Race Matters: What Is Black Love?

christine pride

christine pride

It’s Black History Month, and Valentine’s Day is quickly approaching, so I’ve been thinking about Black love. Essay series, TV shows, and books have all tackled the subject, but what exactly is Black love?

Of course, the color of our skin has no bearing on the heart-pounding adoration we feel for our beloveds, but our identities do often influence who or how we love. Every culture has conventions that influence dating and relationships — like, pressure to marry someone of your background or how gender roles may play out.

On top of this, Black folks, in particular, have always faced challenges to building and sustaining romantic relationships and families. During slavery, people held in bondage were often not allowed to marry; any children they had were the property of slave owners; and families were routinely forced apart. Mass incarceration has had a profound effect on the availability of single men and present fathers. Poverty and lack of economic opportunity, which are relationship stressors, disproportionately affect Black people. We’ve also been told who we can and cannot marry over the years — it still astonishes me that Alabama didn’t officially repeal its ban on interracial marriage until 2000. These hurdles make Black love feel like a precious, hard-won prospect and something to celebrate and nurture.

Tia Williams — the author of four bestselling romance novels — is a big champion of Black love. Her newest book, A Love Song For Ricki Wilde, chronicles a magical (literally) love affair between “a free-spirited florist and an enigmatic musician irreversibly linked through the history, art, and magic of Harlem.”

Here, I talk with Tia about writing, #blacklove and her own relationship…

Tia (top) and Christine

Q: You’re a Black woman and a romance writer — what does Black love mean to you?

Tia: It’s hard because the suggestion that Black love is different than any other kind of love is almost dehumanizing. We’re not mystical creatures or cartoons or symbols. We’re people just like everyone else. But I think that’s exactly the reason why Black love is hash-tagged and celebrated — not because it’s different, but because for so long it has been ignored. Historically, if Black people have been in the media, it’s as symbols of oppression and trauma. So, it’s important to call attention to the fact that Black love exists. We live and laugh and love, like everyone else. Ultimately to me, Black love just reflects the truth and beauty of what it really is.

Q: You certainly do that in your four novels — all delicious, complicated love stories. How does race affect the love between your characters?
Race is a factor in that I am Black, and my characters are Black and they are coming from a Black place, but we’re not a monolith, we all have a zillion different experiences. So, my characters are reflecting their own ‘Black love’ experiences, coming from who they are as characters.

Why was it important to you to write about Black love?
When I was growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, I was really into big glamour fiction — Jackie Collins, Judith Krantz, Danielle Steele (though she wasn’t sexy enough for me). But Black people were never in those stories unless it was as a hooker or something. When I read these books, I would cast Black characters in my head. But we shouldn’t be thinking of the Black version of white people when we’re reading — we should have our own Black originals. It was always a personal goal of mine to write those high-stakes, epic, iconic love stories.

Q: Your new book takes readers back to the 1920s. Your novels feature joy and lightness, but any time you bring in American history, it’s also hard to disconnect from the brutal historical realities for Black people. How did you balance that in your writing?

Most of A Love Song For Ricki Wilde takes place in modern Harlem, but there is a Harlem Renaissance component, as well — a mystery that pops off during the 1920s that reverberates in the present. I do some flashbacks so the reader understands what happened. So, yes, in writing about Black people in the 1920s, there’s no way to really get around the reality of how America was treating us at that time. But America doesn’t treat Black people well today either. So, the way I look at it is, yes, give the historical context, but people have always been people. The reality of being Black in America has always been scary, but that’s not what I want to focus on. My job is not to over-explain the horrors of Jim Crow; that’s for white people to own. Instead, I want to focus on how we were going about living and loving, despite the horrors being thrust upon us. I want to focus on our humanity because that hasn’t been done enough.

Q: I loved how you brought modern Harlem alive, too, which has long been an enclave for Black folks (and the place I’ve called home for 16 years). What inspired you to choose the backdrop?

One of my biggest inspirations was Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns. Ezra, my male protagonist, was borne from reading that book a thousand times. I’ve always been moved by the stories of Black people moving from the South to the north during the Great Migration, which was really moving from the old country to the new country. For some people, it was the first time they’d seen electricity, or the first time they’d worn shoes. Giving up everything you knew, the land, the vast expanse, the sun, the smells, the weather, all of it — that bravery really inspired me. And also the Harlem Renaissance, in general. All those luminaries, icons, artists, writers, designers, architects, and philosophers moved the needle in an outrageous way.

Q: We’ve been talking about Black love, but in your own life, you met a dashing Dane online in 2018, fell head over heels, and got married in 2020. How does race factor into your relationship?

You know, I’d never dated a white guy until Francesco. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like. What about all the cultural touchstones? Would we know the same music? Did he also watch Love Jones 400 times? Would he understand the bonnet? But learning about his stuff, and his learning about my stuff is, for me at least, an exciting layer of our interracial relationship.

Tia Williams author

Now let’s talk about love in the comments! Does your culture or identity shape how you love? If you want to share your love story, I’m here for that, too. Happy Valentine’s all.

Christine Pride is a writer, book editor and content consultant who lives in Harlem, New York. Her novel, You Were Always Mine, written with Jo Piazza, is out now.

P.S. More Race Matters columns, and where do you feel a cultural belonging?

(Top photo of Christine Pride by Christine Han.)

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