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The Lack of Black Characters in Time-Travel Romance

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Jessica Pryde

Contributing Editor

Jessica Pryde is a member of that (some might call) rare breed that grew up in Washington, DC, but is happily enjoying the warmer weather of the desert Southwest. While she is still working on what she wants to be when she grows up, she’s enjoying dabbling in librarianship and writing all the things. She can be found drowning in her ever-growing TBR and exclaiming about romance in the Book Riot podcast (When in Romance), as well as on social media. Find her exclamations about books and pho on twitter (JessIsReading) and instagram (jess_is_reading).

I have read a couple magnificent books with a time-travel theme by black authors. These books were excellent works of fiction; they were also heart-wrenching and terrible. One was Kindred, Octavia Butler’s masterwork of speculative fiction; the other was A Wish After Midnight, Zetta Elliott’s similarly well-crafted trip to the past. They approach a modern black woman’s existence in the Antebellum US in different ways, but they similarly show the terrors that both free and enslaved people experienced every minute of every day. Even in those times when they thought themselves safe, they knew from their own understanding of history that they weren’t. These books are well thought out, well researched, and thought-provoking.

What neither of these works can even come close to considering itself is happy.

And if there is one thing to know about me, it’s that I like happy. It’s why I read romance. In romance, I am guaranteed a happy ending. It doesn’t have to be a happily ever after; I am all about the happy-for-now stories. But the definite conclusion of any romance is that things end well for the characters for whom readers are cheering.

Do you know what I also love to read? Time-travel stories. And when a romance features a time-travel element? Top notch.

But there is a dearth of time-travel romance featuring characters of color, and especially black characters. Once I realized the lack in a recent scrollthrough of time-travel romance, I can’t say I was surprised.

Time-travel romance is about one or more people exploring another world, another time. A protagonist might be sent back in time, or one might come forward to the present. The end-goal is finding your soulmate, no matter where or when they might be.

Historically, black people don’t have that luxury.

There is no time, no place, that is safe and fun for us to travel to, soulmate or no.

There’s no safety. No good place. Soulmates? :shrug emoji:

Regardless of the sheer amount of Regency and Victorian British romances, the majority of romance authors read in the United States are American authors. When we look to our own history in the past four hundred years, what space in time is one any of us would want to travel to?

Sure, love overcomes all obstacles, and all that. And perhaps bringing someone forward in order to change their point of view, or to give them hope, is a modern hero of any gender’s dream.

But in general, time travel would not be kind to any of us. Sure, we’d have to deal with the same culture shock as our white fellows—dealing with the lack of indoor toilets, voting rights, and good Vietnamese food—but there would also be the constant fear of violence to our bodies and the casual, deliberate institutional racism that we were only recently even allowed to consider a national wrongdoing. Even speaking out against it in some parts of the country could lead to death, both for the protagonist and their soulmate, no matter what color they might be. A modern voice in the past might give a couple people pause, or even hope, but it’s more likely to cause distress.

I can’t help but think of Captain America: Man Out of Time, where Steve Rogers goes back to the 40s after living in the 21st century, and says some things to a little black boy that angers the boy’s father. Don’t say things that can’t actually happen, is the gist of what he says; don’t make us hope. Don’t make us wish. As people with four hundred years of terror, we might be able to look historically and see how far we’ve come. But we also know how far we’ve still to go, and nothing besides real change is going to make us believe that it’s going to happen. When we know what it feels like to be afraid and hopeless in our present, what would it feel like to be surrounded by our ancestors, knowing that it’ll get worse before it’s better?

Don’t get me wrong: I love historical fiction. I particularly love reading the stories of people enduring hardship and falling in love. Beverly Jenkins’ Reconstruction-era romances, including Destiny’s Embrace and countless others, feature black people enjoying the period of growth and resilience in the years after the Civil War. Alyssa Cole’s stories of love in the time of conflict, like Let it Shine, are brief but powerful. Neither author (nor those other authors of color writing about our people in the past) shies away from the issues that caused fear in the hearts of the people who lived in those times and terrifies those of us without the resilience to bear the times before our own.

But in this day and age, when romance is one of our last escapes into our own version of puppies and rainbows (no matter how dark or angsty), why would we want to read or write ourselves into such an experience?

A happy ending is hard enough without the wibbly wobbly stuff.