The Other Black Girl
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Published in 2021, Zakiya Dalila Harris’s The Other Black Girl is a psychological thriller set in Manhattan’s competitive, predominantly white publishing scene. Harris, who worked as an editorial assistant at Alfred A. Knopf publishing house in Manhattan, draws together elements of literary realism and science fiction horror to deliver a novel in which office politics breed paranoia and natural haircare products condition more than dreadlocks. The Other Black Girl traces the experiences of five Black women at Wagner Books from 1983 to 2018 to address subjects including systemic and internalized racism, Black female experiences, workplace privilege, and the role of media in racial representations. A New York Times best seller, The Other Black Girl is being adapted into a limited series for Hulu.
The Prologue opens in Manhattan in December 1983 as an unnamed narrator, later revealed to be Kendra Rae Phillips, flees New York City in terror. The only Black female editor at Wagner Books, Kendra Rae gave an interview in which she critiqued the racist structures within the publishing world. Although she faces massive media backlash, Kendra Rae is more concerned about the person or people pursuing her. As she anxiously waits for her train to leave the city, Kendra Rae scratches her burning scalp.
Part 1 foreshadows a similar fate for protagonist Nella Rogers, an editorial assistant and the only Black woman who works at Wagner in 2018. Despite her attempts to start conversations about racial bias in Diversity Town Halls, Nella doubts any meaningful change will occur. Wagner surprises Nella by hiring another Black woman named Hazel-May McCall. The two women become friends, and Nella vents about a book she’s editing called Pins and Needles, which features a racist caricature of a Black woman. Hazel recommends that Nella share her concerns with her boss, Vera Parini, and the author, Colin Franklin. Nella takes Hazel’s advice, which backfires spectacularly. Part 1 ends on a cliffhanger: Is Nella’s career at Wagner, like Kendra Rae’s, now over?
Part 2 opens with a flashback to the October 1983 release party for Diana Gordon’s novel Burning Heart. Visibly fatigued by the racist microaggressions of her white colleagues, Kendra Rae rehearses the comments she will voice in her infamous interview. One month later, Diana receives a frantic call from someone who wants to “do something” about Kendra Rae’s bad press.
In 2018 Nella’s life begins to unravel. Her Black coworkers from other floors seem to favor Hazel, and Vera asks Hazel to assume Nella’s usual tasks. Hazel also ruins Nella’s credibility by defending Pins and Needles in a companywide marketing meeting. Worst of all, Nella starts receiving threatening notes telling her to leave Wagner, which feed her anxiety and paranoia. Punctuating these scenes are two chapters told from the perspective of Shani, a woman whose career Hazel sabotaged before coming to Wagner. Out for revenge, Shani joins the Resistance, an underground group tracking Hazel and OBGs, or “Other Black Girls.” OBGs are driven, competitive women who infiltrate corporate workplaces and “convert” normal Black women into compliant yet materially successful shades of themselves. Part 2 ends from Kendra Rae’s perspective, after she receives an anonymous call from a broken Nella and decides to come back to Manhattan and join the Resistance as well.
Part 3 reveals the ongoing struggle for power between OBGs and the Resistance. Nella attends an event Hazel organized at Curl Central, a natural hair cafe, where Hazel announces a joint initiative with Wagner Books owner Richard Wagner to create more equitable hiring practices in publishing. Stunned and jealous, Nella confronts Hazel. Hazel dismisses Nella’s concerns, gives her a jar of Smooth’d Out hair grease as a peace offering, and invites her to a natural hair party. Shani, who attended the event, reports her observations to the Resistance the following day. Kendra Rae, who is in hiding at the Resistance headquarters, asks Shani to describe the contents of the jar and draws a connection between Smooth’d Out, the substance that burned Kendra Rae’s scalp in the Prologue, and the method by which OBGs are “converting” Black women. Unable to stand by and watch Nella’s conversion, Shani defies the Resistance and contacts Nella directly; however, the Resistance intercepts Shani before they can meet.
At the beginning of Part 4 Diana recounts the chain of events leading from 1983 to 2018. Frustrated by the bad publicity from Kendra Rae’s interview, Diana connects her lover, Richard Wagner, with her childhood friend, Imani, to develop a chemical formula that can numb the prefrontal cortex, thus making Black women more compliant. They try and fail to use the formula on Kendra Rae; however, decades later the trio successfully employs a network of “Lead Conditioners” like Hazel to convert young Black women all over the country. Unaware of this scheme, Nella attends Hazel’s natural hair party with the intention of learning more about Hazel’s shady behavior. Nella finds a folder with files on a handful of Black women, herself included, with detailed notes about conversion. Nella escapes, but the following day at an important meeting, Nella realizes that Hazel has converted their guest of honor, a famous Black activist. Defeated and somewhat relieved, Nella finally consents to conversion. In the Epilogue, Nella becomes a Lead Conditioner who arrives in Portland, Oregon to “fix” Shani.