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The Other Black Girl


The Other Black Girl

Get Out meets “Younger” in Zakiya Dalila Harris’ riveting and vivid debut, THE OTHER BLACK GIRL.

From the outside looking in, 26-year-old Nella Rogers is living the dream. She has a highly coveted job as an editorial assistant at Wagner Books, an elite publisher known for bringing bright new voices and blockbuster bestsellers to bookshelves, movie theaters and even the stage. She and her boyfriend, Owen, find fulfillment and comfort in their mixed-race relationship, and Nella knows she is lucky to find a man who not only is aware of his privilege, but is able to discuss it openly and acknowledge the difficulties she faces as a woman of color. She even has a devoted best friend, Malaika, who is always down to catch a happy hour special to discuss their egotistical bosses and the pains of entry-level work.

So when Wagner hires a new editorial assistant, Hazel-May, who also happens to be Black, Nella should be overjoyed. An outspoken activist and chronicler of police brutality, microaggressions and the notoriously white world of publishing, Nella has longed for more people of color to join her both at Wagner and in the publishing world at large. So why does Hazel’s arrival seem to coincide with Nella’s world collapsing?

"Full of shocking, razor-sharp insights about the publishing world, racism in the workplace, and the tangled ways that white people have forced their Black friends and colleagues to compete against one another, THE OTHER BLACK GIRL is the most mind-blowing thriller I have read in a long time..."

For years, Nella has worked tirelessly not only to complete the endless tasks that come with being an editorial assistant, but to earn the respect of the higher-ups at Wagner. She is determined to become not exactly “one of the good ones” (that cringeworthy descriptor), but someone whose voice is heard and who can effect real change. When we meet Nella, she is dealing with the particularly uncomfortable but all-too-familiar scenario of reviewing the work of a white writer who has decided to add a bit of, ahem, color to his latest novel, a heartfelt breakdown of the opioid crisis. While Nella recognizes the value of fiction centered on this topic and, of course, the dollar signs already flashing in her boss’s eyes at the thought of another bestseller, she can’t help but fume when the book’s only Black character is an amalgam of stereotypes.

Nineteen and pregnant with her fifth child (the sire of a man named either LaDarnell or DeMontraine), the character of Shartricia (her mother’s attempt to spell “chartreuse,” the color of the dress she was wearing when her water broke at the club) reads like a “cross between...a freed slave and a Tyler Perry character down on her luck.” But for the first time in her career at Wagner, Nella has an ally, a fellow Black woman who can help convince her editor --- and, ideally, all of Wagner and then publishing --- that diversity is not just a one-dimensional item to check off a list.

Unsurprisingly, Nella’s plan to confront her boss and the author in question backfires, but that is soon the least of her worries. Hazel has seemingly overnight become the darling of the Wagner office, a proud Black woman who speaks her mind but also understands that her white colleagues are “really trying.” The friendship and alliance that once seemed so immediate and easy to Nella has now become a landmine, a hair-raising battle of wits, rivalry and the weaponizing of racism by one Black woman on another. Between Hazel causing issues for her at work and making her look like the stereotypical angry Black woman, and the sudden appearance of threatening notes that tell her to leave Wagner, it is clear that something malicious is coming for Nella. But what?

In alternating chapters featuring Nella; Kendra Rae Phillips, Wagner’s first Black editor who mysteriously vanished years before Nella’s time; and a third character who is desperately trying to put together the pieces, THE OTHER BLACK GIRL chronicles the microaggressions and gaslighting that all people of color face and turns them into a true gut-wrenching horror story.

As a publishing professional myself, there is so much I could say about Harris’ spot-on depiction of life on the lower rungs of the publishing hierarchy. Working as an editorial assistant --- or, frankly, any entry-level job in publishing --- comes with one title, but also one million responsibilities and unofficial duties, from managing multiple changing deadlines to reading endless manuscript submissions, and even acting as an author therapist and smoothing over conflicts by learning to read people from all sorts of different departments and walks of life. Harris captures each of these demands brilliantly, but more to the point, she highlights the ways that a woman like Nella, already managing so many expectations, can become the target of microaggressions even more easily than someone at the top.

In a later portion of the book, Harris mentions the topic of code-switching, the practice of altering one’s speech, appearance and behavior to make others around them more comfortable. Born and raised in the Stepford-like suburbs of Connecticut but still very much Black, Nella has been practicing code-switching her entire life, and yet to see Hazel do it and turn it against her is like watching an Olympian run alongside a toddler. And in demonstrating the malignant, insidious ends of Hazel’s behavior, Harris demands that her readers wake up, take a good look at themselves and their colleagues, and ask why women like Nella --- or even Hazel --- should be forced to make their white coworkers, partners and friends more comfortable just to make up for the sheer fact of existing. And even worse, what do these men and women lose of themselves when they do?

Full of shocking, razor-sharp insights about the publishing world, racism in the workplace, and the tangled ways that white people have forced their Black friends and colleagues to compete against one another, THE OTHER BLACK GIRL is the most mind-blowing thriller I have read in a long time, and Zakiya Dalila Harris is the voice we have needed in contemporary literature for even longer. Read this book. You won’t regret it.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on June 4, 2021

The Other Black Girl
by Zakiya Dalila Harris