Yes, I know Slay has been out for a while now but guess what? I just read it recently. It was in the December 2020 HUES Book Box and it’s new to me. So you’re getting this review whether you’ve read a million of them or not.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about Slay.
Slay is about a young girl named Kiera who lives a double life: she’s an A+ student by day and a game programmer by night. Her game, Slay, is a virtual reality, card-based, fighting game that is invite-only. These invites are only available to Black people.
On top of managing an entire game, she has the push and pull of daily school life as one of the few Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC); her teetering friendship with her completely clueless yet well-meaning white friends; her Hotep boyfriend who believes everything is out to get Black people, including video games; her militant, loudly Black sister; and her traditional, respectable parents.
All is well until a teenage boy is killed in real life over an in-game dispute and the international spotlight is shone on Slay. Suddenly, Kiera’s world is spilling over with tough questions like:
Is having a Black-only space racist?
Do video games incite violence?
How Black do you have to be in order to be considered Black enough to participate in Slay?
What constitutes cultural appropriation?
My thoughts On Slay
I did not have high expectations. At all. I had heard good things but you can’t believe everything you see on Bookstagram (the book side of Instagram). I expected this to be another virtue-signaling, pretentious work capitalizing off of the Black Lives Matter movement as well as the mainstreaming of nerd culture. I am happy to say that I was pleasantly shocked.
Slay is anything but pretentious.
Slay is honest. Authentic. Beautifully crafted. Thorough. Inventive. Insightful…
I could go on and on but I’ll go ahead and hit some highlights.
(Some of) What I Liked About Slay
Slay tackled hard issues without being too preachy.
Right out the gate we’re hit with the dreadlocks debate.
Oh, what a question. Is she allowed to get dreadlocks? She’s asking permission to wear a hairstyle that’s been debated by people of many races for years and years as to whether it’s appropriating Black culture. How am I supposed to tell her yes without giving the disclaimer that I can’t speak for all Black people, and that she could ask any of us this question and get a different answer every time?Chapter One | Slay by Brittney Morris
At first, I was annoyed. I held my breathe and went, “Here we go, one of those books…” but it wasn’t. The dreadlocks debate actually became a thematic conversation that was used to show the growth of Kiera’s (the main character) white friend girl. We see her go from unengaged, to opinionated, to lovingly educating herself in order to be a better person and a good friend.
I know, she says, And I realize it was unfair of me to expect you to know. You shouldn’t have to answer for all Black people, as if you all have the same opinion about it…Chapter Eleven | Slay by Brittney Morris
Just do me a favor, she says. Let me know if I ever do that again. You don’t even need to be nice about it. Just ‘Harper, I’m not answering that sh** ‘ will work.
I loved that Morris also touched on the people who prop up Martin Luther King, Jr. without knowing who he truly was – effectively summing my own feelings on the topic.
…I asked Holly if she’d ever actually read anything by MLK, like really read it, because if she had read MLK, she’d know he wasn’t the patron saint of complacency like she was insinuating, and that he made it clear that there’s a time and a place for revolt…Chapter Two | Slay By Brittney Morris
I also loved the general conversations on Blackness threaded throughout Slay, specifically Blackness as it relates to (1) dating outside your race (2) the gray areas surrounding race and Blackness.
In a concise defense of love, Kiera confronts her Hotep boyfriend, Malcolm after he spouts off about what it means to be Pro-Black.
“…Black folks wanna be out here claiming they ‘down for the cause’ with a colonizer on their arm. Sh** makes me sick.”Chapter 4 | Slay by Britney Morris
Wait, is he saying you can’t be for the advancement of Black people if you’re dating someone who’s not Black?
“Uh,” I begin. “What?”
He looks at me in confusion and blinks a few times before answering, “You can’t truly be for us if you don’t love us.”
“Just because a sister or brother dates outside their race, doesn’t mean they don’t love Black people.”
I roll my eyes. ‘There’s nothing to prove here, Malcolm. You’re confusing correlation with causation. Yes, there are Black men out there who date nonBlack women, and vice versa, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they hate them. You can be Black, and date outside your race, and advocate for everybody Black.”
We see these kinds of conversations rear up again and again concerning Blackness, but I liked the fact the Morris took the time to address biracial Black people as well.
SPOILER WARNING | SKIP TO THE NEXT GOLD BLOCK IF YOU DO NOT WANT SPOILERS
See, Kiera has a partner, codename Cicada, who helps her run Slay and maintain the server. Kiera met her inside of the game so she has no clue what she actually looks like.
When the poop hits the fan, Cicada and Kiera are trying their best to navigate the legal ramifications of the situation and deal with the weight of responsibility for the death of a young boy. But Cicada has another weight she feels like she needs to lift, a secret that she feels will be detrimental to her and Kiera’s working relationship: she’s mixed.
“That thing I was going to tell you…I’m only half-Black. My mother is white Italian. I don’t know when I could have told you that wouldn’t make this awkward. I don’t blame you if you don’t let me keep playing the game. I should have told you sooner.”Chapter 8 | Slay by Brittney Morris
My stomach turns. Not at the revelation that Cicada is mixed, but at the idea that she might think I’m that prejudiced, that I might actually ban her from the game because she’s only half-Black. I begin to text her back just as another message comes in.
“Am I Black enough to keep playing?”
As someone who is married to an ethnically-ambiguous, mixed Black man this conversation is very important to me.
I haven’t had to deal with it recently but I have received negative treatment for dating someone who is presumably outside of my race. And my husband ‘s race is challenged all the time because he doesn’t fit the preconceived notion of Blackness people have in their minds.
I’m really tired of having this conversation so from now on, I’m just going to direct everyone to this section of the book.
SPOILER ENDS HERE.
There is a lot more I love but I’ll end my doting by saying Brittney Morris so effortlessly placed my thoughts on paper about Blackness and our relationships with white people in a way I can’t describe so I’ll just quote it:
According to Malcolm, if Black people are to progress, we need absolute focus, relentless drive, and undying ambition, and that looks like something very specific to him. Unless we’re starting our own businesses, building a nuclear family, and avoiding “white propaganda,” we’re not progressing. But the nuclear family doesn’t work for everyone. Not every Black man has to be an entrepreneur. We don’t all have to go to college. And not every piece of information and every social construct is a trick of the “white man.” He’s wrong. He’s been so wrong abut everything. He acts like Harper and Wyatt are the enemy, and I hate it. I’ve always hated it. Harper and Wyatt may be clueless about a lot of things, often willfully. They may ask unfair questions and misunderstand me and make me feel like I’m some kind of alien from a distant planet. And yeah, there are white people out there who are full-blown bigots, racist white supremacist a**holes, many who literally hope we die off. But Malcolm made me realize another threat to my people, one that’s less obvious, one that creeps in slowly like a disease. The threat of self-hatred. The idea that Black people who don’t live up to whatever standards society has are somehow less deserving of love and support…Chapter 15 | Slay by Brittney Morris
What I didn’t like
I honestly only have two gripes with the book:
(1) the beginning
(2) the end.
Let me explain.
The beginning spends a lot of time introducing people to Black culture.
I understand that Morris wanted to make the book accessible to more people and therefore took the time to explain different things. Like African-American Vernacular English is (AAVE) and general phrases that we use.
‘…Bout time we had more diverse opinions in the weekly. Okay, Wyatt, I see you.’Chapter One | Slay by Brittney Morris
Which means, in Malcolm-speak, well done.
But I don’t like it.
I read a lot of books from a lot of different cultures these days and one thing I appreciate is that they don’t take the time to translate for me. They make me, an outsider of their culture, do the work.
For a book that did such a great job of making me feel seen and feel like someone just got me, this part stung a little. I would have liked her to be speaking to me only and not clue other people in on our world.
However, as the book progressed, she dials it back a lot and just lets her characters exist without translating a lot.
It’s a smart technique to make sure the audience doesn’t feel alienated from the get-go. I do understand why it’s there. But I still didn’t enjoy it.
SPOILER WARNING | SKIP TO THE NEXT GOLD BLOCK IF YOU DO NOT WANT SPOILERS
Now, let’s talk about that ending.
The ending is too neatly wrapped up.
My gripe with the end of the book is that it is too Disney-esque. For a story that felt so grounded in realism, the ending felt a little too neat for me.
We have this large, climatic build-up. There’s threats of law suits, her boyfriend is straight up crazy, the news is calling her game racist, her friends are taking sides, so many conversations are introduced with relevance to real life’s daily debates we see resurface.
And then everything just…works out. It was so perfect that it felt like all the girls should hold hands and do a jump into the air, freeze frame, and roll credits.
I’m completely fine with there being a happy ending. After reading books like The Hate U Give, I welcome any story that gives a Black girl a win. But the juxtaposition of realism with this surreal ending just didn’t feel right.
SPOILER ENDS HERE.
My Overall Rating for Slay
I LOVED THIS BOOK. That’s exactly why I included it in the inaugural HUES Book Box. I’d recommend it to everyone. Especially people who want an introduction to the conversation of race, an insight into current issues plaguing the African-American community, and little geeky Black Girls who want to be seen.