Art Imitating Life
The Loving vs. Virginia case of 1967 was a landmark civil rights decision of the United States Supreme Court which overturned laws prohibiting interracial marriage. The result is, as The Time magazine maintains, quoting the latest Census, that “Interracial married couple households grew by 28% from 2000 to 2010, to an all-time high. One of every 10 married couples in the US identified themselves as mixed-race or multi-ethnic.”
This situation has started to be reflected in literature where the couples come to be ethnically as diverse as in the real world. This is also what the readers demand: they want romance novels to mirror life in its ethnic richness. One of the latest branches of the popular genre is interracial romance. One of the pioneering writers has been Beverly Jenkins, an author of 31 African-American historical romances to date, all of them concentrated on 19th-century African-American life. Below I’m compiling a list and summaries of other novels that feature Black and White couples.
1. Another Country (1962) by James Baldwin
The novel, set in the 1950s and '60s America, addresses the themes of love, sex, race, life, death as well as bisexuality, interracial couples and extramarital affairs in the artistic Greenwich Village.
The novel opens with Harlem jazz drummer Rufus Scott adrift in New York. He starts a relationship—first frivolous, later more serious—with Leona, a White woman from the South, and introduces her to his friends. Baldwin masterly paints desire, love, hatred and violence, and the Bohemian underworld sizzling with music and sex.
2. Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston
When Janie Crawford, at sixteen, is caught kissing Johnny, her grandmother quickly marries her off to an old farmer who can provide social status and security for her. She is unhappy until she meets Joe, flirts with him and finally elopes to marry him. Joe becomes an important figure in the town, all-Black Eatonville, yet Janie soon becomes disillusioned with the small life that her husband offers. He sees her in the ornamental role as a mayor’s wife and tries to fit her into his vision.
It will take 20 years for Janie—through the breakup of the second marriage after a traumatic event and a newly found independence—to finally meet Tea Cake, a man twelve years her junior, with whom she will form a combustible pairing.
3. Far from Heaven (2011) by John Gill
The protagonist, Cathy, fulfills the dream of 1950s life: she has a handsome and successful husband, children and social respect. When she discovers that her husband is kissing a man, she increasingly confides in her African-American gardener, Raymond, a charming widower with a business degree. This leads to a socially taboo relationship that shakes her life. The book is a basis for a serious drama directed by Todd Haynes and starring Julianne Moore as Cathy and Dennis Quaid and Dennis Haysbert as her husband and lover respectively.
4. Milk in My Coffee (1998) by Eric Jerome Dickey
Jordan Greene moves from Tennessee to New York City to work on Wall Street and enjoy big city life. When he meets an energetic White girl, an artist Kimberly Chavers, he falls in love with her. Yet before they consider a stable relationship, they must deal with the baggage of the past full of secrets. Apart from that, Jordan and Kimberley must face their families and friends who vehemently oppose their relationship. As the novel was written by a man, it offers a different take on relationships and sexuality, proposing something original in the genre of romantic novels.
5. Americanah (2013) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The protagonist, Ifemelu, is a Nigerian woman who decides to continue her postgraduate studies in Philadelphia where she goes out both with Curt, a White American, and Blaine, a Black American. She shares many insights on both relationships. For the first time in her life, she is also made to struggle with what it means to be Black.
In the meantime, her Nigerian boyfriend, Obinze, has intended to join her but because of the post-9/11 America atmosphere, he goes to London instead. The novel has been described as “a brilliant dissection of modern attitudes to race, spanning three continents and touching on issues of identity, loss and loneliness.”
6. The Time of Our Singing (2002) by Richard Powers
This complex epic novel is a family saga of Jonah, Joseph and Ruth, the children of a German-Jewish physicist and a Black woman with a strong musical background from Philadelphia. They impart their love of music to their musically talented children, yet the world refuses to see them in any other way than through race.
Jonah becomes a tenor described as a “brilliant Negro singer,” Joseph is a pianist and their sister Ruth rejects “white music” and disappears with her husband. The book encompasses important 20th-century historical events, from racism and the civil rights movement to Rodney King and Louis Farrakhan, painting a complex picture of race in America.
7. The Gypsy Moth Summer (2017) by Julia Fierro
The setting of the novel is the summer of 1992 during a gypsy moth invasion on Avalon Island where everything is “spattered with [the] black slime” of caterpillar excrement, and they are found in socks, bras, and ball gowns; there are “swarm[s] of caterpillars slithering across the window” and hands “slick with their gummy remains.” In that summer Leslie Day Marshall, the only daughter of Avalon’s most prominent family, returns with her husband, an African-American botanist, and their bi-racial children to “The Castle,” the island's most magnificent estate.
Maddie falls in love with Brooks, Leslie’s and Jules’ son. Their love and passion grow in that hot thick summer while they meet in the woods and listen to “the cack-cacking of the caterpillars feeding and the patter of chewed-up leaves spat thousands at a time onto the forest floor,” and Maddie starts to plan a life for them off Avalon Island.
8. Meeting of the Waters (2001) by Kim McLarin
Lenora Page, a Black reporter, rescues another reporter, Porter Stockman from an assailant during the riots following the beating of Rodney King they’re investigating. A few weeks later Lenora and Porter meet again when she accepts a job on the Record, Porter's paper. Lenora was born in Baltimore, and she does not respect White people, blaming them for the problems that the African-American community has. She only goes to Black-owned businesses and goes out with Black men. Yet attracted to each other, Lenora and Porter are made to rework their prejudices, fears and assumptions before they can have a successful relationship.
9. Caucasia (1998) by Danzy Senna
The novel is set in 1970s Boston and the protagonists are Birdie and Cole, the daughters of a White mother and a Black father in 1970s Boston. The girls are very close and they even invent their own language. However, as their skin colour differs, the world treats Birdie as White and Cole as Black. When their parents’ marriage collapses, Cole stays with her father and his new Black girlfriend while Birdie stays with her mother who becomes very active in the civil rights movement.
The sisters become separated when the father takes Cole to Brazil hoping for racial equality. Cole and her mother are investigated by the Feds and so they need to flee. The novel addresses the issue of the compromises you need to make to be accepted, the significance of personal identity, and the import of the color of one’s skin in a racialized society.
10. Whitegirl (2002) by Kate Manning
The novel was written in the aftermath of the OJ Simpson murder trial in the 1990s. At the beginning of the novel a 35-year-old White woman Charlotte recovers from a brutal assault, isolated in her home overlooking the Pacific, while her husband Milo, a famous Black actor, is in prison for the crime. Charlotte is not certain whether Milo is guilty as she does not remember anything of the assault.
She goes over Milo's and her relationship, trying to dissect it. She reflects on their marriage and how it became tense—Milo’s growing celebrity as an actor and her isolation from him as she sacrificed her successful career as a model to motherhood. Simultaneously, she tries to hold on to her conviction that race doesn’t matter: “Milo is black, what they call 'Black', only not to me. To me he has mostly been just Milo. […] So no, until this happened, up to the time of the assault, he was not black, not to me. He was Milo. He was my husband.”
11. In the Fall (2000) by Jeffrey Lent
The novel is set in post-Civil War America, spanning from the post-Civil War era to the beginning of the Great Depression and covering the lives of three generations. The story begins with an interracial marriage between a wounded Union soldier Norman and a runaway slave girl Leah who takes care of him. Norman takes Leah home and they get married. However, Leah’s escape from her owner after a terrible event haunts her for the next 25 years until she decides to go back.
The story is accompanied by beautifully written accounts of soldiers coming home from the war, whiskey-running and bootlegging in the New Hampshire mountains in the 1920s, and making cider in Vermont.
12. No Time Like the Present (2012) by Nadine Gordimer
In this novel about post-apartheid South Africa, protagonists Steve and Jabulile are an interracial couple who fell in love when their relationship was illegal. After apartheid ends in the early 1990s, they can finally take up a respectable role in society. Steve becomes a lecturer at a local university and Jabulile trains to become a lawyer; they have two children. Now they face more down-to-earth problems of middle-class life: what career to follow, where to live, how many children to have, etc. The author manages not to present these issues as shallow but as an important part of the protagonists’ struggle to navigate their post-apartheid lives.
13. Windy City Blues (2017) by Renee Rosen
The setting is 1960s Chicago and its love affair with blues. Chess Records founded by the Chess brothers contributed to the development of the Chicago Blues, the soundtrack for the revolutionary era in American History. Leeba Groski, a child of Polish immigrants, works for Chess Records as a secretary, yet when Leonard Chess hears her passionate piano playing, he offers her a different kind of job.
She starts to hang out with great performers, such as Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Howlin Wolf and Etta James, and she falls in love with a Black blues guitarist, Red Dupree. Their relationship is difficult both because of the segregated Chicago and Leeba's Orthodox Jewish family. However, Leeba and Red do not give up easily, and apart from their love of music, it is also acting in the Civil Rights Movement that binds them together.
14. Man Gone Down (2007) by Michael Thomas
The novel’s unnamed narrator is a Boston-bred African-American living in Brooklyn. Although he can boast Harvard education, he is currently without a job, and struggling to write. His White wife gives him a four-day ultimatum during which she wants him to come up with a plan. Completely broke, he needs to find money to rent an apartment and pay his three children’s private school tuition so that his wife and children could get back from their grandmother’s house where they are forced to spend the summer. The novel covers these four days, yet it also seamlessly blends flashbacks referring to the protagonist’s past. Will he be able to rise from that fall?
15. Don't the Moon Look Lonesome (2000) by Stanley Crouch
Carla Hamsun is a New York jazz singer who is in love with Maxwell Davis, a Black tenor saxophonist. The book opens with the couple on their way to Houston to meet his parents for the first time. Maxwell is hesitant in their relationship, giving in under the pressure of Black people who are against such unions. In contrast, Carla is certain that it is the love of her life, so she is unwavering in her fight for Maxwell.
The story is told in the third person through Carla’s consciousness in a non-linear way by means of such techniques as a stream of consciousness, flashbacks and nesting one recollection within another.
16. A Ship Made Of Paper (2004) by Scott Spencer
After a traumatic incident of violence in New York, Daniel Emerson has returned to the town where he grew up with his girlfriend Kate and her daughter, Ruby. Kate is a fiction writer but currently, she is obsessed with the O.J. Simpson trial instead of working, and she also starts drinking.
In the meantime, Daniel falls in love with Iris Davenport, an African-American grad student at the local university who is a married woman. This affair takes its toll on the lives of the four people and their children. The reader is given access to both Daniel’s and Iris’s points of view and the ultimate question is: was it worth it?
17. I'll Take You There (2003) by Joyce Carol Oates
Anellia is a young student in 1960s America. She spends her time reading Kant, Democritus and Spinoza and looking critically at the men visiting her “sisters” at the sorority house she joins. She falls passionately in love with Vernor Matheius, a brilliant Black philosophy student who only has two types of mood, "the Inspired and the Shitty" and spends his time in his mind, isolated from other people and the civil rights movement. Anellia wants to be like him but she does not succeed. But the biggest surprise awaits her from her dead father.
18. Until I Saw Your Smile (2014) by J.J. Murray
Angela Smith is a beautiful woman of a mixed heritage of Black, Dominican and Haitian who owns Smith's Sweet Treats and Coffee in Brooklyn. Her café is frequented by Matthew McConnell who suffers a professional demotion: after a serious trial he’s now an Internet Lawyer. Additionally, his every date is a failure. As he is attracted by women of mixed heritage, he is also drawn to Angela. He tells her the stories of his unsuccessful conquests which she finds hilarious. He offers her a business deal to help her stay afloat in her café. And when the traumatic secret from Angela’s past is revealed, he has another chance to help.
19. The Color of Secrets (2015) by Lindsay Ashford
After Eva receives the news that her husband is missing and presumed dead during the Second World War, she lives in limbo, awaiting more concrete news. In the summer of 1943 she meets Bill, a Black American, part of a regiment of Gls. They are fascinated by each other and start an illicit relationship. After Eva discovers that she is pregnant, Bill must join the D-day fight, leaving her alone. When her daughter Louisa grows up, she is determined to uncover her mother’s secret while Eva is equally determined to keep it safe.
20. Everything, Everything (2015) by Nicola Yoon
The story revolves around a young girl Madeline Whitter, half Black and half Japanese, who is allergic to the world, literally, as she suffers from a rare disease called SCID (Severe Combined Immunodeficiency). Never leaving her home, the girl spends her whole life inside with a mother traumatized by the accident in which both her husband and son died. After Madeline’s 18th birthday a new family moves in next door with a mesmerizing son, a Caucasian Olly. They start to talk over IM and grow close, yet they cannot be together because of Madeline’s illness. Olly encourages her to break the bubble in which she lives.