First published in The Bookseller magazine in 2018.
“You have to work twice as hard to get half as much as your white counterparts.” That’s the mantra—or warning—that is drilled into black British children by our parents. From a very early age we’re aware that due to a crippling mix of structural inequality, unconscious bias and racial micro-aggressions, this is the unstable foundation upon which we will attempt to build careers, relationships and lives. For black women, we also have to grapple with the intersections between our blackness and our womanhood.
Enter Slay in Your Lane: The Black Girl Bible by best friends Yomi Adegoke and Elizabeth Uviebinené, which says to black women they are valued and have within them the tools they need to survive and thrive in society, by laying out the stories of the phenomenal women who have gone before them, including book trade figures Margaret Busby, Malorie Blackman and Sharmaine Lovegrove, as well as media figures such as June Sarpong, Charlene White and Clara Amfo.
In Slay in Your Lane, Adegoke and Uviebinené have created a valuable framework to help navigate the murky world of working—and existing—while black and female. It puts into words the amorphous, intangible feelings we walk around with and counters them with inspirational stories from industry leaders. Journalist Adegoke and marketeer Uviebinené met while studying at Warwick University, and the friendship and validation they get from each other inspired them to write the book. Adegoke says: “We’ve been there to validate each other for nearly 10 years, but not everybody has that. When Elizabeth used to call me and say, ‘Ah, they’re treating me like this’, I could say,‘Yeah, this sounds wrong’, but not everybody has that. Sometimes they’re just sitting there thinking about it, and you don’t want to be that person going, ‘Is it because I’m black? Is it because I’m a woman?’ So you have to be able to have these conversations.”
In the book, they discuss the challenging elements of being a black woman in a majority white country, and explore the intersections between blackness and womanhood, which is routinely absent from other self-help and business books. “When you’re anything other than the default white male, there is always going to be something that’s uniquely different about your experiences. Being black women, there are so many issues that you have to be aware of when you enter spaces that are not set up for you,” says Uviebinené.
As an example, Adegoke says that in the workplace women are often told to be “more forthright” or to “lean in” a bit harder, but when you’re a black woman, such behaviour also comes with stereotypes of being aggressive, angry and unco-operative. “Lots of books deal with health, women’s health, mental health, women’s dating lives, but none of them really take into account the things that specifically affect you if you’re a black woman, and also if you’re a black woman living in a majority white country,” she says.
Hotly contested in a nine-way auction, HarperCollins imprint 4th Estate won the rights to the book due to its understanding of the book’s cultural relevance, coupled with its solid history of publishing diverse authors, say the pair. With recent books spanning fiction and non-fiction including Michael Donkor’s Hold, Rachel Edwards’ Darling and Otegha Uwagba’s Little Black Book, as well as the Guardian 4th Estate BAME Short Story Prize, run in conjuction with the Guardian (the brainchild of former HarperCollins staffer and Bookseller Rising Star Candice Carty-Williams), the publisher’s dedication to diversity is apparent.
“There’s a common misconception that black things are niche, not marketable, not commercial”, says Adegoke. “We’ve read about the experiences of white people for our whole lives; I read books that are about the white male experience and I’ve never felt like can’t read them or enjoy them because they’re from a viewpoint that isn’t mine. But when it’s a black author, people immediately say, ‘This is a black book, only you guys can enjoy reading about your experiences.’”
She adds: “Having nine publishers wanting to take ownership of the book really helped consolidate the idea that just because something is by black women and is about black women, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be mainstream.”
Discussing “diversity” and the sudden interests of many brands in appealing to more diverse audiences, Adegoke says diversity is “definitely a trend” at the moment, and that if they had written the book five years ago, it would not have generated the same level of interest. “[The book] would’ve still been as good, as necessary, as important, but I don’t think we would have had nine publishers vying for it. It would be disingenuous for me to say that I didn’t think nine publishers were interested in the book because ‘black girl magic’ is something that’s trending right now.”
The conversations the pair had when brainstorming initially concerned challenges black women face in the workplace, but this triggered a tsunami of pent-up frustration, restlessness and anxiety surrounding almost every aspect of life, from relationships, to mental health, to seeing themselves represented. That frustration forms the basis of the book, which is split into six sections, covering education, work, getting ahead, representation, dating and health.
New role models
Discussing the women interviewed for the book, Uviebinené says the diversity of the women helps emphasise that there are multiple routes to success, and serves to validate the experiences of black women. “A lot of the time we model our careers on white men and that kind of success, and walking and talking in that way, wearing a suit and all that sort of stuff. What’s amazing is that in this book we have different women who are showing different versions of success and that visibility is very important.”
Adegoke adds: “Being able to come across those women does make you think, ‘Wow, this is actually possible’. We see these women and think, ‘We could actually do it’.”
Both Adegoke and Uviebinené are adamant that the book is “more than just its pages” and have expressed interest in working with schools and young people.
Adegoke says: “We cannot have another generation of young black British girls who grow up genuinely not being sure that racism is real, or that sexism is real. You’d feel [it] in your gut, but you’re questioning because no one talks about what’s happening to you, what you’re experiencing, why you feel ‘less than’, why you’re looking at your skin and wondering, ‘If I was a bit lighter, maybe this would happen’. We can’t have girls questioning, ‘Oh, is it because I’m…’ It’s really not— these things are systematic and institutional.”
Adegoke also says the book will be helpful on “the flip side” too, as it can encourage non-black and non-female readers to look at themselves and consider their unconscious biases. “We’re not here to be demonising,” she says. “It’s about taking a real look. Everybody has unconscious bias and it’s important to consider how they’re affecting an entire demographic of people.”