Thanks to Partner NetGalley for the digital ARC of Brittney Morris’s SLAY in exchange for an honest review. The book released Tuesday, September 24.
“What if someone made a [video] game that was just for black people?” (13).
This question is at the heart of the brilliant YA novel SLAY, by Brittney Morris. Kiera Johnson, a seventeen-year-old student at the elite Jefferson Academy, is one of a handful of students of color, along with her sister Steph and her boyfriend Malcolm. Kiera is the quieter of the sisters, and adept at code switching, a talent that Morris establishes from the first line of the novel. Kiera and Steph are feminists and brilliant women who are keenly aware of issues at the center of black culture.
Through the novel, they discuss the merits of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), make commitments to attend HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), and resist their white friends attempts to make them the monolithic voice of blackness in answering their questions (like whether a white person wearing dreadlocks is committing an error of cultural appropriation). Kiera considers these topics as she strives to be a good daughter, to dampen the tension between her sister and boyfriend, and to lay the foundation for a successful future.
Beyond her public life, however, Kiera has a hidden identity as Emerald, the creator, developer, and co-moderator of SLAY, a video game “where every word [she] speak[s] reflects the black goddess [her boyfriend] sees in [her]” (9). Malcolm, however, disapproves of video games, which he thinks encourage black people to “waste their lives” and serve as “distractions promoted by white society to slowly erode the focus and ambition of black men” (10). Kiera feels, partially because of his disapproval, that she cannot let anyone in on her secret. Instead, she and Cicada, her co-moderator, work in hiding to develop the game and to expand its cards, which reflect elements of black history and culture from around the world. Their creativity, based on experience and thorough research, has resulted in a phenomenon for hundreds of thousands of players that is open only to black people.
When a young black man is killed because of something within the game, SLAY becomes the center of a public debate that Kiera tries to navigate from her secret life. She must decide what responsibility lies with her as the media--and her friends and family--consider the implications of a video game that excludes anyone who is not black.
Morris’s book, dedicated “To everyone who has ever had to minimize who you are to be palatable to those who aren’t like you,” grabbed me from moment one. The novel moves sequentially through Kiera’s journey as she struggles to act responsibly as SLAY’s creator and to stay true to her intentions; it also includes vignettes from players within the game, allowing the reader to see the role SLAY plays in each life. The discussions at the novel’s center are compelling and thought provoking--I’d absolutely love to teach this book, which offers such nuanced situations for the reader’s consideration. I am so excited to see the conversations that arise when Brittney Morris’s SLAY is published!