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Romance Writers Of America Was Doing Better With Race — Until A Recent Award Choice

Bethany House

There is a saying a friend with Louisiana roots has about people who keep doing the same thing, even while that keeps yielding less-than-felicitous results. Those people, my friend says, are "stuck on stupid."

Romance Writers of America, the trade organization for writers specializing in the romance genre, must be feeling that way right about now. After a stretch of racial reckoning over the organization's lack of diversity in both leadership and awardees, RWA reconfigured its board and vowed to do better.

And it has, somewhat. The board is more diverse now than it was. More attention is being paid to writers of color. If the improvements didn't have a rocketlike trajectory, they were moving in the right direction.

And the Vivian Award goes to ...

And then came this year's inaugural Vivian awards. The Vivians (formerly known as the RITAs) are, according to RWA, "the highest award of distinction in romance fiction" in several categories. Past recipients include bestsellers Nora Roberts and Susan Elizabeth Phillips. And while no Black author won a RITA until Kennedy Ryan in 2019 (the last year the prize was awarded before the name was retired), two prominent Black authors — historical romance writer Beverly Jenkins and contemporary romance writer Brenda Jackson — have each received a coveted Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award (in 2017 and 2012, respectively).

This year, the Vivian in the "Romance with Religious or Spiritual Elements" category was awarded to Karen Witemeyer for At Love's Command, and a number of its critics thought RWA was Stuck on Stupid again. Witemeyer's book, says Religion News Service, "opens with a depiction of the Wounded Knee Massacre that some readers and authors have criticized as romanticizing the killing of Native Americans." The love interest, an officer in the 7th Cavalry, commands the Lakota Sioux to put down their weapons, citing Scripture as his rationale. When a religious leader from the tribe begins chanting, a shot goes off (on purpose? by accident? from whose side?), the order to fire is issued and scores of men, women and children are slaughtered. Then the hero asks God's forgiveness and, eventually, claims his woman.

Critics say the choice glorifies genocide

The irony of the choice did not escape several who took to social media to protest: On Twitter, author Jenny Hartwell shared an email she sent to RWA board members: "Romances have flawed heroes and heroines who find redemption through the transformative power of love. However, aren't there some people who shouldn't be redeemed? Nazis. Slave owners. Soldiers who commit genocide." Hartwell continued: "Can this author write this story? Absolutely. Free speech is important. But should our organization give this story its highest award? Absolutely not."

Can this author write this story? Absolutely. Free speech is important. But should our organization give this story its highest award? Absolutely not.

Others resigned their membership in RWA. One member, Bronwyn Parry, served as a judge for the Vivians. "I had high hopes for the VIVIAN award and the strategies for cultural change that the RWA Board have put in place over the past two years," Parry said in a statement on her website. She expressed pleasure at the diversity of the offerings in the category she was judging — a stated goal of the awards — but was dismayed when all the finalists in that category were (including her) white women writing heterosexual characters. When At Love's Command was named a winner, she asked that her book be withdrawn from final consideration and her name removed from the finalists' list.

The Vivians were in fact named for RWA founder Vivian L. Stephens, an African American with publishing experience who founded romance lines for Dell in the late 1970s and Harlequin in the early 1980s that aimed to reflect all of America. That one of the current awards honoring Stephens' work should be bestowed on a romance that begins with the shedding of Indigenous blood (and in a year in which the revelations of hundreds of Indigenous deaths in Canada and some in the U.S. at so-called Indian boarding schools have shocked North America) — it's almost too much for some.

RWA rescinds the award ... but what's next?

After a few days of controversy, RWA rescinded the Vivian for At Love's Command. "RWA is in full support of First Amendment rights," said the organization in a statement; "however, as an organization that continually strives to improve our support of marginalized authors, we cannot in good conscience uphold the decision of the judges in voting to celebrate a book that depicts the inhumane treatment of indigenous people and romanticizes real world tragedies that still affect people to this day. RWA is rescinding the Vivian awarded to the book finalist 'At Love's Command.' "

As a number of tweets since this latest controversy exploded might indicate, RWA is still pretty stuck. Going forward, RWA's members and others will be watching to see if the organization can pull itself out of that rut.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 6, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote to The Washington Post. The quote is from Religion News Service. Clarification: Author Bronwyn Parry's statement about all award finalists being white women referred specifically to books in the category she was judging.
Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.