“This was no love story,” Nikky Finney cautions us in “Pluck.”
The poem from her 1995 collection, Rice, is a repudiation of Hollywood’s insidious fantasies about sex and American slavery. Prompted by the television miniseries Alex Haley’s Queen, Finney grapples with the way in which sexual relations between white male slave-owners and enslaved black women are often depicted as a melodrama of mutual consent. Instead, Finney’s poem maintains, such relationships should be viewed as nothing less than sexual assault. Each verse of “Pluck” accelerates with unequivocal refusals, every no from Finney’s speaker insists that this is a sacred past not to be used for entertainment: “Slavery was no opera / soaped or staged / was no historical moment / when African women conceived children / out of love for white men.” Finney demands we recognize what we lose when we take part in such harmful fictions.
But her poem also reveals a deep anxiety about how art should represent interracial intimacy. Is it even possible to write about love between white people and black people in the antebellum period, given the complex realities of slavery and oppression?
Romance writer Alyssa Cole takes up this very question in her most recent novel, An Extraordinary Union. As with all of her work, Cole highlights female agency, desire, and vulnerability in the midst of intersectional trauma. She assembles the narrative elements of the romance genre around frank interrogations of love that cut across controversial racial and ethnic boundaries. Cole’s historical romances are at their best when imagining the interior lives of black women protagonists who are driven by both pleasure and pluck.
Consider Kate, the Middle Passage survivor in the Revolutionary War romance, Be Not Afraid. Haunted by irreparable loss, she has no loyalty to the Colonies or to her new Anglicized name; her fugitive body still bears the stretch marks of the child she birthed and later lost to the river during her escape North. Kate agrees to work for the British army with the hope of being granted liberty. But Cole is more concerned with the unsanctioned freedoms that her protagonist claims for herself over the course of the narrative. These are expressed most fully through Kate’s sexual attraction to the traitorous black Continental soldier, Elijah. “Her master often told his slaves he loved them,” she reflects. “He told them as they toiled in the field, and when he lashed them ‘for their own good.’ And that’s what he’d told her when he pulled her out of the slave quarters in the middle of the night and lifted her tattered skirts—everything Kate knew of ‘love’ made her wish to never hear the word again.” In place of the brutality of this so-called love, the story champions the heroine’s authentic embrace of her own desire. She dares to ask herself: “What would it be like to be loved by a man like Elijah Sutton?”
“For men like him, an infatuation with a black woman would be seen as a lark. But the ways it could ruin her were endless.”
Cole’s work is indebted to writer Beverly Jenkins, who has published over two dozen novels that have set the standard for historical romances with African American heroines during the post-Emancipation and Reconstruction period. Jenkins’ well-researched narratives strive to reclaim the inherent dignity of formerly enslaved women—from the Kansas schoolteacher to the New Orleans madam—through romantic trysts that are ultimately sanctioned by the all-black enclaves where the novels take place. It is within these insulated settings that black women can risk taking part in what Conseula Francis has called the “pleasures of vulnerability.” In her presentation to the 2013 conference on “Unleashing the Black Erotic” at the College of Charleston, Francis described such pleasures as “the result of true intimacy, of two people baring their souls to and for each other.”
While Jenkins’ historical romances emphasize mutual attraction within black communities, Cole takes a different path to happy-ever-after in An Extraordinary Union, through an interracial pairing. Elle Burns poses as a mute, enslaved woman for an elite Richmond family in order to spy for the Union during the Civil War. Her mission becomes more complicated once she discovers that her partner, a white man named Malcolm McCall, is acting undercover as a Confederate soldier. The awkwardness of their early interactions gives way to curiosity and friendship as they gather information. The narrative also sheds light on Malcolm’s perspective as an immigrant whose traumatic childhood in Scotland leads him to treat the privileges of whiteness with a critical eye. Still, Elle remains guarded, and Cole expertly articulates the messiness of her desire and doubt: “For men like him, an infatuation with a black woman would be seen as a lark. But the ways it could ruin her were endless.”
Their illicit attraction also generates a crisis of identity for Elle as a former slave. After their first night together, she insists: “We shouldn’t have done that. But it made me feel good. You made me feel good. What does that make me?” As more of Elle’s associates suspect that she and Malcolm are together, she fears that what they have will always be too fragile, or, even worse, that she has unwittingly acquiesced to a preordained narrative of sexual exploitation and shame. In these moments, Cole’s novel enters into a vital dialogue with the sentiments expressed in Finney’s “Pluck.” Elle embodies that same iron-willed refusal to be reduced to type, that longing for others to look close and see what the poem describes as “the god the grand the good in me.”
Empathy Is Not Enough
Given the strict roles that black women are expected to follow in order to be considered virtuous, sufficiently modest, and responsible, it is telling that many of Cole’s protagonists are performers. A Harlem cabaret owner takes center stage in Let Us Dream, while in Let it Shine the heroine is a dutiful student who sings in the choir. The discomfort the characters express with playing these roles speaks to a deeper critique of the limitations of respectability politics. Cole is particularly explicit about leaving the tensions between her black female protagonists and their disapproving families and communities largely unresolved. In a departure from other African American romance writers like Jenkins or Brenda Jackson, Cole’s heroines are content to remain outsiders. Each defines herself in opposition to the status quo, even after all the immediate obstacles to her relationship with the hero have been overcome.
In An Extraordinary Union, for instance, the demeaning position that Elle must take to eavesdrop in the master’s house repeatedly brings back memories of her years as a girl on the anti-slavery circuit where she was once compelled to showcase her eidetic memory by reciting classical works. For her there is little distinction between being “a creature on display,” whether she is raising money for abolitionists or for slave traders. At one point, she bitterly calls herself “the Venus Hottentot of the abolitionist crowd,” in reference to Saartjie Baartman, the South African woman whose physique was exhibited as a circus attraction across Europe in the early 19th century.
Elle’s powerful analogy to Baartman marks her refusal to be fetishized in service of any cause, even if it means alienating the people who claim to have her best interest at heart. Yet Cole also takes advantage of the historical romance genre to demonstrate that, as Francis has stated, “the lives of black women are made up of more than pain, suffering, and grief.” She imagines a path for the heroine’s personal fulfillment across enemy lines, one that also rewards readers with the rare pleasures of vulnerability: not as victimization, but as a rebuke to despair.