The Other Black Girl and the Power of Hair

Nella works at Wagner in New York. But life in the publishing world is not easy for a young black woman, especially as the only black person in the office. So Nella is excited when Hazel, a new black colleague, arrives. They go for lunch, compare notes on colleagues and cringe together over their white office mates’ attempts at being colour blind. But it soon turns out that Hazel is anything but the long desired confidante. Instead, she diverts all attention to herself and soon becomes everyone’s darling, while things are going downhill for Nella when secret notes appear asking her to leave Wagner.

The Other Black Girl is a story about office politics, fighting racism, prejudice and micro aggression, and the question if you can ever be really friends with anyone at work. It is also about the disabling feeling of self-doubt and the challenge of staying true to yourself when social social expectations pull you into another direction.

Zakiya Dalila Harris has clearly experienced some of this herself, as she admits in the acknowledgements to her debut novel. After all, she left a job in publishing to write the book, and she must have spent a lot of time wondering what would happen if only black women had a magic wand to help them on the career ladder in a world that seems designed for white people.

In the book, this magic wand turns out to be a hair cream black women use to manage their natural locs, and the art of managing unruly hair becomes a metaphor for managing life. But there are sinister things going on beneath the surface.

The story of Nella set in the late 2010s is interwoven with the story of a famous black editor, who produced a major bestseller in the 1980s only to mysteriously disappear shortly after. Both their stories are linked by that of a radical young author who has joined a black underground movement. But who is exactly on which side is not always immediately apparent.

The plotline, it has to be said, is not always entirely convincing and at times threatens to veer off into the absurd. Harris likely had a lot of fun with it though and might have employed some of the weirder twists to keep the story light. Nevertheless, her acute observation of human nature and her precise description of character make this a very engaging read. While the novel addresses some specifically black issues, the book as a whole deals with more universal questions, and other minorities as well as women from different backgrounds might find it highly relatable.

Zakiya Dalila Harris, The Other Black Girl (London: Bloomsbury, [2021] 2022).

gma

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By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.

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