Book ‘The Other Black Girl’ by Zakiya Dalila Harris

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Urgent, propulsive, and sharp as a knife, The Other Black Girl is an electric debut about the tension that unfurls when two young Black women meet against the starkly white backdrop of New York City book publishing. Twenty-six-year-old editorial assistant Nella Rogers is tired of being the only Black employee at Wagner Books. Fed up with the isolation and microaggressions, she’s thrilled when Harlem-born and bred Hazel starts working in the cubicle beside hers. They’ve only just started comparing natural hair care regimens, though, when a string of uncomfortable events elevates Hazel to Office Darling, and Nella is left in the dust. Then the notes begin to appear on Nella’s desk: LEAVE WAGNER. NOW...
Publisher: ‎Atria Books (June 1, 2021)  Language: ‎English  Hardcover: ‎368 pages  ISBN-10: ‎1982160136  ISBN-13: ‎978-1982160135  ASIN: ‎B08NDZT2BL

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Black history is Black horror.
— Tananarive Due, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror

Prologue

December 1983
Grand Central Terminal
Midtown, Manhattan

Stop fussing at it, now. Leave it alone.

But my nails found my scalp anyway, running from front to back to front again. My reward was a moment of sweet relief, followed by a familiar flood of dry, searing pain.

Stop it. Stop it.

I’d already learned that the more I scratched, the more it’d resemble the burn of a bad perm—a bad perm that had been stung by fifty wasps and then soused with moonshine. My small opportunity for reprieve would come only after the train started moving, when I could finally close my eyes and take comfort in the growing distance between me and New York City. Still, I continued to scrape at the itch incessantly, my attention shifting to another startling concern: We weren’t moving yet.

My eyes darted to the strip of train platform visible through the open doors, my mind moving faster than I’d moved through Grand Central Terminal just minutes earlier. What if someone followed me here?

Slowly, carefully, I raised myself up to check. On the left side of the car were a young brunette mother and her baby, clad in matching itchy-looking red winter coats with black velvet lapels. On the right was a gray-haired, greasy-looking man with his forehead smashed against the glass window, snoring so loudly that I could almost feel the train car shake. We were still the same four we’d been when I’d ducked into this car five minutes earlier.

Good.

I exhaled and sat back down on my hands, willing the wave of mild relief that had washed over my brain to wash over my heart, too. But the latter organ hadn’t gotten the memo yet, and a sudden flash of a shadow passing by the open door set my brain off again.

Did anyone see me get into the cab?
What the hell am I doing?
What the hell are they doing?

I shook my head and crossed my legs, my nylons scraping against one another like two black pieces of sandpaper, the round toe of my too-tight heels rubbing the bottom of the seat in front of me. I hated these tights and these shoes and this peacoat I’d thrown on in the dark; I hated how stiff my entire body felt—cold, numb, like it had been dipped in a tank full of ice water.

But I could fix all that later. What concerned me more were the things I couldn’t name. The things that were causing me to buzz and burn and want to flee not just my home, but the tightening constraints of my skin itself.

There was the sound of a bell, followed by a calling voice. A male voice. It took me a moment to realize that the shadow I’d seen passing by the door belonged to the conductor. He was in the back of my car now, working his way up to the front. “Sir,” he was saying, in a polite attempt to wake the snoring man for his ticket.

“Sir.” I fumbled nervously for my shoulder bag. I knew I had enough money on me; before sneaking out of my apartment, I’d made sure to grab the savings from that torn pair of polka-dotted panties I kept hidden in the bottom of my sock drawer. But now I was here, about to get going, and I still didn’t know where I was get going to. I’d meant to make small chat with the brother driving the taxi—flash him some teeth in the rearview mirror the way I used to do before everyone knew my name, see if he knew any parts of upstate New York that were particularly cordial to our kind of people—but my mind had been too fixated on what had sent me running in the first place. What I’d overheard her say to him on the phone.

Imani says it’s not supposed to burn.

I uncrossed my legs as I considered how long I could stay missing. Judging by how hard my name was being dragged through the papers, it wouldn’t be difficult for anyone to believe I’d want to “take a break” from the spotlight. But how long would they leave me alone? How long would they be kind to Trace before demanding answers? They weren’t going to let me off the hook that easily. Not after what I had done.

I uncrossed my legs as I considered how long I could stay missing. Judging by how hard my name was being dragged through the papers, it wouldn’t be difficult for anyone to believe I’d want to “take a break” from the spotlight. But how long would they leave me alone? How long would they be kind to Trace before demanding answers? They weren’t going to let me off the hook that easily. Not after what I had done.

All those careers, jeopardized. A note, slipped under my door in the dead of the night by a Black writer I’d idolized for much of my youth: You couldn’t just let things be?

More burning. More searing pain. I was scratching at my neck again, grateful for any kind of distraction from those words, when a hand gripped my shoulder. I let out a small shriek and batted it away, only to realize it belonged to the equally frightened-looking conductor.

Never had I been so excited to see a white male stranger in my entire life. “I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said, “but I’m going to need to see your ticket, ma’am.”

“Oh.” I pulled out a crisp twenty from my wallet. When I looked back up at him, he was leaning against the seat across the row from mine, waiting patiently with a small smile. He appeared to be in his mid-twenties, at most five years younger than me, and he had a kind enough face when he asked where I was headed.

“Good question,” I said, just as the snoring started back up again a few rows behind me. “What’s the most northern stop on this train?”

The conductor’s smile widened with curiosity as he moved to accept the bill. “Poughkeepsie, ma’am,” he said. “About two hours north, and it’ll be four seventy-five to get there.”

“Okay. Actually, hold on—I might have seventy-five…” I reached for my wallet again to unearth a few quarters. Only after he handed me my ticket and my change did he punch the air in front of him and say, eyes flickering, “Right! I’ve got it. I know where I’ve seen you before.”

I swallowed, shook my head once. No, no, no.

“I was just reading about you this morning,” he said, pointing at something in his back pocket. A rolled-up newspaper. The twinkle in his eyes went out, and when he spoke again, his words came slowly, like he was deciding if I was worth wasting them on. “I was a big fan of yours. So I was really surprised to learn how you really feel.”

Look away. That was what I told my eyes to do. But instead of averting my eyes, instead of telling this man, Leave me alone, I don’t know what you’re talking about, I did something that surprised him, and surprised myself even more.

I looked him in the face. And I smiled.

“Oh, heavens—you mean that witchy lady from the news, right?” I crowed. “Why, that happened to me on the way here. My taxi driver made the same mistake. Can you imagine that? Twice in one day! I reckon it’s a good thing I’m leaving the city now, ain’t it?”

When the last of the shrill, inhuman sound escaped my lips—laughter, it was supposed to be—some of that early twinkle returned to the conductor’s eyes.

He moved closer, sizing me up a little too long. But I kept my smile big and bold and harmless, just like Grandma Jo did every morning she traveled across town to clean white folks’ houses.

“Ah. I see it now. The eyes,” the conductor decided, finally. “You look far too young to be her.” He turned to leave. “Well, you have a good day, ma’am. And I’m real sorry about that.”

As he made his way to the next car, I heard him chuckle. “Witch indeed,” he muttered.

Relieved, I cast one more glance toward the door, the sudden movement causing me to shrink from the pain. The itchiness hadn’t just returned; it was all-consuming. Unyielding. I reached up again to scratch—stop it, stop it—but the itch simply moved to a new site, and I had to bite my lip to keep from screaming. One scratch would always lead to another, then another. I’d be scratching until the end of the line. And once I got to the end of the line, that wouldn’t be it. I’d still be scratching. And I’d probably still be running, too.

I groaned and slid over in my seat to rest my head against the window. It was as warm and sweaty as the skin beneath my collar, but as the train sped up, each swath of tunnel passing seamlessly into the next, I closed my eyes anyway. I could pretend, at least for this train ride, that everything was okay. That itwasn’t too late.


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