Beverly Jenkins, Author: Love, Romance, and the Power of the Past
When Beverly Jenkins first started writing romance and women's fiction, she intended to have an audience of one -- herself. Thirty-one books later, Jenkins is known for introducing readers to little known histories of African-Americans in the 19th century amid tales of complicated and strong heroines and the men who they grow to love.
While her books are set in a variety of places -- from a small town in Kansas named after Henry Adams (a former slave and solider who testified in front of Congress on black migration), to the plains of Oklahoma or frontier towns in California -- Jenkins emphasizes that history is not just window dressing but rather an integral part of the narrative.
And she's being recognized for that work: In 2013, Jenkins was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Literature.
This past February during a preview event at the Library of Congress, I learned about Jenkins' commitment to history in a forthcoming documentary on the romance industry called "Love Between the Covers." The documentary follows Jenkins on a tour of historic Charleston where some of her readers and fans describe the power place has in connecting them to history, including how Jenkins' books facilitated that connection.
Following the preview, I reached out to Jenkins to learn more about her work and connection to history. Here’s what she shared.
Many of your books take the time to provide not only a physical setting for the story but also the historical setting, sometimes dealing with eras where African-American history is rarely included. Why is this important to you?
Setting my books where I do and why is tied to re-stitching the pieces of the American history quilt that have been left out. Weaving those facts into a great story gives me the opportunity to reach readers in ways that they appreciate and retain with no threat of a test on Friday. I place my stories where African-Americans actually walked and include a bibliography for readers who may wish to do more research on the highlighted topics.
What perspectives do you find yourself attracted to when you write? What draws you to a particular time period or place?
I’m attracted to the history first and foremost -- whether it’s the Buffalo Soldiers, the African-American female doctors of the 19th century, the African-American contributions to the American Revolution, or the Battle of the Little Big Horn as told through the oral tradition of the Cheyenne people.
I’m particularly drawn to 19th-century African-American history because of its bittersweet legacy. On one hand you have the remarkable strides made during Reconstruction with the schools that were built, the unprecedented numbers of black men in Congress, the hope freedom instilled.
But as Reconstruction died and the Redemptionists took over the south, those gains were eroded; thousands of people lost their lives, and Jim Crow became the law of the land. Yet the race hunkered down and continued to strive.
Without my ancestors’ determination and perseverance I definitely wouldn’t be here today. My work stands on the shoulders of those incredibly brave and inventive individuals.
In the forthcoming film "Love Between the Covers," you describe leading groups on trips to the historic places where your novels are set. Tell me about some of those trips.
The trip to Charleston, South Carolina, highlighted in the film was a gathering I put together to celebrate my 60th birthday. On a trip with a different group of writers and readers, we visited Savannah and took a special African-American tour of the city and its environs. [The tour was] designed by Dr. Deborah Mack who is currently on the staff of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Dr. Mack also arranged for us to tour the Owens-Thomas house to see how urban slaves lived and worked, as well as Penn Center on St. Helena Island, the first African-American site in South Carolina whose primary purpose was to safeguard the heritage of a Gullah Geechee community. And of course, one can’t go to Savannah and not visit First African Baptist church. The structure’s very bricks ooze history.
On [similar trips] we’ve taken a boat ride out to Ossabaw Island to view the remains of the plantations there, and to Hilton Head Island in South Carolina to see the remains and revitalization efforts tied to Mitchellville and take the Gullah tour.
A decade ago, I went out to Oklahoma and took the Black Towns tour, and visited Allensworth, the first black community in California. These are all places where African-Americans lived and walked. The visits are an immense help with my work.
In the author’s note section of your novel “Midnight,” you state, “Knowledge is Power, but shared knowledge empowers us all.” Can you expand on this? How does writing about the past help spread this knowledge?
Knowledge is power, but when you share that knowledge it empowers all. [For] example, Black History Month. The way it’s taught in schools one would think there were maybe only six people in African-American history. But because of my books my readers have taken the history they’ve found in them and empowered their children and grandchildren to embrace that history. The kids and grandkids are turning in reports on the Buffalo soldiers, Deputy Sheriff Bass Reeves, Dr. Caroline Still Andersen, Sissieretta Jones (the first black woman to sing at Carnegie Hall), the Light Horse Police of Indian Territory, The Rufus Buck Gang, etc.
Children of color need to know that people of African descent were more than slaves in this country. They need to know that they have a history that is both heroic and inspiring, that we fought in wars from the French and Indian Wars to Iraq, that we were inventors, that men like Dr. Charles Drew changed the face of medicine not only here but internationally. It saddens me to know that so much of the race’s history remains unheralded.
Finally … are there any other authors that write historical fiction that you like? And what's your favorite book that you wrote?
I really admire the work of Jewel Parker Rhodes. Her book “Douglass’s Women” is outstanding. If I had to choose just one [of my books], I’d choose “Topaz” for its accessibility, sweeping historical scope, character depth, and laugh-out-loud moments. The plot and love story are outstanding as well. ;)