Elsie B. Washington
Class of 1966
Elsie B. Washington was a writer whose one novel opened new doors for African-American authors. It was called “Entwined Destinies” and it is widely considered as the first “romance novel” to be written by an African-American writer featuring African-American characters. Washington also wrote non-fiction books, but the bulk of her career was as a writer and editor at a variety of periodicals.
“Entwined Destinies” was published by Dell in 1980, the 575th title in its Candlelight Romance series, and carried the pen name Rosalind Welles. It’s the story of an African-American magazine reporter who finds true love with a tall, dashing black man who is an executive with an oil company. According to a 2002 article in Black Issues Book Review, it was “the first known romance featuring African-American characters written by an African-American author.” “Entwined Destinies” had a printing of 125,000 copies, distributed mainly to East Coast cities with large black populations.
It set the stage for a new era in romance novels, until then dominated by white characters and white writers. A new category was born: the ethnic romance novel. Soon, other books appeared, aimed at Native American and Chinese-American readers. Today, the black romance novel has found a home with several imprints that specialize in it.
“The important thing about Elsie’s work is it established the romance novels that followed in the next 20 years as books about the African-American middle class,” said Gwendolyn Osborne, a contributor to The Romance Reader, a popular web site for reviews, in an interview with NPR at the 2009 Book Expo America.
Washington was born in the Bronx on Dec. 28, 1942 and received her bachelor’s degree in English at City College in 1966. She was attracted to journalism by its pace and by its power to persuade and worked at The New York Post, Life magazine, Newsweek and Essence magazine, where she was a senior editor in the late 1980s and 1990s. An essay she wrote in the January 1988 issue sparked a national conversation about the way black women see themselves. Entitled “The Bluest Eyes” — an allusion to Toni Morrison’s first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” about a young black woman who felt inferior because of her eye and skin color — Washington’s article was a call for African-American women to stop trying to conform to white standards of beauty. She cited the use of contact lenses to change the color of one’s eyes as a trend she found particularly odious.
During this time, Washington also began gathering news clips about black celebrities to create a do-it-yourself publication called African-American People. It garnered a small but ardent readership whose hunger for news of prominent blacks flew largely beneath the radar of mainstream media. Her scrappy “zine” was ahead of its time, paving the way for the many online publications that now cover African-American style and celebrity.
Washington’s other books were “Sickle Cell Anemia,” co-written with Anthony Cerami in 1974, and “Uncivil War: The Struggle Between Black Men and Women” in 1996, a searing but compassionate analysis of the causes of conflict between African-American women and men from the time blacks were slaves. It included interviews with psychologists, counselors, couples and single men and women.
Washington died of multiple sclerosis and cancer on May 5, 2009. She was 66.