Slay tells the story of a young Black woman and her experiences in the world of online gaming. There’s a risk that a review written by a middle-aged white male might fall well short of the mark for a book like this. There’s a huge amount going on here that I have never had experience with and can’t fully relate to.
Nevertheless, I can be affected by the character’s stories. I can draw some understanding of the multi-layered complexities of racism to perhaps better realize my own innate privilege. I can also enjoy what is a pretty great STEM-based story involving a Hearthstone–style game that draws on key elements of global Black culture.
Here are 5 Reasons to Read Slay by Brittney Morris.
1. The Game
The titular online game, Slay, is a digital card game where each of the cards is a representation of Black culture. It’s thematically a fascinating idea and in the novel, the game’s implementation sounds great. I would definitely like to play it.
The single idea to a card motif works very well too, giving an insight into many aspects of Black culture. Better still, within the game, cards interact with each other in a fashion that gives deeper insight into the cultural aspects they display. No feature of any culture stands in isolation, and how two things interact together can bring about further nuance and interpretations.
2. Strong Female Characters
The two characters behind the phenomenon that is Slay (the game) are great. Two young Black women who are proud of their heritage and largely uncowed by the prejudice they face. They’re also deeply interested and invested in STEM subjects. In her acknowledgments, Britteny Morris says, “To the girls in STEM, don’t let anybody tell you what you can’t do, where you can’t go or who you can’t be. To the Black gamers out there hungry for more heroes who look like you, I wrote this for you.”
A counterpoint to the computer game stuff is teenage Slay designer Kiera Johnson’s troubling relationship with her boyfriend. I can’t comment on the cultural aspects to the power dynamic in the portrayal of this relationship—other than the fact that merely by stating that, I clearly feel that a cultural comment was being made here—but readers can quickly tell this is a damaging relationship for Kiera. Her journey through it sends a strong, clear message for readers who may find themselves in a similar position.
3. Examination of Race
This book is inevitably focused on race, with a central idea of the book being whether a “Black only” space could be considered racist. Slay goes well beyond a binary notion of race. It doesn’t so much look at racist behavior or a struggle between whites and people of color, but it looks at the effects on Black people of living in a society that has been racist for generations. It goes deeper than overt racism, looking at how exhausting living in an institutionally prejudiced society can be. This book is great—I think, though these experiences are not mine—at articulating the experiences of young Black people and is also an excellent way to help white readers recognize their privilege.
4. Conflation of Experience
One thing I’ve rarely considered is the weight of having to speak on behalf of one’s race. The central characters in this story attend a school that is predominantly white. Because of this, well-meaning friends are forever asking them “is it racist, if… ?” or “is it cultural appropriation if… ?” Imagine how tiring and difficult this must be to continually avow or disavow behavior that may turn out to be deeply offensive to others.
Through good-intentions, many people inadvertently conflate the experiences of one (perceived) group as though they’re a homogenous mass. This, on reflection, is clearly nonsense. Everybody is an individual, and whilst their cultural and friendship groups might inform their opinions, there is no single correct answer when discussing complex subjects like race and cultural appropriation.
Morris expertly conveys this with split reactions to the Slay game from within Kiera’s peer group. The game means different things to different people, and not all of them view it positively.
5. It Highlights the Diaspora
One thing I loved about Slay is the way it rises above the reductive black v white arguments. Through the complex variation in the game’s cards and its planet-spanning fanbase, Britteny Morris showcases the richness of Black culture across the globe.
Slay deftly shows the variation of experience of Black people around the world. Cultural experience is vastly different depending on the country you live in, the city in which you reside, and many other factors, including sexuality. The book highlights the multifaceted nature of Black culture, and how people everywhere, whilst they may be brought together by their similarities, can still have many differences.
Slay is an excellent book for STEM interested teenagers everywhere. It draws heavily on the experiences of young Black gamers to deliver a fascinating tale that also informs and educates about the deeply complex global problem of race and prejudice.
If you enjoyed this book, do check out my other 5 Reasons to Read posts.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for review.