Last Updated on September 9, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1416
In 1983, a Black woman, who fears she is being followed, anxiously waits for her train to leave Manhattan. The woman is beset with an all-consuming scalp itch and has recently been part of a scandal. Eager to erase herself from her past life, the woman purchases a ticket for the northernmost stop on the line.
Thirty-five years later, Nella Rogers is an assistant to the editor Vera Parini at Manhattan-based publishing house Wagner Books. Nella has a white boyfriend named Owen and a best friend called Malaika. Politically aware and passionate about books, Nella is the only Black woman on the editorial staff. Nella idolizes the outspoken Black activist Jesse Watson and often wishes another Black woman would join Wagner as an editor. One day, as Nella smells her favorite hair grease, Brown Buttah, in the air, her wishes seem to be coming true. A Black woman is on her floor, waiting for an interview. Soon enough, Wagner hires Hazel May McCall, much to Nella’s delight. Nella is immediately impressed by Hazel’s poise and the long hair she wears in locks.
Hazel and Nella bond over Black hair grooming practices and a shared love of Burning Heart, a novel published by Wagner in 1983. The enormously successful Black feminist novel was the brainchild of the all-Black team of Diana Gordon and Kendra Rae Phillips. However, soon after its publication, Burning Heart’s editor, Kendra Rae, was panned for her public denouncement of white authors. Following the scandal, Kendra Rae disappeared. Diana Gordon, her childhood friend, declared Kendra Rae had suffered a mental breakdown.
When Nella tells Hazel that she finds the representation of a Black character in Colin Franklin’s Needles and Pins, a book Vera is editing, problematic, Hazel encourages Nella to raise her voice. However, Nella’s critique backfires, leaving Colin and Vera defensive. Subsequently, Vera begins to ignore Nella. Nella’s feeling of alienation grows as Hazel starts currying favor with the other staff members. Vera even begins assigning manuscripts to Hazel instead of Nella. Nella is also troubled by Hazel’s switches in viewpoints, which range from radical and outspoken to conciliatory. To make matters worse, Nella begins receiving anonymous notes instructing her to leave Wagner. She also finds a suspicious-looking spreadsheet with a list of the names and locations of Black women. One of the notes features a phone number to call for more information.
Meanwhile, a Black woman called Shani Edmonds moves from Boston to Manhattan after she is fired from her magazine. Shani knows her Black coworker Eva conspired against her. Before the firing, Shani had been warned against Eva by a woman called Lynn Johnson, who heads something called the Resistance. At the Resistance’s instruction, Shani begins working at a Manhattan café. One day, she spots Eva there.
Nella’s troubles at work grow, with Hazel seeming to usurp her place. Nella also suspects Hazel may be planting the notes to force Nella out of Wagner. Nella is ashamed that she is being forced to compete with Hazel, since this goes against her principles of Black solidarity.
Hazel is called upon to give her opinion on Black representation in Needles and Pins at a marketing meeting. To Nella’s horror, Hazel completely endorses the novel’s description of Black characters and suggests Nella’s views were excessive. The same evening, Nella decides to attend an event by a nonprofit Hazel attends so she can plead her case to Richard Wagner, the founder of Wagner books, in person. The event is being held at Curl Central, a trendy hair salon operated by Juanita, the sister of Hazel’s boyfriend, Manny. Nella confronts Hazel about her betrayal of Nella at the marketing meeting and the anonymous notes. Amused and cool in contrast with Nella, Hazel replies that she wears different identities before white and Black people so she can manipulate white spaces better. To mollify Nella, Hazel invites her to a women-only Black hair grooming party at her home and gives her a tub of Curl Central hair grease. She denies her involvement with the notes and suggests Nella escalate the matter to Richard.
Hazel discusses the notes with Richard without Nella’s permission. However, before Nella can register her anger with Hazel, Richard placates Nella by telling her she is due for a promotion. He also informs Nella that Jesse Watson, who has been on hiatus, has agreed to write a book for Wagner. Nella is likely to be assigned as an editor to Jesse.
In 2018, Kendra Rae, who is living in hiding in Catskill, New York, begins receiving messages from a distraught young Black woman. The woman turns out to be Nella, who decides to call the number listed on a threatening note she received. Because Nella mentions Wagner in her frantic messages, Kendra Rae decides to investigate the matter. Sensing something is grievously wrong, Kendra Rae contacts Lynn Johnson, who has been trying to persuade Kendra Rae to join the resistance for years. After Lynn introduces Shani to Kendra Rae, Shani decides to go against the rules of the Resistance and set up a meeting with Nella.
It is Shani who has been sending Nella the warning notes. Shani knows Nella is in trouble because she has been tracking her former colleague Eva on the Resistance’s instructions. Eva is revealed to be none other than Hazel. Eva/Hazel is an Other Black Girl, or OBG, a Black woman who sabotages the lives of other Black women in the workplace. The OBGs are part of a vast conspiracy to pit Black women against each other and further the agenda of white supremacy. However, before Shani can meet Nella and share this information with her, Kendra Rae whisks her away.
Meanwhile, in 2018, Diana Gordon is a successful author who writes commercial “fluff.” Diana is troubled because she knows Kendra Rae has recently been seen in Manhattan. It is revealed that Diana facilitated Kendra Rae’s departure from public life on the insistence of Diana’s lover, Richard Wagner. Richard wanted Kendra Rae gone because she wasn’t a compliant Black woman like Diana. Diana had used a hair grease formula concocted by Imani, another childhood friend, to control Kendra Rae’s mind and confuse her. The grease had caused Kendra Rae acute physical discomfort. It is Kendra Rae who is described in the novel’s opening scene.
Kendra Rae anonymously calls Nella from Shani’s phone and tells her to investigate Hazel for her own safety. Kendra Rae refuses to divulge more, as she feels Nella is not ready for the truth. Desperate for answers, Nella decides to attend Hazel’s hair party with Malaika in tow.
At Hazel’s house, Nella discovers a folder with photos and details of Black women, including herself and Kendra Rae. She takes photos of the incriminating pages and flees the house with Malaika. The notes on her photo are in Richard’s handwriting. It becomes clear that Richard has been surveilling Nella from the time she joined Wagner. Hazel has been assigned to Wagner to “convert” Nella. Despite Malaika’s urging, Nella refuses to share the pictures with Kendra Rae.
When Jesse Watson visits Wagner weeks later, he seems to have undergone a change in personality and wants to write an apolitical graphic novel. Nella fears Jesse has been converted in the same way Hazel has been attempting to convert her. Hazel confronts Nella with the truth. She reveals that she meant for Nella to find the folder, since she knew Nella was already changing and would never betray Hazel. She also tells Nella about the OBGs and their use of hair grease to control the minds of Black women. Hazel insists her motives are altruistic, as they allow Black women to blend in in white spaces and succeed in their careers. Hazel assumes Nella has been changing because she has been using Hazel’s hair grease. However, the true horror is that Nella has hardly used the grease at all.
A year later, Shani has moved to Oregon to work at a local magazine. She has just finished her exposé on OBGs. However, she learns the editor who approved the pitch has taken up a job in another state overnight. In the interim, a replacement editor called Delilah Henson is to join the staff. The editor is another Black woman with a smart, straight bob and a polished manner. As Delilah approaches Shani, Shani recognizes Delilah as Nella.
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