One of the first romance novels I ever read, in addition to Julie Garwood’s The Lion’s Lady, was Silver Angel by Johanna Lindsay. One of the most painful things I have ever experienced and continue to experience to this day is the way Black women are portrayed as minor characters and stepping stones to white heroines in romance and beyond. I’ll never forget the African princess in Silver Angel. She is sentenced to mass rape by the palace guards when she spits in the sheik’s face for opening her clothes and feeling her breasts when she is brought in to be “sampled” for his harem, like a slave on an auction block or a piece of meat at the market or a cow to be bought. Maybe she was sold to the sheik by her own people or kidnapped—who knows. All I remember experiencing, in her brief appearance, was this feeling of complete and utter worthlessness, that people can do anything to Black women and no one cares.
I suppose I should have felt happy that the kidnapped white girl heroine traded her own freedom in order to save the African princess from such a fate. Now all I think, sarcastically, is this: “Oh, didn’t the white girl look so noble, saving the African princess like that—kudos for her. Oh and look! She got seduced and found a husband in the process (though she was never in any real danger because he wasn’t going to let anything happen to her anyway)!”. (I feel like I can’t even properly explain the whole thing without talking about the white characters for the background story. The guy in the story is part-Arab, of course *rolls eyes*, and his twin brother is a sheik while he himself is a nobleman in England. He has to pose for his brother for a while because there’s some danger and encounters an English woman who has been sold to the sheik as a concubine. The African princess is encountered when he has to choose women for himself from among the new meat, so that he’s not touching his brother’s women.)
It’s not so much an issue of white writers being deliberately cruel. I view them as willfully ignorant, but the real issue is the fact that Black women/people are minorities in representation and in influence/power and/or they’re tokenized in white people’s writing.
This is a very painful experience for me, one that I live with every time I crack open a book, and I had a hard time writing this down. It is something I experience again and again, reading works from white writers where people of color are mostly exotified, eroticized, brutalized, and only appear as minor characters if they appear at all. People of color are the splash of brightness, the background for white writers to prop up or paint their imaginations onto. Mostly, we’re just props to them.
Reading work from writers of my own race, on the other hand, is different challenge in and of itself along with everything else.