Books are one great way to commemorate Black History Month. So, I began the month by reading a novel published nearly 45 years ago. Ann Allen Shockley’s Loving Her was “the first African-American novel written with an explicitly lesbian theme…the first to feature a black lesbian as its protagonist” and “deal explicitly with interracial lesbian love.” *
I’ll begin with these warnings:
- Triggers: bouts of physical and sexual abuse.
- Spoilers: If you plan to read Loving Her, do not read the synopsis on the back cover (or anywhere online). It includes significant details that may limit your reading experience.
Loving Her is about Renay’s physical and emotional journey. Flashes from her childhood help elucidate the story, but the bulk of the story takes place in Renay’s latter twenties. She’s a mother and talented musician that makes ends meet by working at a supper club, where she meets and eventually falls in love with Terry, a wealthy white writer. When Renay decides to leave Jerome, her abusive husband, and live with Terry, her life unfolds in joyous ways. With Terry’s love and support, Renay feels she’s creating the family her young daughter deserves. Before this point in her life, Renay could not separate her needs/desires from norms/roles, which resulted in years of abuse and sexual repression.
Loving Her is set in a nameless year, but based on cultural and historical references the reader can surmise that the story takes place at tail end of the 1960s or early 1970s. When I read older stories, especially those about Black lesbian experiences, I seek out things that remain the same, those things that still affect the livelihood of Black lesbian and queer women today. I also look for those things that time or societal changes have yet to remedy.
Renay and Terry have a seemingly perfect relationship, one where differences in their age, background, race, or class are of no consequence. Renay was reared in a poor and rural Kentucky town and is aware of racial politics and cultural differences. Terry is privileged and blind to color and racism. However, Terry is aware of oppression, particularly oppression among her gay and lesbian community. Arguably, Terry may have faced some level of discrimination while living as lesbian. But, her lesbianism does not adversely affect her livelihood. Despite the racial innocence presented in Terry’s character, and the relationship in general, no one born and raised in America lives in a racial vacuum, then or now. And though I feel that Renay and Terry have a symbiotic relationship, I don’t believe it’s possible for two women who were once worlds apart to come together without some level of internal tension, however short-lived, per some aspect of their differences.
In their case, all conflicts are external, but one area of conflict serves as a strength and weakness in the book. Race is only a problem within Renay and Terry’s relationship when interacting with racist people. And through some of these interactions, Shockley conveys the subtleties of racism very well. For example, when Terry first introduces Renay to a male and female friend, both friends say things that expose their biases. And a bit later in the story, a different female friend makes a sexual advance at Renay, which underscores the perceived allure of blackness.
There are blocks of narration that are downright preachy. Some read like commentary on social ills and other like instructions about how to achieve race, gender, or sexual equality. The preachy tone is especially heavy-handed in Jerome’s characterization. He’s a bruised Black man who blames his woes on his wife and “The Man,” two sources that emasculate and keep him from reaching his potential. At no point does Jerome take responsibility for his actions or the damage he has caused his family. His portrayal, along with the rhetoric about Black men in America, are essentially observations on patriarchy, black masculinity, and Black Nationalism, but feel damning, overbearing, and stereotypical.
Now, I leave behind the novel’s weaknesses to focus on its significance. Loving Her was released in an era when writers masked lesbian experiences in their writing; when the U.S. was rife with social movements; and when the avenues to publishing were largely traditional and limited. Yet, Shockley writes of a young Black woman who finds the resolve to uproot her daughter for an unknown way of life, to leave behind the pretenses of marriage and racial loyalty, to follow her heart.
If you’re a fan of Black lesbian stories, but have yet to read Loving Her, what are you waiting for? Let Black History Month be your impetus. In reading Loving Her, we honor Shockley and other Black/lesbian writers who chose to write boldly about our lives in the mid-70s. And here, writing in the present tense about a story published decades ago serves as a form of living history that bridges then and now, and erases the line between real life and fiction to recognize that aspects of our experiences are ever present.
*Per the foreword and back cover.
Reviewed by: Lauren Cherelle
Lauren Cherelle uses her time and talents to traverse imaginary and professional worlds. She recently penned her sophomore novel, The Dawn of Nia (Resolute Publishing, 2016). Outside of reading and writing, she enjoys new adventures with her partner of fourteen years. You can find Lauren online at Twitter, lcherelle.com, and Goodreads.