Book Review: The Other Black Girl

As an avid reader, this book came across my radar when it wasn’t released yet in Canada and I literally ran and pre-ordered it! Yes, I was that excited. Not only is the cover goals, I loved the title, I could relate on 100% and also, it was such a captivating subject, I figured it would be a win win for me and my ever growing bookshelf. Fast forward a month later and I’m here, closing the book, writing a blog post about it and somewhat dumbfounded. So! This week on the blog, we’re reviewing Zakiya Dalila Harris’ book The Other Black Girl, read along and see what we thought of it!

Characters:

Nella : Black editorial assistant, who has ambition to become an editor- she is pushing to have more diversity at Wagners, but has had very little progress
Mikaila : Nella’s best friend and confidante
Owen : Nella’s longterm boyfriend
Hazel-May McCall / Eva : Nella’s co-worker, the OBG and the main antagonist
Vera : Editor at Wagner and Nella’s boss
Shani : Whistleblower, she is the one arranging to have messages sent to Nella, against the rules, was burned by Eva aka Hazel in Boston, before escaping to New York.
Richard Wagner : Head of Wagner’s publishing
Kendra Rae Phillips: A reclusive former editor of a fictional 1980’s literary hit
Diana Gordon: Best friends with Kendra and the author of Wagner’s hit book

. . . the day she’d first learned that it would not be enough for her to simply go to college, get good grades, and get the interview. That it wouldn’t be enough to simply show up to work; to simply wear the right clothes. You had to wear the right mentality. You had to live the mentality. Be everyone’s best friend. Be sassy. Be confident, but also be deferential. Be spiritual, but also be down-to-earth. Be woke, but still keep some of that sleep in your eyes, too.

Synopsis:

Nella is a hardworking, ambitious editorial assistant who works for Wagner’s Publishing for 2 years, headed by Richard Wagner, she is the only Black employee there and she is fed up of how White her work environment is. With dreams to make her work environment and the publishing world much more diverse and inclusive. She is overjoyed when she learns Hazel-May has joined the team and not only that- she is in the cubicle right next to hers. But soon things get odd when Hazel begins to “code switch”, charms literally very staff member and essentially leaves Nella out to dry on major workplace talking points. Then Nella begins to receive threatening notes telling her to LEAVE WAGNERS NOW, the plot then begins to thicken in a way you will never expect.

Break It Down:

I’ll begin with the things that brought me joy, Nella is super relatable to me, in many ways I could see myself in her. Her connection to wanting to do more within the Black community, her social commentary, but her acceptance that she never quite felt accepted within said community because she grew up in a privileged Black family, but also not accepted within the White community. The fact that she was just beginning to embrace her Blackness and getting to know the parts of her that in some ways I suppose she ignored, I could genuinely feel her embarrassment when Hazel kept calling her out on it and making her feel small- this is something all too common. Taking care of her hair and seeking out Black establishments in her community, not as a performance.

Throughout the book, topics such as racism, micro aggressions, overworking just to get seen, feeling the pressure of being the “only Black person in the office” and having to maintain the model citizen trope. All of these had me nodding my head in agreement and definitely feeling seen. So, if I think about the importance of this book and some of the hype surrounding it, I think of these topics and their relevance. Especially, the fact that Nella is in a mixed relationship, which in some ways she feels apologetic for, and even though Owen is very aware, educates himself on issues of social injustice and him and Nella have very in-depth conversations about race, there are still levels to which he could never understand because he is the epitome of privilege and he has never walked in Nella’s or any Black person’s shoes. But I very enjoyed the conversations Owen’s character was included in and he fact that the book wasn’t about it, but that he was a very secure character in the book.

Ok, let me be frank- I was thoroughly enjoying this book until I had about 150 pages till the end and then I began scratching my head in confusion…I had to stop and even asked myself questions out loud. To me, this is where it gets bizarre, you have the Shani character who was essentially burned by Hazel aka Eva at the time in Boston. This ruined Shani’s career and she decides to start over in New York, to her shock and horror at seeing “Eva”, now going by the name of Hazel. Shani then decides it’s her duty to warn Nella away from Hazel, despite being told to stand down as this isn’t her under cover mission. But where it gets less homogenous is where you find out that a covert brainwashing effort with the use of Black hair products and and an underground resistance movement trying to fight the wave of OBG ( Other Black Girls ) who will essentially cut the next Black person down in order for them to succeed. I read this and was like wait what? This is like a CIA type group, how does this make any sense? What is the connection with the author and editor from the 80’s…and why such deeply awcks flashbacks and unclear connections and links as to who is who. To make matter worse, the book seems to conclude with Shani, established in a new job, when he boss suddenly takes up a temporary job miles away, thus leaving an opening. In walks a “newly” brainwashed version of “Nella” as Shani’s boss. This leaves the reader on a cliffhanger, but also with the understanding that Hazel was able to “turn” Nella and into one of the agents of this group and now, months later, Nella has become brainwashed.

Negatives:

I’ll be honest, I’m not sure how this book came to be published, maybe it’s the cover, maybe it’s the fact that Black authors are trending, maybe it’s a combo of the both, but the fact that the book only really begins to get into a canter about 50 pages from the end- makes it beyond frustrating. I know it’s set up as a thriller and it’s meant to get you anticipating the ending, but honestly- it wasn’t a great ending. I really struggled to understand the whole secret society/secret club plot- like a CIAesque thing. I don’t understand their purpose, I don’t get their objective and I most certainly don’t understand if in the end Nella was a villain or a hero. It left me scratching my head and I’m not entirely sure it was in a good way. After the hype of this book, it kind of let me wanting and I feel played.

Book Club Questions:

Q: At what point in the story did you feel suspicious of Hazel? What made her more likeable to people in the office?
A: I felt suspicious of Hazel when she encouraged Nella to speak up about her discomfort over the Shartricia character, only for Hazel to openly embarrass Nella in front of many of their colleagues. That stung, because she seems so nice and super friendly- in many ways allowing Nella to let her guard down.

Q: How do you feel about Nella and Owen’s relationship? Does he truly understand the microaggressions Nella experiences at work? Do you think she feels guilt or insecurities about having a boyfriend who is white?
A: I don’t know if Owen would ever 100% relate to Nella’s experiences, but her the fact is her is willing to listen and learn, he doesn’t profess to know it all and in my eyes that’s a great thing because he’s open to evolving, but also unlearning some of the things he thought he knew. I definitely think Nella feels some level of guilt or insecurity because it’s almost too common. Within the Black community, especially people who are outspoken about social justice issues or racism, the natural tendency is to assume because they have these viewpoints- their partner must also be of the same race of them. Of course it’s a very linear way of thinking, but I definately felt like I had to issue a sort of apology for not being with a White man.

Would We Recommend:

I mean…I guess I would recommend the book, because why not? It touches and discusses some very pressing and important conversations, which is why I feel it received so much hype. And these topics are very pertinent, because of this yes, it would recommend it, but I would also say prepare to be confused.

RnR Rating:

3.5 out of 5