Zakiya Dalila Harris’ devious and disturbing debut novel The other black girl was marketed as a cross between Get out and The devil wears Prada. But it’s a misnomer that does the book a disservice, even though Harris has declared herself a huge fan of horror and science fiction.
While there are traits of both genres in the plot, it is less misleading to describe this book as a genre-defying satire that offers a new take on the insidious nature of racism in very large corporate spaces. majority white.
The 26-year-old protagonist Nella Rogers, a middle-class, Ivy League-educated black woman, has worked as an associate editor at the prestigious Wagner Books for two years. She’s determined to make her mark in the publishing industry, but it’s a lonely existence: she’s the only black person – indeed, the only person of color – who works at the editorial level in the office.
Nella’s attempts to diversify the editorial workforce are called “out of school” by her boss, and she is asked to “blacken” Wagner’s Twitter and Instagram accounts during Black History Month, the only time where the company demonstrates some inclination towards inclusiveness.
So when Hazel, the other titular black girl (who distinctly smells of Brown Buttah, the same hair product Nella uses) joins the company, Nella is elated. The two initially bond over office gossip and hair care, but there’s a creeping feeling that there’s something a little weird about Hazel, and that having another girl. black around doesn’t necessarily mean Nella has an ally.
Born in Harlem to civil rights activists and with a grandfather who died protesting, Hazel incredibly cool fits Wagner’s ideas of what the dark should be in a way that Nella’s privileged upbringing never will. This makes Nella doubt her own cultural authenticity and in doing so increases her professional insecurities and paranoia. Worse yet, Hazel has a perfect mastery of the type of code change that allows her to bow to her white colleagues while appearing to retain her authentic blackness.
Within two months, Hazel encroached on Nella’s plans and eclipsed her professionally. Then the menacing anonymous notes begin to appear on Nella’s desk: “LEAVE WAGNER.” NOW.”
Harris, who began writing the novel when she herself was an associate editor at Knopf Doubleday in Manhattan, is uncompromisingly able to immerse the narrative in the micro-assaults black women encounter every day and the compromises they have to make. The decision to remain silent about the problematic portrayal of black women (and other people of color) by white male authors, for example, in order to succeed in the predominantly white world of publishing, and the world of publishing. business in general.
Dialogue in The other black girl crackles with biting wit, especially in Nella’s interactions with her best friend Malaika, which gives the story its satirical side. Lamenting the apparent retirement of an outspoken black male celebrity, Malaika says, “With Jesse on his weird hiatus, how can I tell the difference between a micro-assault and a ripped sheet?”
All references to black women’s hair and care are no coincidence, and the cleverly placed prologue hints at why this is central vanity. The following chapters zigzag between Nella’s point of view and that of other black women in publishing. Even if all of these stories, which give texture and context to the plot, don’t quite satisfactorily converge, this book is still a gripping contemplation of the gap between success and authenticity.
The other black girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris Bloomsbury £ 14.99 / Atria $ 27, 368 pages
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