When I published the Ultimate List of Colorism Books back in September, I discovered several new titles and new authors I didn’t know were out there. One of them was A Most Precious Pearl by Piper Huguley. As a historical romance novelist who features African American characters, Huguley is a best-selling author and has won notable awards for several of her books.
Before the book was officially recommended for the Ultimate List, I’d actually seen someone recommending it to a friend on Twitter as a novel that actually deals with colorism in romance.
— RebelliousCupid (@RebelliousCupid) September 13, 2015
I’d never read romance novels before, but learning of one that addressed the theme of colorism was reason enough to start!
A Most Precious Pearl is a great read on many levels. Huguley balances the historical gravity of racism in the South with the passion and often humorous levity of a young couple falling in love. Even though genre conventions demand a certain outcome, the plot holds you in suspense from beginning to end as this unique love story unfolds. Characters are resonant and relatable and painted with clarity.
In particular, Huguley directly addresses the issue of colorism in this novel without relying on stereotypes and without reducing it to the clichéd and divisive “light skin vs. dark skin debate.” She illustrates the subtle, everyday nature of colorism. Most importantly, she shows that colorism is an issue families and individuals can resist and overcome.
Piper Huguley was gracious enough to answer a few questions about colorism, family, inspiration, and more. Read her responses below, and be sure to grab a copy of the book here!
Colorism Healing: You’ve written about the fact that you were intentional about wanting to incorporate colorism as a theme in this novel, especially after an editor warned you to stay away from colorism in romance. What is it about fiction, romance in particular, that makes it a good medium for exploring the issue of colorism?
Piper Huguley: In the romance genre, the author has to put up many roadblocks to that “happily ever after” end for the couple that the reader wants. I tried to think of more organic complications that would come up for a Black couple and colorism is as organic as it gets. The editor warned me about the inclusion of colorism in a contemporary modern day romance. Her view was, I think, that colorism is an issue of the past and that modern day Black people don’t have to worry about it anymore. I don’t agree with that view, but rather than argue about it, I took it as a sign that I was meant to write about the past when colorism was seen more ubiquitously as a problem. So I thank that editor because that was when I started to write historicals. In historical general fiction, colorism is still seen as an issue, depending on the shades of the participants, but it just can’t be resolved in the same way. I intend to take up the topic again at some point.
CH: Mags and Ruby remind me a lot of my sister and me—the lighter skinned older sister and the younger dark skinned sister. Although the difference in their complexions creates tension that’s central to the novel in many ways, I found the sisterly bond between these two characters quite compelling, perhaps because it seems unscathed by external pressures. Usually the focus of colorism discussions is on a “light skin versus dark skin” conflict, but I think your depiction of Ruby and Mags as sisters speaks volumes for colorism healing. Can you talk about the richness of Mags and Ruby’s sisterly bond both generally and as it relates to colorism in particular?
PH: A lot of early readers of the earlier novel [Ruby’s novel is called A Virtuous Ruby] thought that Ruby was insane for her view of wishing to be darker-skinned. But very early on in her life, the people who surround her and love her were darker people–especially her father. So naturally, seeing darker people who loved her, she believed that as a positive quality in the people she loved. A darker skin was not a negative to her. Also, as the protective older sister, she is determined that the world should see the people that she loves in that positive way, including Mags, who bears the heaviest burden of it as the darkest sister. You may know from your experience, that even today (guess I still don’t agree with that editor), people will be borderline rude about the way young Black girls look in terms of their skin tone. I know it’s still true because my students become very vocal about it when it comes up in class. For me, my thought was, “If things are this bad in the way colorism impacts women in the present, imagine what that must have been like a hundred years ago.” It’s a theme that gets taken up in literary fiction, but is rarely dealt with in genre fiction. So when Ruby tells Asa that her sister is even prettier than she herself is, she means it with her whole heart. Mags has believe it too before she can find her happiness with Asa.
CH: What about Mags or her relationship with Ruby and other family keep her from falling into conflict with her lighter sister? Or why does she not fall into the stereotype of the “jealous dark-skinned girl”? I ask because “jealousy” is such a pervasive, negative trope when people bring up colorism, yet Mags seems able to keep her issues with colorism from negatively affecting her relationship with her sister in that way.
PH: I make a reference in the book to how everyone thought of Ruby as the pretty one and Mags didn’t get that same attention (she felt it was because she looked like her father). Mags internalized this attitude more, instead of feeling resentment about it against Ruby. It was one reason why she dated Travis for that brief time–at least she was wanted. So she didn’t have to feel that resentment against her sister. I think her resentment is more for other people in the way that they were perceived.
CH: You’ve recently written about the importance of naming, particularly for African Americans, and in the wake of Raven Symone’s comments on The View. In A Most Precious Pearl, as you note about all the books in the series, names are important for various reasons. Asa alters his name when he goes down South, and the play on various versions and meanings of Mags’s name speak to her character and illustrate Asa’s love for her. Can you elaborate on the “name game” as it relates to Mags? Was it an arbitrary choice that gained significance as you wrote the story, or did the name help to shape the story and the character herself?
PH: Naming in novels has to happen for me as a part of the character’s backstory or origins, so it is deeply intentional for me. So the whole story of how the Bledsoe girls were named was an affirmation of how John insisted that his daughters were precious like jewels and so, named for them: Ruby, Garnet, Emerald. Cordelia and Margaret’s (Mags) names, and how they are precious as well, are revealed in their own stories. Mags’s name is part of her character and personality in that she feels set apart in some way. Her name, and the naming changes that take place in the story, represent part of her ongoing struggle to self-acceptance. Naming has long been an intentional linguistic expression for Black people in this country and I wanted to show that in the series.
CH: You’ve noted that Beverly Jenkins, a pioneer in historical romance with African American characters, is a source of inspiration for you. What other writers or texts have inspired or influenced you in some way to either become a writer or to evolve as a writer?
PH: I would certainly say that Zora Neale Hurston is an influence. Her instance on the humanity of Black people in both her anthropological work and fiction has certainly shaped me. An essay by Langston Hughes called “The Need for Heroes” impacted me deeply and called to me to write historically. The situation that compelled Hughes to write about the need to celebrate the ancestors as heroes in story in 1942 still, unfortunately, exists. There aren’t enough Black historical writers, but I’m proud and happy to be part of that small, but hopefully growing, group.
About Piper Huguley
Piper Huguley seeks to make new inroads in the publication of historical romance by featuring African American Christian characters. The Lawyer’s Luck and The Preacher’s Promise, the first books in her “Home to Milford College” series, are Amazon best sellers. She is a 2013 Golden Heart finalist for her novel, A Champion’s Heart—the fourth book in “Migrations of the Heart”. The first book in the series, A Virtuous Ruby, was the first-place winner in The Golden Rose Contest in 2013 and was a Golden Heart finalist in 2014. The first three books in the “Migrations of the Heart” series, which follows the loves and lives of African American sisters during America’s greatest internal migration in the first part of the twentieth century, were published by Samhain Publishing in 2015. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband and son. See more here.