The first category romance to feature Black protagonists appeared in
1980, [when] journalist Elsie B. Washington, writing under the pseudonym of Rosalind Welles, published Entwined Destinies. Believed to be the first-known romance featuring African-American characters written by an African-American author, Entwined Destinies was published under the Dell Candlelight imprint with editor Vivian Stephens. (Gwendolyn Osborne, qtd in Vivanco)
All the same, I was quite intrigued to learn of a category romance with Black protagonists published the following year. In romance author Anne Weale's review of Juliet Flesch's book about Australian romance novels Weale writes that
In Chapter One, the author refers to an anecdote told in The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon. The then head of copy-editing at Mills & Boon was surprised when the editorial director, Alan Boon, said a certain book was the first M & B to have a black hero and heroine. Because their skin colour was not mentioned, she had not realised they were black.
Juliet Flesch writes : 'Sadly, the title of the book is not cited and we do not know whether it was published. It is significant, however, that the racial aspect was evidently not seen by Alan Boon as a bar to publication'.
I can solve this small mystery. Taking its title Blue Days at Sea from Robert Louis Stevenson's poem, the book was first published in 1981. I remember because I wrote it. But the couple on the jacket were a cop-out, neither black nor white. A number of readers twigged that the hero and heroine were black and wrote to me about this innovation, none of them disapprovingly.
Here's the UK cover:
It may have been a "cop-out," but it was better than the cover Harlequin gave it:
It would be interesting to know if Harlequin realised that the hero and heroine were supposed to be Black. It certainly wasn't apparent from the text of the book itself because according to jay Dixon,
Pat Cowley, head of copyediting at Mills & Boon until the early 1980s [...] went back to the text for confirmation. She discovered that, although both protagonists came from Barbados, skin colour as such was never mentioned. (53)
Harlequin were certainly aware of the skin colour of the hero and heroine of Sandra Kitt's Adam and Eva, which they published in 1984. It was their first romance featuring Black protagonists and written by an African-American author:
[Kitt's first published romance, mentioned in this "Time Line of Milestones in African-American Romance" seems to have had White protagonists, though I'm happy to be corrected if I'm wrong about that.]
Dixon, jay. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1990s. London: UCL P, 1999.
Vivanco, Laura. "African-American Romances: A Short History." Teach Me Tonight. 1 Nov. 2006.
Weale, Anne. "Review: From Australia with Love: A History of Modern Australian Popular Romance Novels by Juliet Flesch." Network Review of Books (Perth, Australian Public Intellectual Network). October 2004.