By Ekta R. Garg
September 16, 2021
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
Release date: June 1, 2021
Genre: Women’s fiction/satire
When I start reading a book, part of my brain begins clicking away on what I liked and didn’t like as an editor. How sentences and flow could be improved and how the structure might have benefited from a tweak or a total overhaul. It’s almost second nature to me now to have that little editor, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, reading over my shoulder. The challenge is to get her to stop for a while.
I’ve been an editor far longer than a published author, although I’ve been writing for years, so my tools and skillset as an author are still a little less developed. But I push myself with every piece to pay attention to the writing and the craft—how characters and plots are developed and what I might have done differently or the same (well, similar anyway.) I make myself examine story elements, particularly when one touches my heart or makes me express a quiet “oh” in surprise or appreciation.
In The Other Black Girl, I enjoyed the details on hair care and that whole culture in the Black community. It was so interesting to me, especially because for one semester in college I lived with a Black roommate and I often watched her do her hair with a friend’s help. Despite being a journalism major and literally spending my day learning how to ask questions, I was too shy to approach my roommate about why she used the products she did and how they benefited her. Truth to tell, I was also afraid of offending her by asking a stupid question or framing it with the wrong verbiage.
So, as a major plus point, The Other Black Girl really taught me something. I’m definitely grateful to it for that.
However, if I pull back to the larger story at hand, I was disappointed. Harris let her audience down by ending the book the way she did, and I know I’m not the only one who feels that way. Many Black women expressed the same sentiment in their reviews online. In essence, to paraphrase their collective opinion, it’s hard enough for Black women to get respect for what they do. Why does a book have to encourage a divisive culture where Black women turn on one another so they can get ahead? Is demeaning your entire community really worth that promotion?
Also somewhat problematic for me is Harris’s assertion that she used her personal experiences in publishing to write those portions. I don’t know if she was just referring to the racial disparity or the code-switching that character Hazel uses regularly. The former definitely needs to be exposed and drummed out of the industry, although it’s easy enough to say and next to impossible to do over the course of just a few years.
The latter has made me pause time and again as I’ve thought this book in light of Thursday R.E.A.D.s. Admittedly, I haven’t read all of the press interviews Harris has done, so I don’t know if anyone has asked this question or whether she’s just expressed it on her own but I wonder. Has she witnessed code-switching in publishing? Was Hazel—that trait of hers, anyway—based on a real person?
What also bothered me is the method Hazel uses to take over her corner of the publishing world. Again, no spoilers here; even if I don’t like a book or feel like I can’t recommend it, I’m not going to ruin it for someone who might, potentially, love it. But after the intrigue of the notes that main character Nella receives urging her to leave Warner Books and the turmoil she experiences because she hates how Hazel behaves and yet craves to be like her, I just couldn’t buy into the big reveal of how Hazel controls other Black women. Some reviews online agree with me on this point.
Had this book released 10 years ago, it would have landed very differently for me. I would have probably read it as a straight thriller and not thought much else of it. I wouldn’t have spent nearly this much time considering how it added to the bigger cultural conversation regarding race and gender.
After George Floyd’s murder and the renewed discussion about racial and income disparity in publishing, though, I just…I almost want to say this book was in poor taste. I don’t think I could go quite as far as to state that outright. After all, Harris says she’s writing from her own experiences, and I’m not going to disparage her for sharing the truth of what she went through in her job. But it’s definitely in the gray area.
Do people within a minority group degrade one another for their own personal gain? Absolutely. That’s a given for any race, not because it’s an issue of ethnicity but of human nature. When given the right circumstances, people are capable of doing almost anything to one another if it elevates them or feeds their ego or self-esteem or some other deep-seated need. In writing, we would say this disparagement addresses the emotional wound of the person and soothes it for a short while.
There are plenty of new works, fiction and nonfictions, books and TV/film, that showcase Black people in a positive light. I know this book is just one small piece of the picture. I also don’t think we should lie to one another and make life all about rainbows and unicorns. I just wish the tone and the spirit of this book read differently.
As I’ve been writing this, it’s occurred to me that Nella spends so much of the book wishing to rise to the top. To be someone important, someone with influence. Inevitably, though, she achieves exactly the opposite. She becomes the pawn on the chessboard of someone else’s game; easily played, easily disposed of. And that message is, I think, what bothers me most of all.