Kitt, Sandra 1947–
Sandra Kitt 1947–
Throughout her career as an author, Sandra Kitt has been a trailblazer. She was among the first African Americans to publish romance novels—an enormously profitable genre that historically was an exclusively white province, despite the fact that people of color constitute a large portion of the market. Kitt’s tremendous success has helped open up the field to numerous other African American writers. Her work—and that of her peers—also has made the romance genre more rewarding and relevant for readers of any ethnicity. In addition, by incorporating complex and even controversial social themes and relationships into her work, Kitt has helped to shatter the standard mold of romance novels. Due partly to her influence, “romance,” “woman’s fiction,” and “mainstream” novels are no longer such rigidly defined and exclusive brackets.
Kitt’s artistic talents extend beyond the literary realm. Before becoming an author, she was a successful graphic artist and illustrator, as well as a printmaker and teacher of the arts. Multifaceted and adventurous, Kitt travels extensively, pursues scuba diving, appears on network television, is active in numerous organizations, attends writing conferences, and maintains a popular website. She accomplishes all of this while handling a demanding day job as Library Specialist at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History.
Kitt was born in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood in 1947, the first of Anne Wright and Archie B. Kitt’s four children. A lifelong New Yorker, she found that the extraordinarily cosmopolitan quality of that city offered perspectives and experiences that helped enhance her writing. “I grew up in New York in a society that was very inclusive and very integrated. My view of the world tends to be very inclusive,” Kitt explained in a Riverdale Press article. From the time she was eight years old, Kitt knew she wanted to be an artist—and soon enough, she showed evidence of talent. “I studied at the Museum of Modern Art when I was eleven, and won a number of art contests around the city,” she told Contemporary Black Biography in an interview.
Kitt’s love of the printed word was kindled at an early
At a Glance…
Born Sandra Elaine Kitt, June 11, 1947, in New York, NY; daughter of Archie B. and Ann (Wright) Kitt. Education: City College of the City University of New York, B.AV 1969; M.F.A., 1975. Attended School of Visual Arts; New School; and University of Guadalajara, Mexico, Religion: Methodist.
Career: Fiction writer, 1981- Author of over 20 romance and mainstream novels and two screenplays; Art assistant, 1970-72; teacher in Cloisters Workshop Program, New York City Board of Education, 1972-73; information specialist librarian, New York City, 1974-92; manager of library services at Richard S. Perkin Library, Hayden Planetarium, American Museum of Natural History, New York City, 1992; Freelance graphic artist and illustrator, with work exhibited throughout the United States and represented in collections including American Institute of Graphic Arts and African-American Art Museum of Los Angeles. Greeting card designer for UNICER Assistant to the registrar and assistant coordinator at Children’s Art Center, Museum of Contemporary Arts, 1972-73. Printmaker, and teacher at Printmaking Workshop, New York City Office of Cultural Affairs, 1974-80.
Awards: N1A Woman of Excellence Award from the Mayor of New York City, 1993.
Member: Special Libraries Association, Published Authors Network, Romance Writers of America, American Library Association (Black Caucus).
Addresses: Mailing— P.O. Box 403, Planetarium Station, New York, NY. 10024-0403. Wedsite —http://www.infokart.com/sandrakitt/.
age. “Like many writers, I came to the profession by way of being an avid reader,” she related in American Visions magazine. “My reading has been actively cultivated and encouraged since I was six years old and I discovered my local library, which allowed me to take home as many books as I could carry.” Although verbal expression came naturally to her, Kitt’s urge to write professionally would not manifest itself until later in life. As she told CBB, “I’ve been writing poetry since I was a child, and always kept a journal or diary as a teenager, but I had no thoughts of becoming a writer.”
Kitt attended the Music and Art High School—now called the LaGuardia School for the Performing Arts—where she majored in art. After earning an associate of arts degree from Bronx Community College, Kitt spent a semester in Mexico studying and becoming fluent in Spanish while living with a Mexican family. She finished her bachelor of arts degree in 1969 at City College of New York, where she returned to earn a master’s in fine arts in 1975.
In 1974, after working in advertising and education for several years, Kitt entered a career in library science. Her primary livelihood thus secured, Kitt continued with her art. She worked as a freelance illustrator and artist, exhibiting her work in a number of shows and collections nationwide, designing greeting cards for UNICEF, and eventually providing illustrations for two books by the legendary science and fiction writer Isaac Asimov.
Kitt derives vital qualities for her writing from being both a visual artist and a librarian. As she explained in Essence, “I started out as a trained graphic designer and illustrator, and the creative principles are the same. I consider myself very visually oriented. I can see the story, and that makes it easier to write.” Meanwhile, “As a librarian, I’m in the business of informing people, and that has worked into my development as a writer,” Kitt told Publishers Weekly. As she described the complementary vocations of writing and library work for American Libraries, “From a very early age I’ve always had an innate fondness for books and writing, so everything has come together in my two careers. Each has helped the other.”
Although her books have been financially rewarding, Kitt explained to CBB that she maintains her day job for a number of reasons. “I’ve worked primarily at the museum’s Hayden Planetarium, and I find astronomy a fascinating field, and my work brings me into contact with many wonderful scientists. Working in a museum is inherently fun.” In addition, Kitt finds her writing is nourished by the stimulation of the ‘real world.’ “As a writer, it’s not a good idea to give up the day job, because that would isolate you. A lot of inspiration comes from the situations and interactions in the work-place.” she related to CBB. “If possible—that is, if you have the discipline—it’s smart to do more than one thing. Perhaps even part-time or volunteer work.” Because publishing is a notoriously unpredictable profession, “You always should have a back-up plan,” Kitt concluded.
As Kitt was walking along 3rd Avenue in Manhattan one afternoon in 1981, she noticed a disheveled homeless person on the sidewalk. While the situation was not uncommon, the intensity of Kitt’s response was. This poignant moment was a turning point for her: Kitt suddenly knew that she was to be a writer. “The book I ended up writing had nothing to do with the pathetic sight of the derelict. But my life has never been the same,” Kitt told American Libraries many years later.
Kitt would write whenever possible—during her subway commute, on beach vacations, and before leaving for work. She was a prolific creator from the beginning. Although new to the craft and art of writing, Kitt discovered that the groundwork was already established. As a result of her avid reading, she explained in Essence, “I probably developed a natural understanding of how a novel is paced and structured, based on what holds my attention in a book.”
Harlequin American published Kitt’s first novel, Rites of Spring, in 1984. It eventually sold 500,000 copies. She also became the first African American to have her work published by Harlequin—the brand that has so dominated the romance field that people often use it as a synonym for the genre. She followed up that same year with Adam and Eva, another big success, about a relationship that blooms during a Caribbean vacation.
At that point, romance fiction penned by African Americans was a new development—but the emergence of novels with African American protagonists was downright revolutionary. Kitt always considered herself a “switch hitter,” able to compose from both African American and white perspectives. “When I first started writing, I didn’t know there was going to be a problem with the race of the characters. I just wrote them how I saw them. Sometimes that was white, and sometimes that was black,” she explained in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article. In fact, as Kitt pointed out in Newsday, being African American offered distinct advantages in writing about America’s wide spectrum of life. “As an African American, I had to adapt to a white society,”’ she told the newspaper. “But I don’t think it necessarily works the other way. If you’re going to write about another culture, it has to be something you’ve lived or experienced.”
Kitt has asserted that it is the publishers’ overwhelmingly white profile, rather than any underlying racism, that has impeded the emergence of African American-based novels. “They don’t know anything about the black community, so they worried, ‘How do we market this?’ and were making it a big problem,” she said in Newsday. “The editors had no problem with me being a black writer, but I found resistance to my black characters.” Kitt related in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch piece.
Through her work, Kitt has tried to bridge the gap of understanding and empathy—though never at the expense of her artistry. She explained in Publishers Weekly, “As a librarian, I’m in the business of informing people…. Along with a pleasurable read, I want to give my audience a mini-education into the life of a typical middle class black person.”’ Among the many letters she receives, white readers often say “I don’t know anyone black, and your book has given me a whole new perspective.”
According to critical and popular acclaim, Kitt’s work is distinguished by superb writing coupled with complex and believable relationships. But the element that has attracted the most notice, at least among reviewers, is her naturalistic treatment of highly charged topics, such as interracial relationships, pediatric AIDS, sickle-cell anemia, the experience of an ex-convict, and the impact of socioeconomic class differences. This is not typical terrain for romance novels. However, to make her books relevant for African American readers, Kitt must reflect complex real-life issues—in addition to passionate love connections.
In her 1996 book, Significant Others, Kitt explored the dynamics of color distinctions and identity within the African American community. The book’s heroine has a distinctly Anglo appearance, with fair skin and red hair, but she identifies herself as African American. Her situation is explored in many contexts, including the workplace—an integrated high school—and her love life, when she becomes involved with the father of a biracial student. “I’ve always been intrigued on a subconscious level about people in my own family or among my friends who could pass as white yet who clearly identified themselves as African American,” Kitt told Black Issues in Higher Education. Although there are those in the African American community who would prefer that writers refrain from “airing dirty laundry” to the white world, Kitt will not impose such restrictions on her creativity. As she explained in an Emerge article, “It’s incredibly complex. At issue is who determines how black someone has to be to be black. I always try to push the envelope.”
Kitt is extremely proud of The Color of Love, the 1995 novel that dealt with a relationship between a white male cop and an African American female book designer. As she told Today’s Black Woman, “I wanted to explore interracial relationships honestly, without being provocative and without treating it as a taboo, but treating it as an honest relationship.” To Kitt, this theme is too fertile and prevalent to be ignored. After all, “Cross-cultural relationships are on the rise,” she noted in a Publishers Weekly article. “What we’re seeing is that there’s so much more comfort with integration, particularly if people are at the same economic level,” she explained to The Riverdale Press. “This is a much smaller globe than it used to be.”
One of the most significant factors in Kitt’s success is the increasing buying power of African Americans and other minorities. In Black Issues In Higher Education, Kitt remarked, “We may, as writers, be writing for our communities and our people, but the publishers are still mainstream publishers and they are not [publishing African American writers] for altruistic reasons, but because they know there is a market there… The bottom line for publishers is still the money to be made. “This financial clout will only increase. As Kitt asserted in an interview featured on the website for the Irmine Bookstore (“The Romance Lover’s Bookstore”), “As we head into the next century, all anyone has to do is look around at the make-up of this country to see where the future readership is coming from. It will be from people of color. The publishing industry has to be (and remain) much more inclusive of new writers, points of view, and story lines if they’re going to hold the attention of that future audience and consumer. And writers have to look way beyond what they’re writing today and start reinventing themselves for the future.”
Rites of Spring, Harlequin American, 1984.
Adam and Eva, Harlequin American, 1984; reissued, 1997.
All Good Things, Doubleday, 1984.
Perfect Combination, Harlequin American, 1985.
With Open Arms, Harlequin American, 1987.
An Innocent Man, Harlequin American, 1989.
The Way Home, Harlequin American, 1990.
Someone’s Baby, Harlequin American, 1991.
Love Everlasting, Odyssey Books, 1993.
Serenade, Pinnacle Books, 1994.
The Color of Love, Dutton, 1995.
Significant Others, Signet, 1996.
Between Friends, Signet Books, 1998
Family Affairs, Signet Books, 1999
American Libraries, November 1991.
American Visions, June-July 1996.
Black Issues in Higher Education, December 12, 1996; May 15, 1997, p. 33.
Emerge, September 30, 1996.
Essence, July 1997, p. 75.
Newsday, July 25, 1994, p. C2; January 28, 1997, p. B15.
Publishers Weekly, May 15, 1995, p. 35.
The Riverdale Press, August 19, 1999.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 11, 1994, p. D1.
Today’s Black Woman, September 1999.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from an interview with Sandra Kitt in September of 1999; http://www.infokart.com/sandrakitt; and http://www.irmines.com/interviews/kittinterview.htm.
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