With Confessions in B-Flat, prolific and bestselling romance author Donna Hill tries her hand at historical fiction. And it is a fruitful generic collaboration: this is truly one of those books that are destined to be written, one of those books that makes a seasoned editor thump themselves on the head for failing to commission such an inevitable story.

When the fiery, Malcolm X-loving urban poet, Anita gets on a bus and meets a reserved, MLK-supporting Southerner who is moving to Harlem for the cause, it is love at first sight. After weeks turn into months spent between her frequent poetry performances and his community activism campaigns, they come to see that they share a dream, even where their means for achieving it are fundamentally different.

“There is no right or wrong, better or worse: there are only two Black people surviving mid-twentieth century Amerikkka in whatever way they can.”

Political differences conspire to keep them apart. Where Anita feels that violence is the key to Black liberation, Jason believes that you cannot fight hate with yet more hate. But when Anita falls pregnant and America launches a war in Vietnam, love no longer seems strong enough to bridge the pair’s ever-widening divide. As it falls back on a trope as old as time, this story also gives it renewed meaning by crossing it with a fellow old-timer, namely the long-standing non-violence debate in the Black liberation movement.

Where others work for the trope, this book makes star-crossed love do the work as the very real material cost of their politics creates a sense of genuine incompatibility. When both civil rights leaders are murdered within the span of a few years, the mounting tension between personal and political conflict reaches a boiling point that eventually melts away any sense of distinction between the two.

Complete with newspaper cuttings, images, cameo appearances, and links to speeches that all together dramatise real-life events, it is both an archival work and a multimedial scrapbook-like piece of memorabilia that transports us to a particular place in time. The book, however, creates an anachronistic timeline for the sake of storytelling and Anita’s poems, too, break the fourth wall: it is hard to believe her average poetry is causing a city-wide stir.

Yet all of these atmospheric elements come together to create the book’s chief merit, namely how a distant debate mired in distant history is made immediate through empathy. There is no right or wrong, better or worse: there are only two Black people surviving mid-twentieth century Amerikkka in whatever way they can. Where Anita’s family owns an expensive brownstone in the city, Jason’s family carries the South’s violent history of lynchings and racialised poverty on their backs.

“This is one of those books that makes a seasoned editor thump themselves on the head for failing to commission such an inevitable story.”

Confessions in B-Flat is a memorable tale about what makes us radical and, indeed, what that word even means. When the allegedly non-violent Jason joins the army’s war on the Vietnamese, these questions truly pushed to — and perhaps even slightly beyond — their limits. After all, what makes this historical romance necessary is exactly that willingness to push and recruit love’s lessons on empathetic understanding to, as bell hooks might have it, disarm the legitimacy of any politics attempting to exist without it.

By Jane Link

JANE LINK is a master’s student and an editor for Split Lip MagazineThe Publishing Post, and her own beloved bigblackbooks. When not trying to land her first job in publishing, Jane loves to read historical fiction, self-help, and everything by Black voices. She dreams of one day setting up an independent dedicated to publishing those voices. You can find her @verybookishjane on Twitter.

DONNA HILL, author of books including Divas, Inc. and In My Bedroom, lives in Brooklyn, New York. She has more than fifty published titles to her credit, three of which were adapted for television. She has been featured in Essence, the Daily News, USA Today, Today’s Black Woman, and Black Enterprise, among many others. She is the recipient of multiple awards, such as: The RT Career Achievement Award, the Gold Pen Award, The Trailblazer Award, and the Zora Neale Hurston Literary Award. You can find her @donnahill on Twitter.

Bestselling romance author Donna Hill tries her hand at historical fictionConfessions in B-Flat by Donna Hill
Published by Sideways on 24 Nov 2020
Genres: African American, Contemporary, Historical romance
Pages: 400
Format: Paperback
Buy on Mahogany Books
Goodreads
three-half-stars

The year is 1963. In Harlem, the epicentre of Black culture, the fight for equality has never been stronger. The time is now. Enough is enough. Yet even within its ranks, a different kind of battle rages. Love thy neighbour? Or rise up against your oppressors? Jason Tanner has just arrived in New York to help spread the message of his mentor, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., of passive resistance, while beat poet Anita Hopkins believes the teachings of Malcolm X with all her heart: that the way to true freedom is “by any means necessary.” When Jason sees Anita perform her poetry at the iconic B-Flat lounge, he’s transfixed. And Anita has never met anyone who can match her wit for wit like this. One movement, two warring ideologies -- can love be enough to unite them?