Simon & Schuster
Simon & Schuster

No. That seems to be a word most associated with black women. There is a stereotype that black women don’t want to try new things or get out of their comfort zone. There is a perception that the word ‘no’ just comes easy to us. Shonda Rhimes, arguably one of the most powerful women in television, in her book Year of Yes: How To Dance In Out, Stand In The Sun and Be Your Own Person explains she was one of those women. Her saying no, however, wasn’t about being an angry black woman or a stereotypical one at that, it was about something deeper. Fear. Year of Yes walks the reader through how she started this experiment and the changes that occurred in her life as a result.

Year of Yes is the feature book this month. Number four on the list of 7+1 actions black women need to take in 2016 is to read more. This also hits number three – say yes more. This is an excellent choice, with some caveats. I’m part of a group of women that have a regular book club to which I rarely go. I have a list of books I’m reading for this blog and other things. I find it hard to squeeze in the book for the club. I happened to be reading Year of Yes already. I’m telling you this to say that the reaction of the people in the group was diametrically opposed. Some thought it was good and relatable while others thought it was slow and tortuous. This leads to my first piece of commentary on the book.

Not For Extroverts

The line on enjoying the book seemed to be drawn between the introverts and the extroverts. The extroverts couldn’t understand how anyone in their right mind would say no to sitting next to POTUS and FLOTUS. Frankly, the Secret Service would have to remove me kicking and screaming as I clutched on to the hem of FLOTUS’ beautiful and flawless gown. However, I see how she gets there. If I’m being honest, and I am, I would’ve been throwing up everyday twice a day leading up to the event. I would’ve tried on dozens of dresses and probably caught the vapors in the car and needed smelling salts. Not because they are the most powerful couple in the world, but because I would have been fretting over what am I going to say to the most powerful couple in the world that doesn’t make me look like an idiot. I can relate to her. This book is very much centered on the inner Shonda Rhimes and how this journey changes her. Extroverts are unlikely to see themselves in this book. If you are an extrovert please do read it, keeping in mind that your lens is likely very different.

Additionally, if you’re looking for this book to explain how she rose to be one of the most successful people (woman, black woman, human being) in Hollywood this is not that book. This is strictly about her personal journey. Maybe she’ll write another book that talks about that.

What Worked For Me

Let’s get into the nitty gritty of the book. There are several things about this book that worked well for me. My perception of Shonda Rhimes was that she was high powered TV mogul crushing Thursday night. I formed this opinion when Dr. Preston Burke (Isaiah Washington) was booted from the show when he made homophobic remarks about a fellow actor. Many of us ran around saying “Shonda don’t play”. Then we said good bye to Harrison Wright (Columbus Short) on Scandal because Mr. Short allegedly couldn’t keep his angry hands off other people. Once again, “Shonda don’t play”. But it turns out, that in fact Shonda did play. This book allows us to see behind the headlines. To know that she struggled with casting Dr. Christina Yang because she was struggling with saying no to the actress everyone else wanted. Powerful people rarely want to admit that they don’t feel the weight of their power in their own hearts and minds. It’s refreshing to see that a woman, a black woman, who owns a night of the week, the best night of the week on TV is very similar to me. The exterior of a person doesn’t explain the interior of a person.

Next, I like that she sets it up early that her saying no had nothing to do with being an angry black woman or just not wanting to do new things. Her relationship with the word no was born out of subconscious desire to play small in her life. To not be seen. Growing up she stood out in a way she felt was negative. She retreated to an inner world she created and where she could shine. That carried over into adulthood. Within an inner place in her mind she didn’t feel worthy, so she said no a lot to stay invisible, but then said yes to the wrong things.

I have to say I worried that this book would be about saying yes to anything. Just an endless parade of yes. She explores the value in saying no when it’s necessary. Sigh of relief on my part. She opens up about how she said no to people she considered to be close friends. When she said no to their ask or no to their behavior something amazing happened, she saw them. When she saw them they thrashed around a little bit but eventually fell away. This is a perfect example of number one on the list of 7+1 actions black women must take in 2016 – eliminate toxic people.

Thanks to this book I have now added a few new words to my vocabulary, chief of which is “badassery”. As she discovers the weight of her power she begins to shed fat and gain confidence. That confidence takes the form of badassery. The reader can see the change in language and thought as she is able to name what is happening. Humans need words to describe something. When the brain doesn’t know what something is the perception of it will constantly shift. This is why Eskimos have so many words for snow. Once she saw the change and named it her brain was able to integrate it into every aspect of her being.

One other phrase I will take away from this book is normalizing. That’s a not a new word but it’s a new use. She talks about how people ask her about the diversity of her shows. She makes a great point, one that I think many of us make, but uses a different word. The world is diverse. It’s normal to have black women, asian women, gays, etc. Those are the threads that make up the American quilt of culture. She isn’t diversifying television, she is normalizing it. She is making it look like America looks. Side note to Corporate America, can we start normalizing the workplace instead of diversifying it?

What Didn’t Work For Me

While I was able to gleen things I liked about the b0ok, the writing made it difficult at times. The writing was almost like a stream of consciousness. If you’re looking for her to wrap up each lesson in a bow and give you five steps to yes, well, no. You are literally along for the ride of her mind. I don’t necessarily mind the stream of consciousness but at times the pace of her writing seems so quick. I remember feeling exhausted for the first few chapters. Let me explain it this way. If you watch any of her shows regularly you know there is always a speech. It’s a fast pace, cards on the table, mic-dropping speech. We love those speeches because it causes a shift in the story or illuminates a character’s thinking. Well, I felt that’s how the first part of the book was written. The thing that makes the speeches so powerful is that they are short and don’t occur in succession.

I preface this by saying I am not a mother. She speaks in the book about having help with her children. And that women shouldn’t be ashamed to get help. Or they act as though they don’t need help and they have help, and it’s a dirty little secret. She acknowledges that she’s in a better position to get all of the help she needs while other women aren’t. Her circumstances are unique, she’s the boss and makes good money. Maybe not Oprah money, but way better than 99% of the world. Most of the women who are working are doing it because they have to. Black women are more likely to be the sole-earner and head of household and in a low-to-medium wage job. They are more likely to be single mothers who never married and don’t receive child support. These aren’t women who are ashamed of needing help, they are women in need of help. While white women are more in the camp of working, more likely to be married but doing the primary child care and home care duties. I do not expect that Shonda Rhimes would speak up for either group, I just felt the urging to get help missed the current dynamics.

The Verdict

I recommend this book for the New Black Chicks, with the aforementioned caveats. Your reasons for saying no may be different from Shonda Rhimes’ reasons. When you ask yourself how much do you say no to, ask yourself why. Like Ms. Rhimes I believe no is a complete sentence. And yes is a complete sentence. I urge you to commit to your own year of yes. If our community is going to be honest, and we should, there are a lot of no’s from black women. We’re just not going to do something. Or that’s something “white people do”. Not all of us and not all of the time. But consider this, perhaps we are under-represented in some areas of American culture because we don’t say yes to enough of the right things that serve us allowing those who do say yes to be easily excluded by the majority.

While I wouldn’t say rush out and get the book, I would say it’s a good read. It’s primarily her journey. You may find bits of your own journey in there, but don’t expect it to provide you with a pathway to how you must dance it out, stand in the sun and be your own person. For that reason I would’ve made the subtitle “How I learned to dance it out,….”. Her writing follows the same tempo as that of her TV shows. If you don’t enjoy the writing for her shows, this may not be the book for you. Overall, it’s a refreshing look behind the curtain of a powerful and well respected individual which is something we rarely get to see.

What are your thoughts on the book? Share your comments below. If you enjoyed this review please share within your community.

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Nile Harris
Nile Harris, the Chief Chick, is a word weaver and dream believer with 20 years of experience in healthcare, finance, and education. This aspiring motivational speaker, TED presenter and LinkedIn Influencer is committed to valuing people, driving healthcare access and innovation, and weaving words that move people to action. Her views are her own.
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