Long time readers might remember my affection for Hallmark holiday movies, and my love of pointing out their problematic tropes, even as I revel in their coziness. Hallmark now publishes romance novels, and unlike most other romance publishers, they focus solely on super low-heat romances: according to their writing guidelines, “physical interaction must be limited to hugging and kissing.” This requirement might seem to align the narratives with the inspirational romance sub-genre, which traditionally features novels focused on primarily white, Christian, heterosexual couples. I’ve read several novels this past year that feature BIPOC characters of faith, who expand the boundaries of this seemingly whitest of sub-genres.
Enter Piper Huguley’s first contemporary romance Sweet Tea. Published by Hallmark in 2021, Sweet Tea chronicles the relationship between Tea (also known as Althea and Allie) Dailey and Andrew “Jack” Derwent III. This interracial romance—Tea is Black and Jack is white—explores serious issues of Southern identity and racial identity within the parameters of Hallmark’s guidelines. I mention these guidelines for a few reasons: one, some of my critiques of Hallmark films is their idealized, conflict-free small-town romances in their films, and two, because these guidelines shape the contours of the relationship and the romance language in interesting ways that Huguley navigates mostly with ease, though there are moments of stilted language. Hallmark guidelines state: “No nudity, sex, profanity, or graphic depictions of sexuality or violence will be accepted. Physical interaction must be limited to hugging and kissing. We avoid backstories about infidelity or promiscuity.” While this guideline might seem restrictive to some readers and writers, it also allows romantic stories that de-emphasize sexuality in a genre that is often awash in detailed descriptions of wide-ranging sex acts. Most of the novels I’ve previously reviewed fall into this category, and it’s important to acknowledge the existence and appeal of low-heat romances to readers.
Tea, an anxious, Tums-munching intellectual property law expert in New York, heads south to deal with her first case as partner of her law firm: a trade secret case, representing a chain southern restaurant that’s bringing suit against a small business owner in North Carolina. While investigating the case, Tea travels to Georgia where she reconnects with her grandmother, Miss Ada Dailey, affectionately known as “Granda”; confronts her own internalized oppression and past trauma; and finds a place in the community of Milford. She also meets Jack, a non-practicing lawyer turned filmmaker working on a documentary about the southern women whose recipes are “southern treasures.” The son of a prominent white civil rights lawyer, Jack rejects his father’s path in order to pay tribute to Miss Luly, the Black woman who cared for him as a child after losing his mother to suicide. Tea is immediately suspicious of his motives. She confronts Jack, showing him it’s not enough to uplift these women, their recipes, and stories; he needs to protect their intellectual property and compensate them fairly. Through this storyline, Huguley astutely suggests that there are multiple paths for racial allyship, and also exposes some of the pitfalls that entrap well-meaning white people doing this work.
Sweet Tea chronicles Tea and Jack’s mutual attraction at the same time as Tea rediscovers her roots. Returning to Milford after a long absence, Tea confronts losing her parents at a young age, fleeing her church family, and rejecting the family legacy of Milford College (an HBCU founded by her ancestors); Tea is in many ways a classic prodigal daughter. We learn the various ways she’s internalized oppression, from regularly lightening her face and neck with foundation, contouring her nose, and eating fried chicken with a fork and knife, all to diminish her perceived Blackness as she navigates the mostly white professional world. Tea is overtly conscious of her body shape and size, even though she is thin: “she worked on herself like mad and made sure to do all of the healthy things whenever she could,” and we see in many ways how she internalized not only anti-blackness but sexism (Sweet Tea, chapter one). As she reclaims her community, leads with her values, becomes vulnerable to Jack, and confronts internalized misogynoir, Tea finds herself.
I’ve read conversations on social media about the ways that Black women characters confront internalized oppression, and for some, these storylines are a deal-breaker in the romance genre. Some readers might also take issue with Tea’s work on educating Jack about his privileged, white savior role. Has Jack really been reformed to be worthy of Tea’s love? These are valid questions for readers to consider when picking up this novel. I was fortunate to meet Huguley on a podcast episode of Shelf Love, and have been inspired by her commentary about romance, race, gender, and faith on social media. Sweet Tea conjured memories of my seven years living in Alabama and Georgia, and the eponymous concoction of bracing tannic tea lifted with ample amounts of sugar. It also showcases how talented authors can work within publisher’s guidelines to stay “wholesome” and grapple with important societal issues that shape individual happily-ever-afters.
By Dr. Jessica Lyn Van Slooten
Jessica Lyn Van Slooten is an Associate Professor of English, Writing, and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. She teaches courses on women writers, gender and popular culture, romance writing, and more. Jessica has published numerous articles on teaching and assessing gender studies courses, and popular romance fiction and film. She is currently drafting a romance novel set in a small midwestern town.