Token Black Girl, by Danielle Prescod book review

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Memoirs are tricky little animals. What makes them effective? What makes them useful? The justification for their existence is subjective. Whose life, or slice of life, is worthy of paper and ink, glue and thread – and a savvy marketing campaign?

I tend to think a memoirist’s life should be storied and long, or in the case of a youthful writer, shaped by singular events.

Danielle Prescod’s “Token Black Girl” falls into the latter category. Prescod, 34, came of age in tony, majority-White communities. While her family lived in Westchester County, just outside New York City, she was shuttled to ritzy private schools in neighboring areas. At a Catholic high school for girls in Greenwich, Conn., Where the median income is about half a million dollars, Prescod was one of just three Black girls in her graduating class. Hence the “token” in her memoir’s title. If you’re imagining a circle of “Mean Girls” -esque hell, you’ve hit the nail on the head.

Growing up in rich, White milieus, Prescod always felt like she was on the perimeter. Sometimes her otherness was cruelly called out.

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“I remember that the reality of Blackness settled onto me like a terminal illness,” Prescod writes. “I desperately wondered how I could get rid of it so I could just be like everyone else. It distressed me that I would never be ‘cured’ of it and could never escape it. “

It’s saddening and jolting to learn that a child felt like her racial identity was a sickness. Prescod doesn’t shy away from frankly dissecting her bouts of self-loathing, at times referring to her body as a “skin prison” and a “sadistic tower” to which she was confined. This was the late 1990s, after all, long before “Black girl magic” was a thing.

So Prescod made it her mission to assimilate. She straightened her hair, adopted the same style and literary interests as her peers, dieted relentlessly to flatten her curves, developed a prolific mean streak to divert attention, and never, ever spoke of race – even in the face of covert and overt racism.

She found little respite in the Black community.

“If and when I got the opportunity to meet other Black kids,” Prescod writes, “they usually made it clear that they did not like me.”

She adds: “I am conscious of the ways that my behaviors and attitudes could have been interpreted as, well, stuck up. And, because I was so partial to whiteness, I adopted behavior, language, and mannerisms that operationally supported white supremacy. “

It’s no surprise that she was shunned. Prescod grew up with a stunning level of privilege woefully uncommon for Black people. She and her younger sister played “tennis, soccer, softball, and basketball; danced ballet, tap, jazz, and hip-hop; did gymnastics, figure skating, and horseback riding; and played piano and violin, respectively, ”she writes. Plus, kids of any background can be mean.

If you’re thinking Prescod’s social situation materially improved after her upbringing, you thought wrong. She pursued a career in fashion, with its punishing rules about how to look, act and be – a veritable torture chamber for someone already saddled with plummeting self-esteem.

Her dieting became a raging eating disorder, and her dream jobs at fashion publications, such as Elle and InStyle, soon soured. Her trendy workplaces re-created the racial traumas of her youth. Prescod was often one of the few people of color in her department, and she endured racial slights and erasure. It took career changes and years of therapy for her to arrive at a healthy sense of self and a reasonable relationship with food.

“Token Black Girl” is very readable – to a point. Prescod’s voice is spirited and engaging but can be repetitious, and her pacing is a bit sluggish. Delving into a fourth-grade grievance on Page 23 is perfectly fine. Probing a fifth-grade grievance on Page 82 might strain a reader’s patience.

These challenges may be due, in part, to Prescod’s age. Thirty-four is quite young to write a memoir, particularly if you’ve led a sheltered life. Prescod is thoughtful and candid, but her incisiveness cuts only in certain directions. She notes her family’s reluctance to discuss Blackness but hesitates to dig deeper.

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It’s well established that growing up in a community devoid of diversity can hijack a Black child’s sense of self, and that, as Prescod reiterates, the media wittingly and unwittingly elevates Whiteness. The less-traveled, more intriguing analysis – one I’d be keen to read – is why Prescod’s parents, a highly educated, financially successful Black couple with a diverse circle of friends, shied away from talking to their kids about race.

A similar line of inquiry: How did Prescod’s little sister, whom she calls her constant companion, fare in majority-White settings?

Perhaps Prescod’s relatives asked that their lives not be excavated, which is understandable. But I couldn’t help feeling like her narrative needed more, or loess. It could have had another layer of questioning or exploration, such as how her childhood otherness affected her adult love life. She how her eating disorder made dating difficult, but not how she thinks about race in romantic relationships. Or – shrink the story. I could envision this as a strong novella, if it’s possible to get a novella published these days, or a gripping personal essay.

Zooming in, or strategically pulling back, could have made this memoir more effective. But, boy, am I happy it exists. Human beings contain multitudes, and there are innumerable ways to show up as a Black woman in the world. As Audre Lord said, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” I praise Prescod, who came up in a racially oppressive environment, for breaking free and finding her own definition.

Nneka McGuire, a former editor at The Lily, is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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