventing the reader from making a full and deep connection with the characters. 

Is it simply a matter of coloring the characters African American?

A resounding NO.

The romance remains the central story but that romance is highlighted by our unique culture.   The African American community is not a monolith but we do have aspects of our culture that tie us together. 

Like food.  In an African American novel, food scenes might include ribs or fried chicken, smothered pork chops, macaroni and cheese, candied yams, collard greens, stuffing, gravy, and homemade rolls.  Recipe for a heart attack?  Yes, but not an uncommon meal in the AA community.  Throw in some West Indian blood and it might include coconut rice, curried goat, roti, and plaintain.  Add some African to the mix and it might include injera, a flat bread; doro wat, a spicy chicken stew; jollof rice; peanut stew; or couscous.

There’s our worship style. The liveliness of our worship, as demonstrated in many predominantly African American churches every Sunday morning, might include large hand-clapping choirs singing to foot-stomping rhythms played by fully orchestrated bands.  There might be praise dancers and flag teams.  Nurses’ units provide relief and comfort when the Spirit gets a bit too high; the preacher delivers the message with a particular rhythmic cadence; and of course, there’s the parade of fashion that often verges on what others might consider evening wear—hats, suits and dresses adorned with sequins, feathers, gems, and whatever else might make an attractive statement.  Then too the role of the church in African American life is based on its historical roots, and includes education, self-empowerment, political activism, social service, and economic advancement.  Furthermore, AA stories may be affected by the extent to which race, along with social, political, and economic factors, dictates the characters’ priorities and challenges.

Remember though that the African American community is a vast and varied one.  Thus, it is necessary to watch out for stereotypes.  The dinner I described above is definitely stereotypical.  As with all stereotypes, however, it is rooted in truth.  But African Americans eat other things too, like Cornish hens, beef stroganoff, scalloped potatoes, julienned carrots, stir-fry, fondue, and caviar, not foods normally associated with us.

Not all African Americans speak in an ethnically identifiable manner, or if they do, they may be selective about when, where, and among whom.

Not all African Americans attend churches with the Pentecostal worship style I also described above, another stereotype.  There are many African American Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, like my mother who frowns on the “noise” in my more animated church setting.

Not all African Americans know or are involved with the criminal element of society.

Not all African Americans live in poor or struggling neighborhoods.

Not all African Americans play certain sports, dance well, rap, or sing.

As much as we are different, we have a lot in common with the majority American culture because we too are American.  We celebrate many of the same holidays with many of the same traditions.  We speak and write proper English and expect our children to do the same.  We aspire to be well-educated, financially sound, and to live well, which does not necessarily mean displaying the “bling-bling” too often negatively associated with our culture. We live in nice neighborhoods and our children attend nice schools.

There is a fine line between creating culturally identifiable characters and stereotyping.  There is also a fine line between creating characters that more closely resemble the majority culture and running the risk of those same characters being deemed “unbelievable”, as what happened with the popular sitcom of the 1980’s, The Cosby Show.  To this day, I’m still trying to figure out what’s so unbelievable about an African American pediatrician and African American lawyer parenting five kids in an upscale brownstone in Brooklyn.  When it comes to African American characterization, there’s too often a definite double-standard and an emphasis on the negative for the purposes of commercial success. 

All of this makes for added difficulty in crafting the African American Christian romance.  Shaking up those stereotypes, and going beyond them to tell a tale that reflects universal issues, is both a consideration and a challenge for those who might pen AA Christian romance and for those who edit and publish it.

Bottom line: African American Christian Romance is an underserved segment of the fiction market.

African Americans represent roughly 13% of the U.S. population and these numbers don’t include people of African descent who also claim Hispanic or some other origin, like me, who are now designated “multi-racial.”  According to the U.S. Department of State, Blacks are the group most likely to report a religious affiliation. More than three-fourths are Protestant(2).  That’s a large number of folks who would be hard-pressed to identify ethnically with the characters in the average Christian romance novel. 

Let’s do the math: 75% of 13% of 300 million is approximately 29 million people.  Then, about 37% of African Americans read fiction so let’s assume that holds true for African American Christians(3).  The result is a reader population of nearly 11 million people.  Keep in mind that a popular fiction book is considered a success if it sells a mere 5,000 copies(4). 

So here’s to hoping we see a lot more African American Christian fiction.  I’m working hard to make sure that we do!




Patricia Woodside describes herself as an I.T. Professional, Pastor’s Wife, Mother, and Writer. She blogs about life and writing at

  1. Monday, May 12, 2008 8:57 am

    Thanks for sharing, Patricia. As someone who is trying to incorporate an African American POV character in one of my series (my small-town series), are there certain novels or nonfiction books you would recommend that those of us who want to write realistic African American characters could read to get a better idea of how to get beyond the stereotypes and into the real culture?


  2. Monday, May 12, 2008 9:38 am

    For specific books, I’m going to have to give that some long, hard thought. Because AA authors often employ stereotypes too.

    The author that comes to mind off the top of my head is Frances Ray, for her often characterization of upstanding albeit imperfect African-Americans, unusual physical descriptions, and really good storytelling. Another who comes to mind because she frequently employs unusual careers and physical details is Janice Sims. Both of these ladies write secular romance.

    Also, Bettye Griffin, although she writes women fiction moreso than romance. Bettye goes out of her way to buck typical heroes and heroines. There’s Karyn Langhorne and Kimberly White . Kimberly writes AA romance (a bit steamy) but again, the characterizations in her Ballantine series were striking.

    In the CBA, it’s a bit harder to say simply because of the lesser volume of AA books so that’s where I need to think about it a bit. Certainly Sharon Ewell Foster, Marilyn Griffith, Claudia Mair Burney, and Angela Benson are authors who come to mind.


  3. Monday, May 12, 2008 11:16 am

    Greetings, Kaye and Patricia. I’m Dee Stewart, owner of Christian Fiction Blog and the Christian Fiction Network. I invite you both to visit my blog and our network. Many published authors that you have not mentioned are members. I’m also the AA inspirational reviewer for Romantic Times Magazine, a member of American Christian Fiction Writers and a Christys Book Awards judge for three years.

    AA Inspirational Writing goes back to 1865 when Francis Ellen Harper wrote Iola Leroy. Sharon Ewell Foster is the first and only AA Christys Awards Winner. Every year I feature the top AA Christian titles of the year at the blog. I also am Entertainment Editor for Hope for Women Magazine and a features writer for Good Girl BookClub Magazine, Mosaic Literary Journal and Gospel Today.

    Contemporary Christian titles began to see more ground seven years ago thanks to Jacquelin, Stephanie Perry Moore, Victoria and Sharon Ewell Foster. This year alone we have had at least twenty AA titles.

    The trick with AA Inspirational fiction is that it’s not just pigeonholed to CBA or EPA. Dafina, Urban Books, NAL and Pocket to name a few also publish books that satisfy an Urban Inspirational Market.

    Moreover, you have White authors like Kathleen Y’Barbo, Sue Monk Kidd, W. Dale Cramer, Nicole Seitz and Amy Wallace, who write about issues that affect the African American religious community

    You can visit my blog to see current featured AA titles. I’m always looking for guestbloggers and you are more than welcome to join our network.


  4. Monday, May 12, 2008 11:28 am

    Excellent post Patricia.

    I’m hoping we see a lot more African American Christian fiction in the future too.


  5. Monday, May 12, 2008 12:17 pm

    Excellent essay, Patricia! It was very informative and I hope that the doors open a little wider for African American Inspirational and Christian Romance. Patricia Simmons is another author who writes African American Christian Romance. I read her Guilty of Love and really enjoyed it. I’m anxiously awaiting her second release.



  6. Leslie permalink
    Monday, May 12, 2008 12:31 pm

    Thank you for the information!


  7. Monday, May 12, 2008 1:59 pm

    Great post! You made some excellent points, particularly in view of all the urban/street/gangster lit out there now. The proliferation of that genre gives the impression that we all live that lifestyle.

    My family knows about as much about street life as we do about nuclear fission!


  8. Monday, May 12, 2008 7:34 pm

    Great essay, Patricia! Thanks for mentioning me in your post! Maybe more editors will now begin publishing more romance novels with AA characters!


  9. Tuesday, May 13, 2008 5:08 am

    Great Post!! I love what you said concerning stereotypes. I grew up visiting many AA churches with my grandfather (retired southern Baptist preacher), where he sometimes preached and sometimes we just visited and then had lunch. This was a time when it wasn’t the norm for a person of non color to do so. I will forever be thankful to him for that. I loved each and every minute of it, of the people who loved me back and welcomed me and taught me at very young age that we are all people, different perhaps in cultures and yet we are the same.

    And yes, I love to read AA inspirationals, because more often than not, the herione and hero are so very real to me.


  10. Tuesday, May 13, 2008 8:20 am

    Excellent article Patricia. I’m looking forward to seeing some new additions to the marketplace not only in romance, but the mystery and suspense genre as well. I know there are more AA authors out there who like who-dunnits or a good thriller. 🙂


  11. Tuesday, May 13, 2008 11:35 am

    Excellent job. You know I’m in agreement with you on this topic. I pray for the day when we see more AA Christian romance, but honestly the market needs to open up for the AA authors to do the writing. No offense Kay. I really appreciate you diversifying your current project, because that needs to happen as well, but we can tell our stories if the publishers will just allow it. Comments such as “I wouldn’t know how to market that” or “I don’t know that there’s a market for that” are just excuses to not dive in and get your hands around something different.


  12. Tuesday, May 13, 2008 1:43 pm

    Patricia, I’m looking for you to write the breakout AA Christian romance novel. You’ve put so much thought into the issue and the need for it in the marketplace that I believe your passion would drive you to create an inspiring novel. I love what you said about stereotypes. We’ve gotten to the point that AA Christian fiction has been deemed “hot” (at least, it was at one point) and people began writing in that genre, not out of a heart of ministry but to capitalize on the market…which leads to writing stereotypes about what Christian life is about. I’m quite sure that yours would come from the heart, and I look forward to reading it one day.


  13. Tuesday, May 13, 2008 8:42 pm

    Wonderful essay!

    This white girl identifies with the Cosby show in so many ways. My parents raised us according to the Cosby rules of parenting, and we’ve all turned out great. So he was doing something right, lol. I will never forget the look of utter terror on a friend’s face when my dad marched to the back of the house and in true Cosby fashion shouted “There’s gone be some beatins if ya’ll don’t shut up!” It was after midnight…


  14. Wednesday, May 14, 2008 12:56 pm

    ReShonda Tate Billingsley, Kendra Norman Bellamy, Jacquelin Thomas, Shelia Lipsey and Victoria Christopher Murray are some of my favorite AA Christian writers. Thank you for mentioning a few I hadn’t heard of. I will be checking out their books as well.


  15. Friday, May 16, 2008 10:37 am

    YES!!! YES!!! YES!!!

    I love this article and completely agree with your thoughts. I have been an avid reader for as long as I can remember. I was raised in a strong, loving, extended family of Christians who did not smoke, drink or run the streets. I was never abused and as a teenager I got along great with my mom and I looked forward to college, career and someday marriage with children – in that order.

    However as an adult, I often found it difficult to find entertaining, quality romance novels that did not conflict with my beliefs or represent my culture. This was one of the catalyst that led me to take the plunge and write my first novel. I wanted to read stories that were reflective of my family, my faith and my community.

    I applaud those writers who tackle the tough life issues such as domestic violence, sexual abuse and street life, but that’s not everyone’s story.
    I believe that we should all have our voices heard and our experiences represented in the market place.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and keeping this issue in the forefront if the AA Literary community. Hopefully voices like your will draw the creative spirit out of us all.

    Melissa Ewell Miller
    Author of Trinity’s Hope


  16. Wednesday, May 28, 2008 11:56 pm

    Greetings in the Precious name of Jesus! I am an African-American Christian Romance Author. I write historical and contemporary Christian fictional romance as well as Christian Mysteries with a hint of romance. I too see the need for this genre and that is my reason for writing. Another area that is missing is Christian graphic novels (contemporary comic books) and I have released one as well featuring an African-American super heroine. It is going to take the Lord to open doors for my books to hit the mainstream because I like to depict African-Americans on various levels in my writings including our worship services.



  17. Thursday, May 29, 2008 12:01 am

    I failed to mention that I am presently self-published.



  18. Monday, June 2, 2008 3:04 pm


    I’m late to the discussion, but I wanted you to know that I enjoyed your comments, and have read the work of several of the authors you mentioned.

    Continued success to you!


  19. mizzpriss permalink
    Saturday, June 14, 2008 4:47 pm

    Kaye Dacus, I recently found a book by an almost unknown author . The name of the book was Ra Ra Momma. The main character was in many respects void of many stereotypes but at the same time, I could actually relate to her as a professional black woman. Because there are so many African-American themed books that are purvey stereotypes, I have recently been searching the self-published books as an alternative and I found that book. Good luck and please do us a good one.


  20. Wednesday, October 15, 2008 2:47 pm

    Be sure to take a look at the online preview of ERLO STEGEN & THE REVIVAL AMONG THE ZULUS, a new Christian graphic novel published by Calvary Comics:


  21. Friday, December 26, 2008 12:29 am

    This is certainly a great article for the Christian romance scene. It is a shame for any culture to be left without representation, especially when there is no need for it. As you have shown, the market segment is large enough to be quite popular.

    You also make important points about the need to avoid stereotyping. No one likes cookie-cutter novels anyway. Since most cultures themselves are blended in the US, why wouldn’t AA inspirational fiction feature elements look more like a blend of several cultures?


  22. Carol Swiantek permalink
    Monday, April 27, 2009 11:00 am

    If anyone knows of a publishing company who publishes interracial love stories, with a political and religious base, please, please let me know. I have a finished fifty chapter novel that I believe can become a classic if I can get it out there. Thanks.


  23. Kerri Mountain permalink
    Friday, July 31, 2009 10:16 am

    Great article! I, too, am interesting in finding out about publishers of AA Christian historical romance. There are very few that I can find. Several Christian publishers are saying they want to see romances with AA characters, but they don’t seem to publish any.


  24. Candice permalink
    Friday, August 28, 2009 6:30 pm

    I can’t tell you how good I feel to have found this website as I have embarked on writing an African American Christian romance novel, which I had hoped it to be well received. I am trying to do my research and find out more about this genre – which wasn’t really happening at all. I would like to give a fresh look at the African American Christian woman and how she deals with all the issues that come with romance! Awesome article!


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