In the last few years, diversity has been a major point of contrast and discussion in literature. However, the conversation has always focused on representation within texts rather than diversity in offices. While I hope every industry and corporation has the ambition of diversity and equity, the publishing field has always struggled more than most with this concept. The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris, brings this issue to the forefront as the background for her story.
The Other Black Girl chronicles the story of Nella at Wagner Books. For 2 years, she’s been the only black employee that is, “higher-up on the totem pole.” She’s dutifully assisted her boss Vera, attempted to create a more diverse and respectful company, and for the most part, she kept her head down. Unsure of where to draw the line of professionalism versus her Black Pride, Nella has struggled to create meaningful relationships within the office. As a result, she’s always been somewhat uncomfortable with her role and her company.
Nella’s story starts out the same way many black employees’ stories start, with the social prejudice that being black is in someway unprofessional. In the grand scheme of race relations in America, the idea of ‘respectful’ or ‘business appropriate’ dress codes only started to become a conversation around 5 to 10 years ago. And while things such as natural hair care or locks are being respected more, the lingering sensation of what is and isn’t ‘appropriate’ is still thriving. Harris employs this feeling through her diction without ever mentioning Nella’s discomfort.
Until, that is, when it becomes entirely over-whelming for the character. Nella’s inward strife only grows when Hazel, the other Black editorial assistant, becomes an outward stressor. Her inward competition has become a physical one; a professional survival of the fittest. In this case, however, it is survival of the prejudices. Which employee can make their white coworkers more comfortable? Which employee can blur the lines of professionalism most successfully? Which employee can forgive the sensitivities of their coworkers and racist authors? Hazel seems to have a tact for this. A tact that Nella doesn’t have nor want, but why is she missing this piece? And why does someone keep trying to push Nella out of Wagner?
The Other Black Girl is a slightly fantastical story with important themes and conversations. The pacing is swift and the organization allows for an intimate look at the characters. My only real critique about this book is that some of the flashbacks are too long. By the time we come back around to the immediate setting and situation, I need to take a moment and remind myself what was happening prior to such. Other than that, I believe that Zakiya Dalila Harris did a wonderful job formulating an important story for a wide audience. The more people that read this book, the better.