Fast-paced, thought-provoking, and completely unputdownable, The Black Queen is a thrill ride from start to finish that doesn’t shy away from timely topics like systemic racism and white privilege. This contemporary thriller written by a real-life crime reporter is deserving of a spot on everyone’s TBR.
Nova Albright, the first Black homecoming queen at Lovett High, is dead. Murdered the night of her coronation, her body found the next morning in the old slave cemetery she spent her weekends rehabilitating.
Tinsley McArthur was supposed to be queen. Not only is she beautiful, wealthy, and white, it’s her legacy—her grandmother, her mother, and even her sister wore the crown before her. Everyone in Lovett knows Tinsley would do anything to carry on the McArthur tradition.
No one is more certain of that than Duchess Simmons, Nova’s best friend. Duchess’s father is the first Black police captain in Lovett. For Duchess, Nova’s crown was more than just a win for Nova. It was a win for all the Black kids. Now her best friend is dead, and her father won’t face the fact that the main suspect is right in front of him. Duchess is convinced that Tinsley killed Nova—and that Tinsley is privileged enough to think she can get away with it. But Duchess’s father seems to be doing what he always does: fall behind the blue line. Which means that the white girl is going to walk.
Duchess is determined to prove Tinsley’s guilt. And to do that, she’ll have to get close to her.
But Tinsley has an agenda, too.
Everyone loved Nova. And sometimes, love is exactly what gets you killed.
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Nova and I are walking in unison, leading the crowd that followed us out of B-Building to witness for themselves what’s about to go down. I don’t know how word got out. I can only assume Nova told other people about the text Tinsley McArthur sent her last night. Tinsley asked Nova to meet her between first and second periods today by the courtyardthe middle point between our opposite worlds on this campus.
I can see Tinsley strutting toward us in the distancethe crisp breeze ruffling the hem of her plaid skirt and her shoulder-length chestnut hair. A crowd of people are following her as well. It’s like that part in She’s All Thatthe original one from the ’90s that I pretend to hate every time my girlfriend wants to watch itwhen Taylor Vaughn, that story’s resident mean girl, meets face to face in the hallway with Laney Boggs, the frumpy-turned-semipopular pet project of Taylor’s ex-boyfriend, as their heated contest for prom queen in the movie nears its climax. But it’s not the prom queen crown fueling this little rivalry between Nova and Tinsley. It’s homecoming queen, which Tinsley feels entitled to because three generations of her family have worn the crown before her. And she has no chance in hell of winning it this year unless Nova drops out of the race. Which is why she requested this meetup. To somehow convince my homegirl to step aside, because God forbid Tinsley doesn’t get something she wants.
Spoiler alert: That ain’t happening.
I inhale a deep breath that has me feeling taller and we all stop a few feet from meeting in the center of the covered breezeway. The racial undertone of what’s happening could not be more evident. Pretty much all the kids behind us are Black, and Tinsley’s crowd is predominately white. The chatter on both sides simmers to hushed whispers as Tinsley looks Nova up and down. I don’t need to check to know Nova is glaring back at her.
“Tinsley,” Nova says, fiddling with the silver, flower-shaped diamond pendant she’s worn every day since getting it for her birthday last semester. It’s fake, but it looks hella real. “What’s this about?” she adds, sliding her hands into the pockets of her high-waisted jeans.
You could hear a pin drop.
“I won’t belabor this,” Tinsley says, tugging at the strap of the messenger bag hanging on her shoulder. “I’m pretty sure you have assumptions about why I summoned you.”
“Summoned?” I hiss.
Nova laughs, shaking her head at this entitled trick.
Tinsley is literally a carbon copy of Taylor Vaughn, but with a Southern twang. She walks around here with her slender nose pointed in the air like she owns everything and everyone. And yeah, her family is one of the richest and most influential in this town, and her dad’s construction company built our school, but that’s beside the point. Tinsley is self-entitled and hella obnoxious. She can be cruel, and she knows she can get away with it. The white kids don’t wanna cross her because they’re either country club brats like her or they don’t want to be excluded from her social circle. And lots of the Black kids’ fathers, uncles, and older brothers work for her father in some capacity, so they’re scared that pissing her off could mean unemployment checks for their families. It’s mad annoying.
But I know at least one person besides me who isn’t about to back down to the spoiled princess today: my girl Nova.
She might be the Laney Boggs in this scenario, but she ain’t nothing like ol’ girl in that movie. My girl isn’t some awkward pretty girl who needs a makeover to realize her worth. Nova showed up here junior year already looking like a freaking goddess. Dudes were losing their minds, and girls were losing theirs in jealousy. A dark-skinned, statuesque Black girl with iridescent blue eyes. Everyone was gawking at her like she was a freaking unicorn.
Apparently, blue eyes are so rare in Black folks that our biology teacher taught a whole lesson on genetic coding to highlight the few instances when dark-skinned people like Nova are born with eyes like that. According to Mr. Holston, there were three possible ways Nova got her stunning eyes: (1) one of her immediate relatives is white; (2) she has some rare disease that makes her albino only in the eyes; or (3) there’s some kind of mutation in her bloodline. We’ve always joked it has to be the latter. Having some sort of genetic mutation sounded too cool not to embrace.
“I would have preferred to do this one-on-one; you know, woman-to-woman,” Tinsley says, looking more at me than Nova or the crowd behind us. “Did you really need an audience?”
“Did you?” I retort, nodding at the sea of white faces I hardly know.
If Tinsley is the Taylor Vaughn in this scenario and Nova is Laney, that makes me Gabrielle Union’s character. The chick who started out as Taylor’s friend first but flipped to becoming Laney’s BFF. There was a time when I considered Tinsley a friend. A long, long time ago. I would never trust her snake ass again.
“We’re here to protect Tins,” Giselle says to me. She’s one of Tinsley’s best friends. Lana, her other best friend, flanks Tinsley on her left, like some CW bodyguard.
Giselle’s Black, one of the few Black kids in Tinsley’s orbit, or in the sea of faces behind her. Giselle’s family has the money to belong to the country club. All her friends are white. Every dude she’s been linked with has been white too. We call her Candace Owens.
“Protect her from what?” I snap.
I definitely know what the Black White Girl is implying.
“Who knows. You can never be too careful with these transplants,” Lana says.
“Girl, if you don’t”
Nova holds a hand up, stopping me. She’s right. Me cutting up would feed into the little stereotype they’re trying to push on us. I bite my lip to stop myself from saying something else.
“Why are you trippin’ about the crowd?” Nova says. “Don’t like doing your dirt in public?”
Tinsley flinches. “Excuse me?”
“I’ma cut right to it,” Nova says. “’Cause what we’re not about to do is pretend this is something other than yo’ weak-ass attempt to intimidate me into dropping out of the election.”
Tinsley’s brow creases.
“Sorry, boo-boo, but I ain’t Kim Hammerstein,” Nova continues, eliciting gasps from a few people and confused looks from everyone else.
Kimberly Hammerstein was Tinsley’s rival for captain of the cheerleading squad junior year. We ran into her last week at Jitterbug’s, the hamburger spot Nova and my girlfriend work at. Kim spilled some hot tea to us after she overheard us talking about Nova running for homecoming queen.
Kim said she’d been the favorite for captain, being the more skilled cheerleader and all, though she admitted it helped that her mother was the coach’s best friend. Kim said Tinsley pulled her aside after practice the day before Ms. Latham, the cheerleading coach, was going to pick the captain and warned her that if she didn’t tell Ms. Latham not to consider her, she’d be forced to tell our principal about how Kim sneaks her nineteen-year-old boyfriend onto campus to smoke weed under the bleachers of the football stadium during school hours. When Kim called her bluff, Kim said Tinsley pulled out her phone, and showed her the pictures she had of them in the act. Like I said, the chick is a snake.
Tinsley tilts her head. Little Miss Blackmail is probably wondering how we found out about Kim.
“Whatever you think you knowyou don’t,” she says.
“I know you’re naive enoughno, make that delusional enoughto think I’d let you intimidate me,” Nova replies.
Tinsley sighs. “You’re new here, so you don’t understand what this means to me. I’ve been dreaming about being homecoming queen since I was a little girl. My”
“Your grandmother, mother, and sister were queens too,” I finish for her, rolling my eyes. “She knows. I told her. Next.”
“Y’all wouldn’t be this cocky if we were having a real election this year,” Lana says. “Everyone knows she’d never beat Tinsley in a fair vote.”
“That’s only because y’all outnumber us,” someone behind us says.
Nova and I both turn back just as our homeboy Trenton steps out of the crowd, and it suddenly hits me how word got out about this showdown. Nova probably mentioned Tinsley’s text to him. He’s linked to both the Black kids and the white kids since he takes AP courses. He knows the white kids from class, but still hangs with us. He also despises Tinsley, more than I do. He ran his mouth for sure.
“It’s a historical facty’all don’t support us unless we cooning for y’all,” I say, looking directly at Giselle.
She actually tries to step up to me like she’s ’bout that life. Tinsley’s right arm shoots out like she’s some soccer mom shielding her kid after throwing on the brakes. She clearly doesn’t want this to escalate into something physical. She cares too much about her image.
“Can we not bring race into this?” Tinsley says. “That has nothing to do with me wanting to be queen.”
“Funny you say that now,” Nova answers, “’cause wasn’t you the same student council president who argued that our new election policy is basically reverse racism to try and persuade the rest of the council into lobbying the administration to rethink doing it this year?”
Nova’s comment excites chatter on both sides. Accusations and insults are flying back and forth. Too many for me to tell who’s saying what. I’m just listening to make sure I don’t hear the N-word come out of anybody’s mouth on Tinsley’s side.
“Hold up! It wasn’t anything like y’all are making it seem,” Tinsley yells, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. “Don’t paint me as some bigoted, tiki-torch-carrying, let’s-whitewash-history, right-wing conservative because I voiced concerns about the racial quotas this school has implemented. Look, I was only saying the policy is another form of discrimination. I definitely think we’re all equal. And should be treated fairly. Everyone here agrees, Black lives matter. I blacked out my social media along with everyone else during the police reform protests.”
Is this chick serious?
“Yeah, performative activism at its finest,” I retort.
“Nooooo,” she croaks with an exasperated expression. “However, being excluded from something solely because of my skin tone, which you guys say you’ve had to endure all these years, is kind of unfair to us as well, right?”
A few kids behind her nod and mumble in agreement.
“That’s not how this works,” I say. “That’s not how any of this works.”
“My only goal in bringing it up to the council was to start a conversation,” she says after the chatter subsides. “You’re captain of the dance team, Nova. Didn’t you hate having to pick a certain number of white girls for the team this year, regardless of how talented the other Black girls were who tried out?”
“Are you admitting that we dance better than y’all?” Nova says, inciting laughter from our side.
“Why don’t y’all throw hands and whoever loses drops out!”
That dumbass suggestion came from Jaxson Pafford, who’s perched on one of the courtyard’s round concrete tables with some of the other football players. His dirty-blond hair looks ten shades lighter underneath the morning sun’s warm glow.
“We don’t need commentary from the Fuckboy Gallery,” Tinsley responds, maintaining eye contact with Nova.
“You wasn’t saying that sophomore year,” he says, his entourage high-fiving him.
Never would have thought Tinsley would slum it with him. Jax and his family are way below her tax bracket.
“Name your price,” Tinsley says to Nova.
“Yeah. There has to be something you want more than that crown. Something I can give you instead.” Tinsley tucks some of her hair behind her ear, seriousness entering her pale face. “I heard you’ve been spending your weekends organizing cleanups at the old slave cemetery in your neighborhood. I think that’s so noble. So selfless. That place is in such disrepair”
“How would you know?” someone behind us yells. I have to strain to keep myself from bursting out laughing.
“What if I made a large donation toward its revitalization?” Tinsley continues, unfazed. “I could have my father write the check tonight. Pulling up weeds and picking up trash can only go so far. You’re right, history that important deserves respect. Respect I can help you give it. Think of how good it’ll look when you can afford new headstones and better landscaping, repair the crumbling graves, maybe even install landmarks and signage.”
Some of the pride I’ve been feeling slowly seeps from my chest like a deflating balloon. Nova’s pensive expression has me worried she’s really considering it. This I didn’t factor, Tinsley trying to bribe Nova into dropping out. Nova’s been spending a lot of time cleaning up that cemetery. She even roped me into helping a few weekends, which is when I usually play ball with my Pops. I rarely cancel on him. It’s become a passion project of hers. But she has run into a lot of walls when it comes to raising money to really give it the attention it needs.
No. No. No. This is not how this was supposed to go.
“You’re the only Black girl on the ballot,” Tinsley says, her tone even and compassionate. “If you drop out, it’ll be impossible for this new policy to be implemented. Which is okay. They can pick a Black girl next year; no harm done.”
I know Nova can feel my eyes burning a hole in the side of her face. That’s why she’s refusing to look at me.
“I heard you weren’t even all that excited about being nominated at first,” Tinsley continues. “That has to mean something. So how about it? I get you a check for whatever amount you come up with, and you use it to honor your ancestors. You know I can make it happen. Is the crown worth that much to you?”
The three-minute-warning bell goes off, but none of us move. I have to remind myself to breathe.
“Come on, Nova. We’re going to be late for class.” Trenton places a hand on Nova’s shoulder, pulling her out of whatever thoughts Tinsley’s proposition has unlocked. “You McArthurs are something else,” he says to her. “Is this the only way y’all can get on top? By stepping on someone you think is weaker? Using money to get what you want?”
“What’s it gonna be, Nova?” Tinsley says, ignoring Trenton.
Nova blinks, and the hardness she had in her face when we marched up to Tinsley returns. “No, Tinsley. I’m not dropping out.”