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The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris – Summary, Quotes, and Themes

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the other black girl summary

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 by Zakiya Dalila Harris
the other black girl book

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.

In this reading guide, we’ll dive into a detailed summary of the book, explore powerful quotes that stand out, and uncover the key themes that shape the story. If you find this guide useful, let me know in the comments below!

Summary | Quotes | Themes

The Other Black Girl Summary

Part 1

The prologue unfolds in Manhattan during December 1983, introducing an unnamed narrator later revealed to be Kendra Rae Phillips. She flees the city in terror, escaping from an unsettling situation. Kendra Rae, the sole Black female editor at Wagner Books, had previously given an interview critiquing the racist structures ingrained in the publishing world.

Despite enduring significant media backlash, her primary concern remains the unidentified person or group pursuing her. As she anxiously awaits her departing train, Kendra Rae finds herself scratching her burning scalp.

Part 1 sets the stage for a parallel experience for the protagonist, Nella Rogers, who serves as an editorial assistant at Wagner in 2018. Being the only Black woman employed there, Nella endeavors to initiate conversations about racial bias during Diversity Town Hall meetings.

However, she holds reservations about the likelihood of substantial change taking place. The dynamics at Wagner shift when another Black woman, Hazel-May McCall, is hired, surprising Nella. The budding friendship between Nella and Hazel-May becomes an avenue for Nella to vent her frustrations, including those related to her work on a book titled Pins and Needles.

This particular book contains a racist portrayal of a Black woman. In response, Hazel advises Nella to voice her concerns to her supervisor, Vera Parini, as well as the author, Colin Franklin. Following Hazel’s advice, Nella’s actions lead to unexpected and dramatic consequences.

Part 2

Commencing with a flashback to the October 1983 release celebration for Diana Gordon’s novel Burning Heart, the opening of Part 2 reveals Kendra Rae’s weariness from enduring the racist microaggressions perpetuated by her white colleagues. She practices the statements she intends to make during her infamous interview, as the toll of these experiences becomes evident. A month later, Diana receives an urgent call from an individual determined to take action against the negative press surrounding Kendra Rae.

In 2018, Nella’s world begins to crumble. Her Black coworkers on other floors appear to favor Hazel, and Vera assigns Hazel the responsibilities typically entrusted to Nella. Furthermore, Hazel undermines Nella’s credibility by defending the problematic aspects of Pins and Needles during a companywide marketing meeting.

To make matters worse, Nella becomes the recipient of threatening notes, intensifying her anxiety and paranoia. Amid these developments, the narrative shifts twice to Shani’s perspective, a woman whose career Hazel dismantled before arriving at Wagner. Driven by a desire for retribution, Shani aligns herself with the Resistance, an underground faction dedicated to monitoring Hazel and the “Other Black Girls” (OBGs).

OBGs are ambitious, competitive women who infiltrate corporate environments, reshaping other Black women into compliant yet materially successful versions of themselves. Part 2 concludes from Kendra Rae’s viewpoint, as she answers an anonymous call from a distressed Nella. Motivated by this interaction, Kendra Rae resolves to return to Manhattan and join the Resistance.

Part 3

In Part 3, the ongoing power struggle between the “Other Black Girls” (OBGs) and the Resistance comes to the forefront. Nella participates in an event orchestrated by Hazel at Curl Central, a natural hair cafe.

During this gathering, Hazel unveils a collaborative initiative with Wagner Books owner Richard Wagner, aimed at fostering more equitable hiring practices within the publishing industry. This revelation leaves Nella both taken aback and envious, prompting her to confront Hazel about the announcement.

In response, Hazel downplays Nella’s concerns, extends a gesture of reconciliation in the form of a jar of Smooth’d Out hair grease, and extends an invitation to a natural hair party.

Shani, who attended the event, reports her observations to the Resistance the following day. Kendra Rae, who remains concealed at the Resistance headquarters, urges Shani to describe the contents of the jar.

This leads to Kendra Rae making a connection between Smooth’d Out, the substance that caused her scalp to burn in the Prologue, and the method through which OBGs are seemingly “converting” Black women.

Feeling compelled to intervene and prevent Nella’s transformation, Shani defies the Resistance’s stance and reaches out to Nella directly. Regrettably, the Resistance intervenes and intercepts Shani before the planned meeting can take place.

Part 4

The outset of Part 4 witnesses Diana recounting the sequence of events spanning from 1983 to 2018. Troubled by the negative repercussions stemming from Kendra Rae’s interview, Diana establishes a connection between her romantic partner, Richard Wagner, and her childhood friend, Imani.

Their collaboration seeks to develop a chemical formula capable of numbing the prefrontal cortex, consequently inducing compliance in Black women. Their initial attempt to employ the formula on Kendra Rae proves unsuccessful. Nevertheless, many years later, the trio successfully employs a network of “Lead Conditioners,” including Hazel, to enact the conversion of young Black women across the nation.

Uninformed about this elaborate scheme, Nella attends Hazel’s natural hair party, driven by the intention of uncovering more information about Hazel’s questionable behavior. During the event, Nella stumbles upon a folder containing files pertaining to several Black women, herself included.

The files contain meticulous notes detailing the process of conversion. Nella manages to escape from the situation. However, the subsequent day, at a significant meeting, Nella comes to the realization that Hazel has indeed converted their esteemed guest of honor, a renowned Black activist. Overwhelmed and somewhat resigned, Nella eventually succumbs to the notion of undergoing conversion.

In the Epilogue, Nella transforms into a Lead Conditioner, arriving in Portland, Oregon, with the mission to “correct” Shani’s condition.

The Other Black Girl Quotes

  1. Black history is Black horror. —Tanarive Due, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror.” (Epigraph, Page n/a)

    This opening quote sets the tone for the story by hinting at the characters’ racial backgrounds and the overarching themes: the historical and ongoing struggles faced by Black Americans. The quote also introduces the tension between different genres in the novel. On one hand, The Other Black Girl is a psychological thriller infused with elements of science fiction horror. On the other hand, it’s a realistic depiction of the injustices Black individuals endure daily, from systemic police brutality to subtle microaggressions in workplaces.
  1. Imani says it’s not supposed to burn.” (Prologue, Page 3)

    This early statement serves as a clue that Diana, Imani, and Richard collaborated to control young Black women using hair products. Kendra Rae’s discomfort prompts a recollection of this line, revealing that Diana and Imani are plotting against her. Her subsequent decision to distance herself from her past stems from this revelation. Later, Diana unveils that the initial formula of hair grease induced painful burns and mental impairment. Imani refines the formula into Smooth’d Out, eliminating the burning sensation.
  1. I uncrossed my legs as I considered how long I could stay missing…” (Prologue, Page 3)

    Directly following the previous passage, this excerpt provides insight into the plot while potentially introducing a misleading clue. Kendra Rae’s evasion of Diana and Imani is matched by her avoidance of the media due to a public scandal she’s entangled in. The ambiguity arises from Harris’s use of “they.” Readers question whether Kendra Rae seeks solitude from her former friends or escape from media scrutiny. As the passage unfolds, the uncertainty surrounding “they” amplifies the enigma of who poses a greater threat to Kendra Rae—Diana and Imani or the media.
  1. The first sign was the smell of cocoa butter.” (Part 1, Chapter 1, Page 9)

    The opening line of the first chapter introduces a key motif in the novel: natural haircare. Cocoa butter, found in products like Brown Buttah and Smooth’d Out, symbolizes Black identity throughout the story. This scent marks Hazel’s arrival at Wagner and alerts Nella to the presence of another Black woman in the office. The aroma of cocoa butter becomes a recurring element, drifting through various chapters, tying them together.
  2. Now, Nella was no fool. She understood that characters of color were en vogue…” (Part 1, Chapter 2, Page 18)

    This passage paints Nella as a relatable yet imperfect protagonist. Her self-awareness highlights the connection between biased media representation and racial violence, particularly within the publishing industry. Nella, though not an activist, supports those who call out misrepresentations. Despite her sincere intentions, her actions can be seen as performative due to her relative class privilege. Her version of activism involves a temporary shift in shopping habits.
  3. Years later, at a neighborhood picnic, her father asked Gerald’s brother why he hadn’t warned him…

    Following Hazel’s request for Nella’s perspective on Wagner’s cultural environment, Nella recalls her father’s job experience. A fellow Black man encouraged him to work for a white-owned, Black-run establishment, which turned out to be a facade for systemic racism. The dialogue that follows reflects a cycle where complicity in white supremacy persists among Black individuals. This memory compels Nella to break the cycle and provide an honest review of working at Wagner to Hazel.
  4. Hazel took a couple of steps toward the table and picked up her own mug…” (Part 1, Chapter 3, Page 45)

    This excerpt unveils the growing resemblance between Nella and Hazel, hinting at their doppelganger-like connection. Initially, Nella sees shared interests with Hazel, like literature preferences. However, as the narrative progresses, Nella’s perspective shifts, painting Hazel as a rival. Such moments blur the boundary between the two women, suggesting that Nella might have been destined to follow a similar path to Hazel’s from the outset.”
  5. Since Burning Heart had been both written and edited by Black women…” (Part 1, Chapter 3, Page 46)

    Nella’s observation about the rarity of collaboration between individuals of the same non-white race reflects the structural inequalities in workplaces, often dominated by white voices. Burning Heart’s representation stands out due to the joint efforts of Black writers and editors. This unique occurrence symbolizes the power of Black solidarity. Interestingly, Nella’s reaction to potentially working with Hazel on the Jesse Watson title is ironic, given her earlier perspective.
  6. Because he’s just going to think I’m calling him racist…” (Part 1, Chapter 4, Page 52)

    This excerpt highlights the impact of white fragility, or the defensive response white individuals often display when their racial bias is pointed out. Nella and Hazel’s lunchtime conversation delves into the portrayal of Shartricia, revealing Nella’s hesitation to critique Colin due to potential consequences. Nella’s vulnerability as a junior employee is heightened by the economic implications of Colin’s reaction.
  7. Her colleagues, strangely, had made it clear very early on that they didn’t really see her as a young Black woman…” (Part 1, Chapter 4, Page 53)

    Nella’s reflection on her dual identity at Wagner underscores the complexity of her experience. While she appreciates not being constantly singled out, the moniker “Obama of publishing” suggests Nella’s internal struggle. She grapples with whether her presence reinforces racial bias through complicity or challenges it through activism.
  8. ‘That’s easy for you to say.’ Nella paused, her stick of deodorant poised mid-application…” (Part 2, Chapter 6, Page 82)

    Nella and Owen’s conversation following her awkward encounter with Colin delves into their differing perspectives shaped by their identities. Owen’s optimism contrasts Nella’s belief that the incident will permanently affect her career. The couple’s candid discussions usually provide insight into their experiences, but here, Owen’s assumptions highlight the limits of his understanding.
  9. “‘So… you can’t tie scarves, or do flat twists?’ Hazel was visibly taken aback…” (Part 2, Chapter 6, Page 87)

    A conversation between Nella and Hazel in the elevator showcases Nella’s vulnerability and insecurity. Hazel’s surprise at Nella’s unfamiliarity with Black hair styling leaves Nella questioning her identity. The exchange further triggers reflections on Nella’s past and the limited exposure to Black experiences during her upbringing and college years.”

The Other Black Girl Themes

Systemic and Internalized Racism

In The Other Black Girl, a powerful model emerges showcasing the intricate relationship between systemic racism and its internalized manifestations, which in turn fuel the perpetuation of the very systemic racism they arise from.

Throughout the novel, instances of systemic racism’s horrors are seamlessly woven into the narrative. Nella frequently encounters explicit forms of anti-Black racism and violence, ranging from police brutality and redlining to harmful media campaigns.

However, her daily experiences also encompass commonplace yet disturbing forms of systemic racism within the workplace: disparities in structures, biased hiring practices that restrict opportunities for people of color, the defensiveness often accompanying discussions of bias, and the continual microaggressions from well-intentioned white women like Sophie, who casually utter the word “Black” and refer to “those people.”

Beyond systemic racism, Zakiya Dalila Harris delves into the insidious manner through which Black individuals can internalize racial hierarchies and subsequently perpetuate racial biases after years of exposure to these toxic ideologies.

Harris employs the trope of “Uncle Tom” to illuminate the characteristics and consequences of this internalized racism. Originating from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the term has evolved into a derogatory label for an enslaved Black character excessively subservient to their white master. In essence, an “Uncle Tom” conforms to notions of Blackness that do not challenge the supremacy of whiteness.

Shani’s use of the term to describe OBGs in Part 3, as well as Nella’s application of it to Hazel in Part 4, accuses these women of a complete deference to their white superiors. This subservience momentarily serves OBGs by yielding job opportunities and promotions, while perpetuating the very systemic racism that oppresses them and others in the long run.

This aligns with Lynn’s description in Part 2, portraying OBGs as young women who, driven by an obsession with success and driven to eliminate Black women who obstruct their path, become beholden solely to themselves and their white employers.

This competitive drive stems from a fear of scarcity – a belief that if opportunities for Black women are limited and only one can succeed per office, then fierce competition among Black women seems almost rational. However, this logic falls short, as job scarcity is a product of systemic racism rather than the employment status of other Black women.

Breaking free from the cycle of systemic and internalized racism, as Nella endeavors to do in Chapter 2, necessitates the acknowledgment of these racist structures as the root source of oppression. True progress involves standing together in solidarity, lifting each other up, and dismantling the oppressive patterns instead of perpetuating them.

Embracing Unity in Black Female Experiences

A hallmark of effective horror tales lies in their ability to evoke both pleasure and fear, often simultaneously. Within The Other Black Girl, author Harris not only crafts moments of tension and unease among its Black female characters, but also weaves scenes where they revel in one another’s camaraderie, finding comfort in shared experiences unique to Black womanhood.

This rings especially true for Nella and Hazel, who consistently confront racial bias while collaborating with white women at Wagner. Instances such as Vera’s reluctance to promote Nella due to her involvement in diversity meetings (Chapter 1) and invasive inquiries by white editorial assistants into Hazel’s family history (Chapter 11) form discrimination patterns absent in the experiences of their white counterparts at Wagner.

The novel also delves into Nella’s intersectional encounter as a Black woman in an interracial relationship with Owen. In Chapter 12, Nella reflects on being fetishized in college due to her dual identity as a Black woman. In Chapter 16, she confronts Owen about his privilege, a dynamic stemming from his dual identity as a white man.

Contrastingly, the novel portrays Black women seeking and, at times, finding solidarity and comfort in the company of fellow Black women who share similar life perspectives. In Part 2, Nella and Kendra Rae envy those who experienced college immersed in Black culture alongside other Black women. Despite differing socioeconomic backgrounds, Nella and Malaika bond over the “Black Female Experience,” rooted in growing up with Black sitcoms (Chapter 21). Even as Nella regards Hazel as a rival by Part 4, she momentarily finds solace in their physical contact, particularly as Hazel works Smooth’d Out through her hair (Chapter 311).

The joy that Nella, Kendra Rae, and the reader discover in these shared intergenerational memories of Black women nurturing each other’s hair becomes what makes Hazel’s betrayal and Diana’s manipulation of hair grease so impactful. These moments should evoke a sense of “Black-girl solidarity’s lilt” (Chapter 342), yet they are distorted to reshape Black women in their own image. This convergence of pleasure and fear encapsulates the essence of a compelling horror narrative.

Embracing the Notion of “Being Black Enough”

In a May 2021 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Harris articulated her ambition for the novel, aiming to have readers embrace multifaceted notions of Blackness simultaneously (Harris, Zakiya Dalila. “Zakiya Dalila Harris on her blockbuster debut The Other Black Girl: ‘I want readers to hold many ideas of Blackness at the same time.’” Interviewed by Seija Rankin, Entertainment Weekly, 20 May 2021,

Demonstrating great skill, Harris successfully introduces Black characters, each distinctly unique. While Nella and Malaika share certain Black female experiences as best friends, their backgrounds vary across regions and socioeconomic strata. Similarly, Diana and Kendra Rae, despite hailing from the same city and undergoing similar experiences, hold contrasting perspectives on achieving success within predominantly white professional spaces.

As for Nella and C.J., both part of Wagner, their different backgrounds result in divergent paths – Nella’s privilege facilitates a white-collar career, while C.J.’s circumstances lead him to support his family by working in the mailroom.

These characters boast distinct family dynamics, educations, motivations, and priorities. Collectively, they exemplify a multitude of Black experiences. The novel’s narrative demonstrates that there is no inherent “Blackness” governing Black individuals.

Imposing narrow definitions based on negative associations merely fuels prejudiced stereotypes. Portrayals like Colin Franklin’s depiction of Shartricia or Leonard’s “pickaninny” cover art exemplify how Blackness is distorted and entrenched in harmful media representations. Harris defies these stereotypes by introducing characters who embody a range of Black experiences.

Conversely, constraining Blackness to positive traits can also be detrimental. Nella grapples with feelings of inadequacy regarding her racial identity, as she perceives herself as not “Black enough.” Viewing Harlem as a quintessentially Black environment, she grapples with growing up in Connecticut surrounded by white friends.

For Nella, natural hair symbolizes Black beauty and power, yet she only recently embraced it. Struggling with socially constructed standards of Blackness, Nella contends with persistent self-doubt.

According to Harris, however, Nella’s authenticity as a Black individual isn’t diminished by her Connecticut upbringing or her struggles with headscarves. Nella embodies one of numerous valid iterations of Black experiences, both within and beyond the novel’s pages.

Final thoughts

As readers journey through the pages of The Other Black Girl, they encounter characters who transcend simplistic definitions of Blackness, embodying a spectrum of backgrounds, aspirations, and struggles.

The novel challenges stereotypes by portraying individuals who resist being pigeonholed into narrow categories. Through the diverse cast, Harris emphasizes that there’s no one-size-fits-all experience of Blackness – it’s a multidimensional mosaic of personal histories, dreams, and challenges.

At its core, the novel explores the intricate relationship between systemic racism and internalized biases. Harris compellingly demonstrates how these forces feed into each other, creating a cycle that perpetuates inequities.

The Other Black Girl is more than a gripping tale; it’s a mirror that reflects the intricate web of biases, perceptions, and experiences that shape our lives. Through its vivid characters and intricate storytelling, the novel encourages readers to question preconceived notions, engage with uncomfortable truths, and explore the multifaceted landscape of Black identity.

As I wrap up this reading guide, I hope you’ve been inspired by the summary, resonated with the thought-provoking quotes, and gained a deeper understanding of the central themes that shape the narrative.

Happy reading! 📖