The consequences of spending most of your time idling in the chick lit section of bookshops become apparent when you’re occasionally required to read something serious or based on real-life events. You find you’re primed to look out for the happy ending, that stories feel…incomplete without one. Thus I came to the end of Helena Andrews’ Bitch Is The New Black feeling a little short-changed – What? She doesn’t find a guy? What kind of story is this?
But then maybe I should have paid more attention to the pundits who described the memoir as the ‘black Sex in the City,’ since being a black girl and living in the city, I happen to know there’s little sex but a great deal of cooling your heels with your girlfriends trying to conjure suitable men from the ether.
Andrews sets out the uninspiring state of her love life in chapter one, Dirty Astronaut Diapers. The cryptic title refers to Lisa Nowak, a successful astronaut who upon discovering her man is cheating, google-maps the location of her competition, wraps an adult nappy around her business end (to avoid the need for bathroom breaks), packs her car with a steel mallet, four-inch knife and a pellet gun and sets off for her rival’s home.
In 2007 Andrews and her best friend Gia found themselves hooked by the Nowak saga: “A diapered astronaut became our muse – the awesome crazy we measured our own bizarre love lives against.”
They were amused by Nowak’s insistence that she had simply wanted to ‘talk’, captivated by the lengths this well educated woman had been willing to travel to keep her man, but mostly struck by how desperation sneaks up on you, how aged 27 and still single, desperation was creeping up on them: “Crazy astronaut ladies and fabulous twenty-something black chicks are in the same spaceship,” Andrews writes, “they’re aliens among men blasting off to who knows where.”
It is also in 2007 that Andrews falls for Dexter, a man who dates her for six months before realising he likes her as ‘more than a friend but less than a girlfriend’, and is then surprised by her unwillingness to pursue their relationship. Months after their break up he instant messages her with the vague offering, ‘you win’. What could I possibly have won, Andrews asks herself: “In the history of the world, black women have won approximately three things – freedom, a hot comb and Robin Thicke”. And so she stands her ground, revels in being “the baddest bitch on the planet”. But, like a generation of black women who, through education and hard work, have propelled themselves up the ladder of western society only to find themselves alone, she is left wondering if she’s set the bar too high: “What about later? If I lose this round will there ever be another?”
The book isn’t all relationship drama. Andrews’ upbringing by a nomadic, lesbian mother makes for an interesting childhood. While shifting wildly around the country she longs for a family like that depicted on The Cosby Show: “In the Huxtables I found a family so different from mine. They were huge and permanent. The Andrews were just two and in constant motion like a tongue.”
Andrews’ creative use of chronology and witty turn of phrase make her memoir a thoroughly engaging read. Yes it took me longer than usual to work my way from cover to cover, but that’s down to personal taste i.e. my interest tends to drop markedly once I confirm a book has no romantic subplot. Don’t worry; I’m on a 12-step program to address this issue.
Regardless, Andrews presents a persona every woman who’s ever strived can relate to. I laughed heartily at A Bridge To Nowhere where she describes her first assistant job: “We traded in the four elite years we’d spent as somebody for the chance to say we worked for a somebody.” Who didn’t emerge triumphantly from university only to find the ‘starting position’ in a company left most of their brain cells surplus? “We triple-fact-checked fax cover sheets and examined emails as if they were trace evidence against us.”
I empathised when a coveted job at the Washington Post brings its own trauma: “There’s something terribly frightening about being the only black person at a political newspaper when there’s a black guy running for president.” Then cheered as Andrews works the opportunity to her benefit.
Yet it is her quest for a good man that drives the narrative and makes Andrews the black girl next door. She shares the adventures of her dogged search frankly; tales of leaping hopefully from party to party, swaddled in spax, when the Congressional Black Caucus come to town – “The CBC is to single-black-chick Washington as Fleet Week is to single-white-gal New York”. She makes it seem proactive to fly out of state for a conference organised on Facebook for “uppity black people to discuss dating, relationships, sex and whatever else is on the mind”. And admits to hours spent perusing national statistics online, stats that don’t portend future marital bliss for her: “it’s our stats versus the rest of the country’s, and there’s no time to go to the cards for a decision. It’s over. Technical knockout. While our women were snatching up college degrees and busting up glass ceilings, our men were getting snatched up and busted.”
Her efforts are not met with success, but it’s not as depressing as it might sound thanks to Andrews’ wry sense of humour. She loves and loses but remains ever optimistic that her Obama will one day appear. She is the 21st century black woman, multi-faceted and bitchy only when necessary. Her story is definitely worth the read.