EXCLUSIVE Book Review: Helena Andrews’ “Bitch is the New Black”

Within the first three pages of Helena Andrews’ book Bitch is the New Black, you are greeted with the “S” word, vagina, and the “F” bomb–twice.  Kinda vulgar.  I was naively disappointed by that (“bitch” was in the title, after all).   And I wanted to toss the book aside immediately, call my girlfriends and ask them a hypocritical: dude, WTF?  But then again, I had been bragging to them all week about getting this advanced copy, and I had already promised my readers an honest review, so I couldn’t stop reading so soon. And, so what if I ended up hating it? Reviews of books I hated were always my highest grades in school (thanks, The Scarlet Letter, The Tin Flute, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and The Notebook!). With the thought that I’d get a good post out of it, at least, I soldiered on.

I made it through her first essay, laughing at her obsession with Lisa Nowak (the successful astronaut who worked for NASA and sacrificed it all to hunt down the lover of her not-quite-boyfriend–donning a diaper to prevent the need for bathroom stops on the way).  I thought, this chick is nuts–Andrews, not Nowak. After all, it’s one thing to wear a diaper, and another to idolize one for doing it:

And with that, a diapered astronaut became our muse–the awesome crazy we measured our own bizarre love lives against. If we didn’t go that nuts (950 miles with Depends at the ready) over some dude with helmet hair, then maybe we’d be okay. Just maybe. [page 10]

With that one passage, I was suddenly face-to-face with all the crazy stuff I did after losing to Black in an unfair fight for love.  But under Andrews’ interpretation of events, since no Depends were involved, my perpetual embarrassment over my foolishness could be softened a bit. In fact, I felt instantly better about my crazy, in comparison.  I thought, this Andrews woman is on to something.

And then it was back to slight vulgarity.

But by the next essay, I was endeared to her for life.  An acquaintance had told her: “You’re just so…robotic […] you talk about all this s— that obviously affected you like it didn’t affect you, like it’s nothing.”  By “all this [stuff],” the acquaintance meant: being raised by a lesbian mother, being consistently uprooted as a child, being kidnapped and separated from her mother for an excruciating 5 days when she was six, and this heartbreaking prayer to see the father she never knew:

I imagined he was on the moon, and if I hoped for him enough, thought of him enough, prayed for him enough, he’d come back down. I didn’t need saving, but I needed something. Every night for years I repeated the same line to baby Jesus or grown-up Jesus–whomever was listening: “Dear Lord, please let our paths cross someday.” We didn’t even have to talk or even know who the other one was. I just wanted him to see me.” [pgs. 62-63]

Really, who hasn’t prayed that? To be seen;  whether its by an absentee father or an emotionally unavailable one. And who hasn’t had that need to be seen translate into unhealthy relationships with the wrong men who don’t see you and could never fill that impossible void — that need for something?

It made me want to travel back in time and scoop this little girl up and hug her, even though I would have been barely alive myself during her desperate prayer.  So yes, I was instantly “endeared” to her afterward. But I could never pity even six-year-old her–we do know that she grows up to live this enviably fabulous life, after all.

And then, something epiphanic happened; with that one essay the “bitch’s” plan is revealed: make the introductory essay as (relatively) crass as possible in the first 3 pages, divulge a penchant for crazy / murderous / obsessed / diapered women, show your “bad” side by re-telling the story of how you told the love of your life to take a long walk off a short pier over instant messenger. Be vulgar, drop the f-bomb.  Scare off who you will; they obviously couldn’t handle you / love you / understand you, anyway.  But whoever was intrigued enough to stick around, then maybe they deserved to know the real you. If only they could get past the hardened shell of the first essay, they could see how you came to be who you are…they’d see how unbelievably awesome you are, and they’d have no choice but to surrender and love you.

Andrews has either discovered my secret, or I am totally projecting on her.

In either event, I couldn’t help but see my friends — myself — in her. What I no longer saw was any trace of “vulgarity”; only honesty in its rawest form remained.  And I couldn’t put the book down until it was done.

Mixing into each anecdote her use of every single “ego fertili[zing]” social media outlet–from Facebook stalking to MySpace “moods” and every acronym on the planet–Helena Andrews defines the quintessential 21st century Black woman still on the hopeful side of 30.  With each of the 16 essays in the book, she becomes more and more relatable and real:  from her love of  Michelle Obama (Michelle “was ours, [dangit!]”), and the all-to-familiar obsession with becoming her (“a black first lady–with diplomas in plural, a career in progress, a presidential husband, and perfect babies,”);  to finding her own personal Barack among a sea of degreed–yet infuriating–Black men who reveled in their contentment with their own mediocrity (Even Barack’s right-hand-man, ” body guy” Reggie Love–whom she really does call out by name and dish the dirt on!–was weighed and measured and found lacking). Not to mention the all-to-loud grumbling cry of an empty womb and a mother that won’t stop asking when it’s going to be your turn.

And the fact that notable DC eateries, streets, and lounges are sprinkled into her tales is sure to make every DC Diva smile because you totally know where that place is.

But, unlike my misuse of the word “you” when I really mean just me, this really is just her life story–not the “Black women are single, successful, and lonely, what is we gon’ do?!” bit that a Washington Post profile of Andrews threatened to reveal back in December 2009.   The mere thought that there would not only be a book, but a movie (!) about poor successful manless Black women blew the blogosphere, Busboys, spas, and nail shops into a frenzy of ticked-off Black women (including me, in a post entitled “Dear Ms. Andrews, Here’s Why You’re Lonely: The Myth of the Sad, Sad Black Woman.”) Apparently, as Andrews personally pointed out to me, shortly after that post, we had her and her forthcoming book, all wrong.

Upon further review, I quickly turned my wrath toward the profile’s author, DeNeen L. Brown, whom I had discovered had somewhat of a history of single-handidly waging jihad on the hopes of Black women through the mainstream media. Ironically, prophetically, and hilariously, Andrews recounted in one of her essays her own horrified response to reading a Washington Post article a few years back–one surprisingly not written by DeNeen L. Brown, and titled “Marriage is for White People?”– she wrote: “The Washington [effing] Post was against us now.”  Ha.

And while I laughed throughout her essays, I quietly wondered, will any of it get better? Isn’t there any hope at all? (Hope for me, of course, not for her. She’d have to figure her own life out in between cashing checks for this likely bestseller and movie royalties). I skipped ahead to see that there were only 5 pages left to read, and the odds were looking dismal.  But in that very last sentence, on that very last page, I got what I was looking for: “something close to hope.”

I have yet to come up with something catchy to describe a book I hate.  Thankfully, I don’t have to do that today.  Andrews’ memoir is a smart, comical, heartbreaking and hopeful journey of a woman in transition from “Bitch” to brave, bitter to better, and bearing her soul for the world to love.

And you will love it.

Bitch is the New Black is a Certified Diva Read. Release date: June 1, 2010.  Buy it below:

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About DCDistrictDiva

Brooke Obie is the District Diva, an award-winning spiritual life blogger, writer and author living in a cool district in Manhattan. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @BrookeObie.