Race Relations

Is everybody in the world sick with the flu? Or does it only seem like that?

Anyhoo, when our house hasn’t been running through tissues like a bunch of softies watching Terms of Endearment, I’ve been revising my super-racy, not-quite-erotic novella. It takes place in Paris in 1831, and its hero is a Free Person of Color.

The first inspiration for him was Barbara Hambly‘s Benjamin January, a free man of color in New Orleans around the same era. January spent many years in Paris, enjoying freedoms unknown to persons of color in America. But in figuring out how my guy ended up in France, I had to research how persons of color became freed in the slave era. Like January, Fortune–my hero–had been freed by his owner. Unlike January, however, he was freed only at his owner’s death, a former placee [a woman of color who entered into a legal contract with a white man to be his official mistress] who had a sizeable fortune and owned property in New Orleans.

[I originally wanted my hero’s former owner to be Haitian, but it was a more direct route from New Orleans to Paris; but do check out the history of the first successful slave revolt in Haiti here. Really cool.]

There are a few examples of such a woman, including Eulalie de Mandeville, whose white lover married her at his deathbed and left her his entire fortune, which was upheld even though his white relatives contested the will. Another such example is Rosette Rochon, who took what her various white lovers bestowed upon her and speculated in real estate, entered in money-lending and bought and sold mortgages, among other things. She died at age 96, still illiterate, with a fortune valued at about a million dollars in current valuation.

It’s been interesting, as a white twentieth century woman, to navigate the delicate balance of race relations in France in the nineteenth century. I have to admit, moreover, that my first draft didn’t take that into account, so I am revising with an eye to that.

Hambly describes January’s constant concern that he be taken and sold as a slave, despite being freed. He carries one set of papers at all times showing his status, but keeps another set in a secure spot in case the first set doesn’t suffice. My hero is equally uncertain as to how he will be treated, and he carries that awareness of race with him, no matter how much money is in his pocket.

One of my favorite themes, both in reading and in writing, is the outsider, and Fortune is the epitome of that: An educated, dark person of color living in a white world with resources but without ever quite belonging.

Do you like reading outsider stories? Do you have favorite outsider heroes or heroines? And would you think this kind of story too risky for a romance?

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