By Verity Lowell.
Verity Lowell is a professor and occasional curator. She likes imagining and describing a world where art, ambition, and history provide the background for diverse and steamy love stories, mostly about women falling hard for women. Her debut novel Meet Me in Madrid is available now, more at veritylowell.com. See Part I here.
I am a lesbian of color who teaches and writes in Art History, one of the most conservative humanities fields—what do I know about happily-ever-afters? Not enough, I thought, when I sat down in COVID times to write a queer of color romance about Black and brown female academics falling in love across continents, a sabbatical leave, and career status. I wanted to write something that felt like our best lives—thoughtful, observant, self-reflective. Patient. Descriptive. Full of quips and sociality and unexpected delight in another smart (and sexy) person’s company. All the good things. There had to be some good things.
We’re at a paradoxical cultural moment. Toni Morrison’s virtuosic and soul-crushing first novel, The Bluest Eye, is being banned (again) in Virginia while a romance between two Black lesbian academics feels boring and unrelatable to some of the younger, ostensibly queer, crowdsource. I guess the latter is good in a way; expectations are changing. For me, too. My debut romance, Meet Me in Madrid, was me responding to Morrison’s familiar exhortation to write the book you want to see if it doesn’t exist. I’m sure mine is not perfect. But it’s here. And it’s queer. And it’s of color, bitches.
Around 2.5% of PhDs in the humanities are Black women. At progressive, “free speech,” Berkeley, I was the only queer woman of color in my Art History PhD cohort, as far as I know; one of the very few women of color or queer women in the department—counting the faculty, among whom there were, also as far as I know, no tenured women, or men, of color. If there were queer male faculty, and there were, I received no support from them.
Still, I was in good standing for the first couple of years. Until I wasn’t. Now that more brave women academics, WOC in particular, are disclosing their experiences of structural white supremacy, sexism, and homophobia in grad school—and on the job—I realize mine was common enough. Suggestions of incompetence, labeling as arrogant or presumptuous—all the while being awash in a sea of arrogant and presumptuous white male peers who are exalted and shown favoritism. That kind of thing.
I had taken several years off between undergrad and grad and completed almost four years of graduate-level coursework with distinction in another field before realizing it wasn’t my calling. I worked in corporate America; for non-profits; for myself. I was mature and deferential. But I hadn’t gone to Cal to genuflect to the patriarchy.
Cut to graduation. Then a one-year visiting job at a prestigious liberal arts college. Then, competing offers for tenure-track jobs. A few years later, the rare opportunity to leave my tenure-track position for more teaching autonomy in a better location.
In reality, however, some of those offers were for “diversity” or “target of opportunity” hires. I didn’t take those. Back then, DEI was often (even more) clumsy and surreptitious: the white candidate was who they really wanted, I learned. I was the unwitting half of a two-fer. The visiting job revealed a strategy of browning up the faculty with temporary hires of color, while nearly all the tenured and tenure-track people were white. The tenure-track job came with a white woman mentor who challenged my disapproval of lowered standards and reduced tenure expectations for BIPOC candidates. Before I left, she asked me if I was “against affirmative action.”
Next came an even whiter, more homogenous liberal arts college where, as it happened, I was the single full-time woman faculty member in my demographic. If I keep bringing up race plus sexuality it’s because my experience of intersectional bias in the academy, what Saidiya Hartman has described as “being at the bottom of the food chain,” has been harrowing. I ascribe much of my piss and vinegar to being a lesbian of color. Yet as someone whose identity is often misread, I have seen white colleagues say and not/do things about race and racism that have left me quite cynical—and deeply aware of the limitations of some forms of feminism.
Then came the incident of public discrimination against me at my institution. The choice to retain counsel on my own dime. The administration ignoring or covering up my complaints. For years. Now the regime change. And finally, the supposed resolution in my favor. He wasn’t fired, though.
Are they ever?
Meanwhile, despite parallel discrimination scandals in romancelandia, it’s been a booming couple of years. For this and other positive trends, I credit Stacey Abrams. Though even Abrams has been belittled for writing romance when she’s not out saving democracy. Talk about multitasking.
I had a modest task of my own in mind when I wrote Meet Me in Madrid. I aimed to tell a sweet, sexy little story of queer Black and brown women, like and unlike me, finding love and support and passion in—but also in spite of—the academy. I wanted to read that story, but I couldn’t find it. I wanted to live that story, but it hasn’t worked out so far. We have to get our happy endings somewhere. Queer of color romance is a start.