a romance writer for the history books

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Dana Jackson, who writes under the pseudonym Elle Jackson. // Photo by Alexis Gian

Kansas City has another feather in its hat: One of our own became the first black author in the Harlequin Historical romance series.

While Harlequin has published contemporary stories by black authors over the years, the Historical series has been the domain of white authors since its launch in 1988. 1,604 paperbacks later, Harlequin published A blues singer to redeem him by Elle Jackson, the pen name of Dana Jackson, in August of this year.

Jackson, of Kansas City, KS, didn’t expect to be the first black to write for this series.

“I was amazed, I couldn’t believe it at first. This is surely not true! Jackson said. “I know it’s changing, but damn it’s 2021.”

As a kid who loved to read, Jackson discovered that there weren’t many stories with people like him, who shared his experiences.

“It was one of the main reasons I wanted to become a writer,” she says. “I was determined to add to the diversity of literature.”

And now she has contributed to Harlequin’s massively read publication with A blues singer to redeem him, a love story set in Kansas City in the 1920s. The novel features a black blues singer who survived the Tulsa massacre and an Italian from a popular family that owns a club.

Jackson was inspired to write about Prohibition-era Kansas City after a tour of Tom’s Town Distilling Co. where they discussed the history of that era. During her research, she learned of the Tulsa Race Massacre that occurred in 1921, in which whites burned, bombed, and slaughtered blacks in the wealthy Greenwood District.

“Honestly, it was a shock to my system to learn of the Tulsa Massacre as an adult,” Jackson said.

Many people still ignore this violent act of white supremacy, thanks to its exclusion from school curricula. One hundred years after the massacre, it remains exactly as Jackson’s character, Evelyn, says in the book, “It’s like this never happened. No one has ever been prosecuted for the murders or the destruction. The newspapers reported only briefly, then nothing. It’s like Greenwood never existed, like we Never existed. “

The cover of A Blues Singer to Redeem Him

The cover of A Blues Singer to Redeem Him

Jackson seeks to honor the survivors by portraying their stories in fiction. To tell their stories appropriately, you cannot leave violence aside. While this book still gives us the feel-good finale guaranteed by the happy ending assured romance novels (or HEA), the violence, fear, and trauma the book deals with sets it apart from your average mellow romance.

The book opens during the Tulsa Massacre, and the first sentence gets straight to the point: “Evelyn Laroque had never felt human flesh burn. Jackson doesn’t explore sweet and simple romantic relationships free from real-life obstacles. She enjoys telling the story of the very real violence black people faced in the 1920s – and in many ways continues to face today.

“My publisher repelled the violence from my book, so I had to take some of it out,” says Jackson. “So what’s left is actually a tame version of what I originally wrote. People are like, “Elle Jackson doesn’t shy away from the horror of this era,” and I think it’s funny, like you should have read the previous version. [Spoilers are coming!]

In the face of violence, the heroine of the book stands firm. When kidnapped by Klan men and at risk of being raped, “She grabbed the knife attached to her thigh… She would fight and they would be forced to kill her.” It would be an admirable death.

While the hero of the book, Lorenzo, has patriarchal inclinations to save and protect Evelyn, she makes it clear that she doesn’t need him to do so. When Lorenzo tries to make decisions for him, she says, “I’m just tired of men who think they can dictate what to do and what not to do. “

Evelyn is a survivor who takes care of herself and finally finds the pleasure and safety she deserves.

Trauma can affect a sense of security with others when what can be most healing is connection with others. Feeling safe with someone after a traumatic event is a powerful feeling. Jackson talks about it.

“When [Evelyn] allowed herself to take care of someone – which was extremely difficult to do given what had happened to her friends and family in Greenwood – she couldn’t just pretend there was nothing in between them.

As she struggles to deal with her growing feelings for Lorenzo, Evelyn also seizes the opportunities for pleasure with open arms.

“It didn’t have to mean anything” A blues singer bed. “She had grown up and she could have fun with a nice man without it having to mean anything. She hated the way women had this unrealistic expectation of being prudish. Getting married was not something she had always wanted. She just wanted to be able to take care of her grandmother and sing.

Seeing Evelyn seeking pleasure, joy, and care is powerful as we live in a society that judges and berates black women for having fun and enjoying their lives. After a sexual encounter between Evelyn and Lorenzo, the novel reads: “After all that life had thrown at her, she deserved to have this pleasure.”

Still, there were significant obstacles in the face of Evelyn and Lorenzo’s love; At that time, interbreeding – or race relations – was illegal in the United States. The consequences of violating anti-miscegenation laws were more severe for Evelyn as a black woman than for Lorenzo, a white man. Evelyn’s grandmother even warns Lorenzo about the danger of being in an interracial relationship.

“[Evelyn] I wish there was a world where they could have feelings for each other and not commit a crime, ”the novel reads. “Evelyn had to follow the rules. Most of the time, her life depended on doing the right thing and not getting caught up in situations where she could be charged with a crime. “

Dana Jackson.  // Photo by Alexis Gian 3

Dana Jackson. // Photo by Alexis Gian

Placing interracial romance at the heart of this story has always been part of Jackson’s plan.

“Black women in society have the end of the stick,” she says. “I just wanted to showcase black women as a beauty. It’s a love story, and black women are considered beautiful by all races.

The book loses some of its nuance by discussing the racism of the time in its portrayal of the KKK as backward foreigners. At one point it is written: “Lorenzo’s family… now controlled the city’s politicians, police and transportation, but the KKK was a bunch of ignorant idiots who clearly had a death wish. It is strange to read this sentence which suggests that politicians, police and lawmakers are distinct from hooded white supremacists, when this has not been the case historically.

While the Kansas City politics in the book diverge from our actual history, Jackson is not writing a textbook here. She is a romance writer who seeks to tell the story of an empowered black woman who opens up to love after trauma.

A former editor, however, insisted that Jackson’s work is primarily aimed at “black audiences.” This was not what Jackson was aiming for.

“I was like… why?” Jackson asks. “She said to me, ‘mainly, only black people are going to read your books.’ Okay, okay, that’s gonna be a problem for me, you think about that. Because I don’t write dark stories. I just write stories.

She adds: “It took me forever to even publish my writing, I was just afraid it wasn’t good enough and people weren’t going to read it because I’m a black author and they think black writers cannot write. “

For Jackson, there is added pressure to come out of the gate with a solid start.

“You feel like you can’t just be good, you have to be the best,” she says. “And if you’re not, they’re going to say, ‘Yeah, you see, that’s why we don’t have black authors.’ Not that Harlequin would do that at all, but I’m afraid that if my book doesn’t do very well, the other black authors won’t stand a chance.

Jackson’s job is not easy. The “historical” element in “Historical Romance” is an incredibly complicated subject. How do you wrap hundreds of years of oppression as the foundation of a love story? For a truly impossible task, Jackson fired the first salvo in a long-overdue series to cover issues he might fear solving.

Elle Jackson makes both history and manufacturing the story.

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