Be Woke, But Keep Some of That Sleep in Your Eyes: A Conversation with Zakiya Dalila Harris

August 4, 2021   •   By Rachel Barenbaum

ZAKIYA DALILA HARRIS’S debut novel, The Other Black Girl, is a psychological thriller that twists and turns right up to the very last page. Every time I thought I knew what the book was about, I didn’t, and I loved it for that as much as I admired the way it shined a light on systemic racism and questioned how we fight against it. Do we battle quietly with a smile or with a loud voice and fists raised?


The narrative opens with the spotlight on Nella, an ambitious young Black woman working as an assistant at a lily-white publishing house, Wagner Books. Nella is hardworking, focused on a promotion, and well on her way until a difficult manuscript lands on her desk. It is from their biggest author, a white man, and his book has one Black character that Nella thinks was added because his editor “must’ve suggested he throw some color in there.” The character is named Shartricia, and Nella describes her as icky: “Especially her voice, which read as a cross between that of a freed slave and a Tyler Perry character down on her luck.” Nella is still deciding how to deliver her rebuke when Hazel enters the picture.


Hazel is Wagner’s newest hire, their second Black assistant, and she is Nella’s opposite. Hazel is bolder and rises faster; her skin is darker, her clothes are hipper. And then there is her signature aromatic hair grease. In Harris’s capable hands, hair rises above the status of symbol to become a tool, a weapon wielded on behalf of what Harris calls Black Girl Magic. While using her hair grease, Hazel explains, “You’ll read those articles, watch the police footage, then go to work the next morning without feeling like another part of you has died.” 


I sat down with Harris recently to discuss her new novel, the importance of hair, and the whiteness of the publishing industry. 


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RACHEL BARENBAUM: Congratulations on this fantastic debut. I loved The Other Black Girl. Before I even finished the book, I knew my first question for you had to be about hair. Hair can embody identity, can serve as a marker of race or culture or even age. Why did you focus on Black women’s hair as your way into a psychological thriller?


ZAKIYA DALILA HARRIS: Thank you so much! And you’re absolutely right; hair means so many different things to so many different people. My own hair has been a big part of my identity for pretty much all of my life. When I was little, my mom would braid my hair every morning, which was often very painful because of how tender-headed I am. I would squirm around uncomfortably while my mom said, “I’m sorry, I know, I know it hurts,” because she went through the same thing when she was a little girl.


Then, when I turned 10, my mom allowed me to start getting my hair relaxed, which really excited me because I went to a predominantly white school and I wanted straight hair more than anything … only to learn that relaxers come with their own kind of visceral pain.


I’ve only recently realized just how much I resented my natural hair when I was younger. I saw it as a burden, something to be dealt with. It was only about five years ago, when I decided to do the Big Chop, when I really began embracing my natural hair and all of its texture.


Hair is a tremendous part of Nella’s journey, too. Like me, she sometimes feels as though she missed out on a particular kind of Black experience as a kid. But even though she was raised middle class and grew up mostly around white people, none of that changes the way her hair grows out of her scalp. Besides Nella’s brown skin, her hair is the biggest, most obvious connection she has to her Blackness and, thus, to the entire Black diaspora. And it’s the thing that really draws her to Hazel.


Okay, now I have to ask about the hair grease. How did the idea come to you to use hair grease as a weapon and/or tool?


I was working through the first draft of the book when I realized that I needed to finally decide what was really going on with Hazel. I had established that she and Nella would bond over being the only two Black women in the office, and that Hazel would then take a turn. I even knew who was pulling the strings behind the scenes. But I didn’t know how that person was pulling the strings exactly. So, one day, as my partner and I rode the train into Manhattan, I told him about the progress I had made with the book, and all of the ideas I was still trying to work out. He’s always been my sounding board for ideas. And he suggested the grease.


Immediately, I was like, “The grease — of course!” The amount of time I spend putting stuff in my hair, braiding it, twisting it … it just seemed so obvious.


I love that you focused on women in this book — professional, ambitious women. Men were largely in the background, except for Richard Wagner. Every time he popped up, I wanted him gone! Why was Richard, a white man, one of the key figures in this novel? 


I totally get that, because when I was writing this book, I didn’t want Richard to take up too much room, either! However, I did feel Richard’s inclusion was essential. He’s the very embodiment of what precludes publishing from being more inclusive. It isn’t simply that Richard is white and has privilege — what’s particularly troubling about him is his opportunism disguised as open-mindedness. He tries to come off as an ally, but he isn’t — and that lack of self-awareness can be far more damaging than someone who is outwardly racist.


Another reason Richard is necessary to this story is his track record of never being held accountable. Every Black woman in this book has faced repercussions for a decision they made, while Richard has never had to answer to anything in his life. He has been able to cement himself so firmly within the foundation of publishing that those with less power and less privilege have no choice but to revolve around him. We see a lot of that today, in every industry.


Let’s talk about OBGs — Other Black Girls. In one scene, OBGs are explained as not our kind, something close to alien. You write,


[T]here was a deeper explanation for why these young women were suddenly no longer beholden to anyone but themselves and the white people they worked for. Why they were so obsessed with success — and with taking down any Black women who got in their way.


Can you tell me about OBGs? What inspired this classification?


The term “OBG” itself has a few different connotations. When I first wrote this, the acronym came from a joke a friend of mine and I made whenever we attended events where there were few Black people, or none at all. We would point out the Other Black Girl in the room — “the OBG” — and wonder about her.


But even before we developed that joke, I would often clock the other Black person in the classroom, the office, the party … whatever. It’s something I think a lot of Black people do. Sometimes, it’s how we assess how safe a space is, or how open we can be. “Oh, you’re here, too? Cool. In that case, I can be here, too.” Other times, though, it’s not so simple. When there are few of us in a space, it’s easy to worry that we’re going to be compared with one another or, even worse, mistaken for the other. And that worry can breed competition to be better, to shine brighter — especially in workplace environments that were already competitive to begin with.


In the beginning, Nella and Hazel present two different ways of changing a racist office and the publishing world. On the one hand there is loud opposition, a willingness to call out horrific characters like Shartricia. On the other hand, there’s the quieter change, the gentler change that comes when Hazel says she won’t force Black women to lose their jobs. Throughout the novel, we watch Nella struggling between these two approaches. Was it hard to write these two sides? To have your characters choose?


I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about which is the best way to spark change, and even more time concluding that it really depends on the situation and the person. With this book, I wanted to show why both approaches are not only valid but also symbiotic.


Unfortunately, Nella doesn’t really have the space to implement both approaches — not as the only Black girl at her job, and certainly not after Hazel shows up. Wagner’s environment is such that Nella must decide which approach she’s going to take, and I had a feeling of which way that decision would go when I first started writing.


One of the most powerful passages in the novel was when you wrote that Nella and her friend “couldn’t decide which was worse: knowing and not acting on it, or not knowing at all.” What do you think is worse? Why? 


To be completely honest, I’m not sure! It’s hard to say. I can see why a Black person wouldn’t speak up about something they know is problematic because they have a family to support and a roof to keep over their head. That’s important, especially given how difficult it is to make a living as a Black person in this country. The odds have been stacked against you since before you were born.


On the other hand, I feel a sense of betrayal toward Black public figures who capitalize by negating the fact that racism exists in this country. It always makes me think, “Who hurt you? How did you get this way?” Because I can’t truly understand how any Black person could deny that this country doesn’t have a racism problem.


On the other other hand, I know that nature and nurture can make all the difference. When I was a kid, there were a lot of things I didn’t think twice about because I was the Only Black Person in the room. I didn’t want to stand out. And if you continue trying to make yourself that small for the rest of your life — as many Black people feel like they have to do — I can see how one might start to believe you really aren’t experiencing any racism. That denial is comforting for some people, perhaps even a form of protection in their eyes. (In the eyes of others, it can be called “selling out.”)


See! It’s hard to decide which is worse, because it’s so much more nuanced than “better” or “worse,” and that’s why I put this conversation — and many others like it — in the book. I have these same kinds of gray-area conversations with other Black people.


Here’s another of my favorite passages in the book:


It was difficult to decide whether the confidence that had always emanated off Hazel was manufactured, something that the Smooth’d Out has instilled within her. Or if it was a push she’d always had within, from the day she’d first learned that it would not be enough for her to simply go to college, get good grades, and get the interview. That it wouldn’t be enough to simply show up to work; to simply wear the right clothes. You had to wear the right mentality. You had to live the mentality. Be everyone’s best friend. Be sassy. Be confident, but also be deferential. […] Be woke, but still keep some of that sleep in your eyes, too.


Can you talk about the push and pull between what’s manufactured and what’s coming from within? The push and pull between being woke but still having some of that sleep in your eyes?


It was important to me to convey this push-pull dynamic in The Other Black Girl because it has been such an essential part of my own experience. I didn’t learn about the concept of “double-consciousness” until I was well into college, but I immediately knew that it could be applied to all of my own experiences. Having grown up in predominantly white spaces as a kid, I always felt a little self-conscious about being either too Black or not Black enough. I knew very acutely what it meant to constantly look at myself through the eyes of others, to try shaping myself into what the situation called for.


This, of course, can be called “code-switching” (which is very different from selling out … until it isn’t). Every Black woman in my book code-switches in some capacity in order to succeed in their predominantly white workplace environments. They don’t feel like they can bring their full selves to work out of fear that it will make their co-workers uncomfortable, or make them seem less than.


But they also do it in order to protect their mental health. It’s so hard to be constantly aware of every single injustice that has been and will be committed against Black people while also trying to maintain your sense of purpose. Nella grapples with this push-pull of wanting to tune out the micro- and macro-aggressions while trying to move up the ladder versus keeping up with the latest police shooting, just as I grappled with this same push-pull when I was working on edits during the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor protests.


Black people have had to find this balance for generations, but I’d argue it’s even harder today with social media and cell phones.


The book is set at Wagner Books. You used to work in publishing. I have to ask, were parts of the book based on your own personal experience? 


Yes. The lack of diversity was taken from my own experience working in a very white workplace environment, as was Wagner’s old-school, “this-is-the-way-things-have-always-been-done” vibe. Then, there’s the crummy pay for lower-level employees, which is next to impossible to live on in a city like New York unless you have support or a side hustle.


Despite all of the above, though, I fell in love with the publishing industry the moment I was hired. I enjoyed being a part of something that felt bigger than me, and after just a few months of being hired, I was #TeamPublishing all the way. I started looking at spines to see who published what; I started paying attention to blurbs.


I still have these habits more than two years after I quit, and I know it’s not just because I’m publishing my own book, although that’s a big part of it. So, I wanted to show that, even though Wagner Books in all of its whiteness and elitism is a source of Nella’s discontent, it’s also a source of her pride, too. She’s proud that she’s gotten through the gates, and she also believes that she can help other Black people through them. I had this hope, too, which is why I even felt a little guilty when I quit to write this book — as though I were contributing to my imprint’s blind spot.


Oh, and then there’s the whole spending-eight-hours-in-a-cubicle experience. You have walls, but you really don’t. You smell everything, you hear everything. And you have zero privacy.


Finally, what do you want your readers to take away from this book?


Black women deserve to be seen as individuals. We have different dreams and definitions of success, and we shouldn’t have to make ourselves small in order to be heard. We should be given the space to breathe and make mistakes.


I also want readers to take away the fact that diversity isn’t just a box you can check off on a list. Neither is being an ally. Both require constant vigilance, self-reflection, and accountability.


And lastly — despite the very serious, important takeaways I’ve just mentioned — I really want my readers to have a good time!


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Rachel Barenbaum is the author of A Bend in the Stars and the forthcoming novel Atomic Anna.