Twenty-six year old editorial assistant Nella Rogers is the only Black employee at Wagner Books.
Tired and fed up with the isolation, the daily microaggressions, and the half-hearted attitude towards addressing the lack of diversity in publishing, she is delighted when another Black girl, Hazel-May McCall starts working as a new editorial assistant alongside her. At last, someone who ‘gets it’ and who will be an ally in changing things up at Wagner for the better.
In awe and perhaps a little intimidated by Hazel’s poise and obvious self-confidence, a tentative friendship is struck between the two women. But for all Hazel’s friendliness and hair care regimen tips, something is off about her. There’s something inconsistent about the way she interacts with the other white employees and the way she interacts with Nella in private, and this something goes beyond mere code-switching.
Soon the question for Nella is whether she is losing her mind or whether it’s true that Hazel is not all that she appears to be. And who is behind the mystery notes she receives telling her to leave Wagner? And whatever happened to Kendra Rae Phillips, Wagner’s first Black editor who left years ago and hadn’t been seen in public since?
The Other Black Girl is a highly entertaining, nuanced satire about race, Black identity, and Black womanhood. It was a little slow to begin with as the plots were being set up but the payoff was most certainly worth it. By the end, I was holding my breath and at one point I remember letting out an audible ‘nooooo!’, as the novel went all the way left with a chilling plot twist.
The characters were also very well-drawn, Nella is instantly relatable as the young, ambitious editorial assistant eager to make her mark, while at the same time trying to figure out who she is and what she stands for as a young Black professional. The exploration of Blackness and what being Black is and isn’t, is a key theme in this novel. Whichever side of the debate you may come down on, one thing is clear, Blackness is not a monolith, it’s not one thing or the other. What’s perhaps more important is not the ‘type’ of Black you are but how true you are to yourself, your ideals, and how best you can authentically express them.
Hazel is a perfect villain type but is she really a villain or just a victim of her desire to succeed no matter the cost? At times I felt like Nella and Hazel represented different sides of the same coin as I think most people have been a little bit Nella and a little bit Hazel during their working career whether consciously or not. That said, I think one of the most poignant themes of the novel was how working life for Black women can take its toll and the pressure as one scales up the career ladder takes it toll psychically and emotionally as we try to be all things to all men, so to speak. Which we know just isn’t possible.
Zakiya Dalila Harris is a joyous writer who clearly takes pleasure in her craft. In The Other Black Girl, she has portrayed an instantly recognisable social dynamic in workplaces everywhere, which is part and parcel of the power and beauty of this novel. I definitely came away challenged with a lot of thoughts about my own career path and what it may have cost me to be where I am now. And I’m sure that this will be the book that many will be discussing for the weeks and months to come.
The Other Black Girl is available from online and in store book retailers. Keep up to date with Zakiya Dalila Harris via Twitter