BASF Book Club Review
The Barristers Diversity & Inclusion Committee Book Club Read “The Other Black Girl” by Zakiya Delila Harris
By Jacqueline M. Simonovich
Zakiya Delila Harris’ The Other Black Girl, is both an extremely relatable office novel and a necessary critique of performative diversity. Nella Rogers, as the only Black employee at Wagner Books, an elite publishing house, has suffered through Wagner’s mandatory Diversity Town Hall. The very definition of diversity seems to mystify Nella’s white colleagues. When Nella offers the word “BIPOC,” her white colleagues eagerly offer their own examples of diversity, like “left-handedness,” “dyslexia,” and “non-millennial.” Then Wagner hires another Black editorial assistant, Hazel-May McCall, and Nella is thrilled. She will finally have that “work wife,” someone who actually understands her. But when Hazel begins to inextricably win over all of Nella’s white colleagues, Nella starts to wonder whether she was better off as the only Black girl.
Nella’s is one of a few intertwining storylines in The Other Black Girl. However, Nella is ultimately the character we get to know the most, which is perhaps why the twist in this novel is so devastating. Nella’s office struggles are at once universal, like wrangling coffee from an uncooperative Keurig, and also unique for a person of color in a white space, like being mistaken for Hazel. But what makes Nella so real is how she struggles with her own cultural identity. Nella grew up in a largely white Connecticut suburb. She attended a public ivy, The University of Virginia, and her current boyfriend, Owen, is white. At first dreadlocked Hazel, who grew up in Harlem, makes Nella question her own Blackness, but Hazel also effortlessly inserts herself into Wagner culture, which is decidedly not Black.
The major subplot features Diana Gordon, the author of Nella’s favorite book Burning Heart, and Kendra Rae Phillips, her editor. Diana and Kendra, a Black author-editor team, seemed poised to change the publishing world as Burning Heart became an international bestseller. But Kendra’s trajectory is cut short when she publicly criticizes the all-white publishing industry. Diana, however, survives, but only by distancing herself from Kendra.
While Harris thoughtfully examines the burdens of being a token minority, the novel doesn’t feel heavy. Harris’ writing is sharp and funny, and it’s the type of book where you try to stop at just one more chapter. When the subplots finally converge the resolution does feel a bit jarring as it takes the novel into a sci-fi realm. However, you also appreciate Harris’ cleverness, even if the ending might not feel completely satisfying.
The Barristers Club Diversity and Inclusion Committee Book Club is picking a new book for its next meeting on December 2nd. Let us know what you would like to read by voting below and submit your own suggestions.
Jacqueline M. Simonovich is an Associate at Weintraub|Tobin and serves on the Barristers Club Executive Committee of the Barristers Diversity and Inclusion Committee.