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Zakiya Dalila Harris on the Horror in Racism

Posted on 2nd June 2021 by Mark Skinner

A fiercely intelligent and acute satire of racial discrimination in corporate culture, Zakiya Dalila Harris' The Other Black Girl treads a fine line between literary fiction and horror. In this exclusive piece, Zakiya describes why finding the perfect epigraph to the book was more of a struggle than she thought it would be, and how the answer lay in an all-too-real manifestation of horrific imagery.    

Not long after The Other Black Girl went into copyediting—once I’d finished tightening, rewriting, then tightening the manuscript even more—my publisher asked if I would be including an epigraph. And if so, what would it be?

I loved that question. In fact, I’d been eagerly anticipating it, because I used to be the one asking authors that question back when I myself worked in publishing. To me, then an editorial assistant, it was a fairly easy question. The author had already slogged through the hardest parts of getting a book published. They’d finished the writing, found an agent and a publisher, completed the editing process. Adding a teeny-tiny epigraph to the beginning of their work seemed akin to nearing the finish line. Surely, that part would be relatively easy. Maybe even fun.

As an author, however, I quickly realized how naïve I’d been. It was fun searching for the perfect epigraph, but writing one for The Other Black Girl—a book that is an amalgamation of themes, genres, and varying timelines—was by no means easy. I didn’t want it to be too obvious, but I also wanted to aptly prepare the reader for what was to come.

And in my novel, there’s a lot to come. The story primarily follows Nella, a young Black editorial assistant who’s trying to succeed at a very white and very elite New York City publishing house. But while much of this novel is a satirical look at the quirks and idiosyncrasies of corporate America, and what it’s like to be in this space as an Other, its feet are simultaneously planted somewhere between the horror and sci-fi genres—in a place that Rod Serling would probably have called The Twilight Zone.

Preparing the reader for that was important to me. So, I spent days researching quotes about horror. One particular quote from John Carpenter, director of Halloween and The Thing and so many other classic horror films, stood out: “Horror is a reaction; it’s not a genre.” Then, there was a quote from Clive Barker, whose name didn’t ring a bell, although a few movies that he’s written (Hellraiser; Candyman) definitely did: “Horror fiction shows us that the control we believe we have is purely illusory, and that every moment we teeter on chaos and oblivion.”

Both of these quotes matched the vibe I wanted to set for my readers. Many of the horrifying acts committed in The Other Black Girl aren’t committed in a vacuum—they are reactions to the conditions Black people have been subjected to in America, and throughout the world, for centuries. And since this book is all about control, and oftentimes the lack thereof, Barker’s quote felt especially fitting, too.

But neither of these quotes spoke to perhaps the most important element of my novel: its blackness. So, I shifted my quotes-about-horror search to a more organic approach, recalling a documentary that I’d seen just a few weeks after I started writing this book: Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror.

It was a good thing I re-watched it. Because quite early on in the film, Tananarive Due, a Black writer who teaches Black Horror at UCLA, says something that stopped my search dead in its tracks:

“Black history is Black horror.”

Those five little words just clicked. They summed up a feeling I’d had for years, starting when I first learned about slavery as a kid.

Racism was the first thing I ever remember being afraid of. I knew other horrors—the monster blood in the Goosebumps series; the ghosts in Are You Afraid of the Dark—but while those things scared me, nothing quite gave me chills like the image of a Black man strung up on a tree, or a cross burning on a lawn. The story of Ruby Bridges, the six-year-old trailblazer who was the first Black person to integrate her New Orleans elementary school in 1960, gave me nightmares, because eight-year-old me couldn’t bear the thought of white adults cursing out a child simply because of the color of her skin.

Growing up, racism and all of its horrors were on my mind far more frequently than they should be for a child, and I’m quite positive it was because these horrors seemed so removed from my own sheltered reality. Although I went to a mostly white elementary school, I’d never had anything blatantly racist happen to me, and I think that’s why these black-and-white images from the past terrified me so much. They felt like relics of a different time.

Now that I’m an adult, racism is no longer that thing that goes bump in the night. It’s far more tangible than that. It’s the monster that still walks around in broad daylight right under our noses, messing with our workplaces, our institutions, our day-to-day interactions with one another. And yet, even though I can recognize many of its forms, that hasn’t made it any less horrifying. In actuality, I think it’s the opposite.

By including Due’s epigraph at the beginning of this book, I wanted to highlight the insidious nature of racism—how it creeps into even the most seemingly benign of places. I wanted to show that the horrors of yesterday still haunt our todays. Because if we don’t talk about racism—both blatant and subtle—it will haunt our tomorrows, too.

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