Exclusive Excerpt: A Groundbreaking Black Homecoming Queen's Joy Is Short-Lived in The Black Queen

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Exclusive Excerpt: A Groundbreaking Black Homecoming Queen's Joy Is Short-Lived in <i>The Black Queen</i>

Debut author Jumata Emill’s first novel, The Black Queen isn’t due to hit shelves for another two months, but the buzzy YA title, set in the aftermath of the death of the first Black Homecoming Queen at Lovett High on her coronation night, deserves to be squarely on your radar for early 2023. The novel subsequently follows the story of her BFF Duchess, who’s determined to solve her murder and is willing to do anything—including work with Nova’s (white, rich) archenemy Tinsley to do it.

A gripping thriller that is labeled as perfect for fans of Tiffany Jackson, Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé and Zakiya Dalila Harris, The Black Queen not only offers a propulsive mystery but a deft exploration of the intersections between privilege, perspective, and justice.

Here’s how the publisher describes the story.

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.

The Black Queen doesn’t hit shelves until January 31, 2023, but we’re thrilled to present an exclusive excerpt from the story right now.

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CHAPTER FIVE: DUCHESS


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OCTOBER 14

8:03 P.M

“IT NEVER FAILS. White people will find a way to center themselves in our progress.”

Evelyn lifts her head and follows my sight line across the gym, where my girl Nova is surrounded by the mayor, his wife, and Mrs. Barnett.

“Chill, bae.” Ev looks back down at her phone. She’s bored. “Isn’t this what the newly crowned queen supposed to do at this reception? Take pictures with all these pretentious-ass folks?”

“It doesn’t annoy you how they’ve been taking ownership all night of something we waited so long to get?” I say. “The inflection in their voices when they kept calling her their first Black homecoming queen. She’s not theirs. She’s ours. They acting like it was their idea to finally do the right thing by us.”

“You gonna give yourself an aneurysm,” my girl says. “Remember, when one of us wins, we all win.”

“Yeah, us, not them.”

Nova has been paraded around this reception like she’s a show pony, the white folks hogging all her time with requests for selfies I’m sure they’ve posted on their social media to prove how “progressive” they are by supporting Lovett High’s first Black homecoming queen. #ItsNotAboutRace.

The fact that articles with headlines that read the first black person to . . . are still being published should be embarrassing to them. Tonight, during her opening remarks at the coronation ceremony, Mrs. Barnett told the audience that implementing the school’s new “fairness policies” was a “much-needed step in the right direction.” I wanted to stand up and shout, Thank y’all for finally making us feel like we matter after othering us since y’all forced us to come here!
I take a deep breath. Ev’s right. Can’t let anything spoil the Black girl magic of this night.

My girl has been handling it with grace. Maintaining a perfect smile through all the “Come here and say this to that person” and “Stand here and do this” she’s been getting since being officially crowned. Anyone can attend the coronation ceremony, as long as they secure one of the limited number of tickets the school makes available. But only invited guests and friends and family of the newly crowned queen are allowed to attend the reception afterward. Apparently, the school is using the guest list from previous years. There are hardly any Black community leaders or business owners here. I purposely said “us, not them” loud enough for Mrs. Barnett to hear as we were sitting down at Nova’s table. How could they not invite the very people who’ve been celebrating her victory all week?

Thankfully, Nova did manage to Meghan Markle the coronation ceremony by weaving some of our culture into the program. She walked out to a New Orleans-style brass band, was serenaded to “She’s Your Queen to Be” from Coming to America, and had the school’s gospel choir sing “Amazing Grace” after she was crowned.

Nova is looking like a Disney princess tonight. I gasped when she first came onstage. The tulle of her white ball gown shimmers in the spotlight. She still hasn’t told me what business she got to sponsor her. I’m betting it was Jitterbug’s.

I lean over to Ev. “I really need these folks to fall back,” I say. “We’ve barely gotten to talk to her all night.”

“And I’ma need you to calm down, all right?” Ev strokes the back of my head with a smirk. “Your girl is queen. Let her do her queen tingz. You’re gonna have to get used to sharing her.”

I catch the older white couple at the next table staring at us as I’m about to reply. The woman has this stank expression on her face. I realize it’s because Ev is still stroking the back of my head as she looks down at her phone. They don’t turn away until I purse my lips at them and tilt my head. I couldn’t care less how uncomfortable they are seeing two girls be affectionate with each other in public. One thing my mother drilled into me before she died: never let anyone make you feel ashamed about who you are. She told me that so I’d take pride in my brown skin and kinky hair. Making her proud, even though she’s gone, trumps everything.

Ev and I are the only people at Nova’s table in the center of the gym, which—thanks to all the balloons, special lighting, and decorations—hardly looks like the place where I’m forced to sweat for an hour three afternoons a week. The longest Nova has been at the table is when she got here to put her purse down and have Ev touch up her makeup. Nova’s mom, Ms. Donna, was seated with us too, but she made a quick exit shortly after dinner. Mrs. Barnett, and Trenton were also invited to sit with us. Trenton ducked out a few minutes ago to help the IT guys with some glitch in the lighting.

There’s no telling why Ms. Donna dipped so quickly. Nova and her mother are a hard pair to comprehend. One minute they’re lovey-dovey, and the next they’ll act like they’re only tolerating each other because they have to. Things have seemed more strained than usual since Nova’s uncle moved back here a month ago, after he was released from prison. I haven’t asked her about it yet. He’s a very touchy subject in their household.

“Bae, Nikki’s calling,” Evelyn announces, squeezing my forearm.

“What time is it?” I ask. “She probably wanna know if we still coming.”

We’re supposed to meet up with Ev’s friends at some kick-back later tonight, and I’m ready to go. This reception is lame. But with us being some of the only melanin-endowed people at this reception, I’m trying to be here for my girl as long as I can.

“Let me see what she’s talking about,” Evelyn says as she accepts the call.

“Bet. I’m ’bout to rescue my girl from these white folks,” I reply, standing up.

Nova has just gotten her photo taken with the mayor and his wife as I approach her. The second our eyes meet, her mouth flies open and she steps away from whatever the mayor’s wife leaned in to say to her.

“Girl, perfect timing,” she says, having to practically shout over the string quartet nearby. “The mayor’s wife asked if she could feel my hair. ‘I can’t believe they managed to get the crown to fit all of it,’ she said.”

“No that bitch didn’t,” I blurt.

Nova grabs me by the arm, pulling us away from the band and out of earshot of the mayor and his wife.

“I’m going to scream if I have to take another picture with some pasty white person,” Nova says. We both fold over with laughter.

We pause near the table holding the punch bowl and the large ice sculpture carved in the shape of the school’s initials. Nova recenters the crown Tinsley’s mother pinned into her curly Afro earlier.

“We’ve barely gotten to chop it up all night,” I say. “You know I’ve been dying to be petty.”

Nova looks over at our table and frowns. “Where’s my mama?”

“Left a little while ago,” I say, surprised she doesn’t know. “She ain’t say nothing to you?”

“Nope. And I ain’t stuntin’ it.” Nova shifts her expression, losing the frown.

“Everything good between y’all?” I ask.

“It’s whatever.” She takes a step back and looks me up and down. “Girl, I’m really liking how this tux ensemble came together,” she says, waving her scepter in a circular motion at me.

Good deflection, girl. I’ll let it slide since this is your night.

“These country-ass folks wasn’t ready for your girl tonight, hun-tee,” I say, strutting in a semicircle around Nova. “Real talk, thanks for putting this together for me. You really some- thing sick with that sewing machine.”

The dress code for the coronation and reception is semi- formal. But I don’t do dresses, so I got Nova to alter this old tuxedo I picked up at a local thrift store. She tailored it to fit my body and added some embellishments to modernize it. I decided to rock it with some black heels and a tuxedo shirt unfastened to show off a little cleavage. There’s nothing I love more than giving the kids a li’l butch-fem realness.

“Bump what I got on, though.” I bend over to lift the train of her ball gown. “Girl, this look is ever-re-thang! You gon’ tell me who your sponsor is or what?”

“They wanna remain anonymous for now,” she replies with a coy grin.

My gaze shifts across the room to where the McArthurs are seated. Tinsley definitely inherited her mother’s resting bitch face. Her sister, who emceed the ceremony tonight alongside Mr. Haywood, has been a little less bitchy. Mr. McArthur has been kind of aloof, clearly here only out of obligation to his wife.

“I kinda wish you could have talked Tinsley’s father into doing it,” I say. “You would have gone down in the Petty Hall of Fame for that one.”

Nova shrugs. “Oh well. Still got what I needed and managed to piss her off. Win-win.”

She starts telling me about some of the awkward conversations she’s had to endure, but her phone chimes and she pauses, pulling it out to see who texted.

Jessica Thambley walks in my line of vision as I look around the room. She and most of the cheerleading squad are serving as hostesses for the reception, which involves refilling water glasses, showing guests to their assigned tables, and a lot of standing around looking pretty. Didn’t surprise me at all that Tinsley and her minions opted out. Jessica is glaring at the table where Mr. Haywood is seated, next to a woman I assume is his fiancée. I think she’s in grad school at Mississippi State.
I’m about to make fun of Jessica’s obvious crush on our art teacher but stop when I see the worry shadowing Nova’s face. “What’s going on?” I ask her.

She jumps, looking up from her phone as if she forgot I was standing here. “Oh. Nothing, girl,” she replies, sliding her phone back into the pocket I didn’t know was folded into her ball gown.

“It don’t look like nothing. You seem a li’l—”

“Fine, I’m fine,” she cuts me off.

I want to press further, but Ev’s suddenly at my side.

“You wouldn’t happen to be ready to bounce, huh?” she says to me. “Nikki is summoning us to this party. Apparently, Chance and Briana aren’t entertaining enough.”

“Y’all can go,” Nova interjects with a smile that conflicts with the tension clouding her iridescent eyes. “As your queen, I beseech you to go and turn up.”

Ev playfully bows. “As you wish, my queen.”

I can’t help but notice how Nova’s deflecting again.

“We can stay a little longer,” I say. “I’m getting major Get Out vibes here. Don’t wanna leave you defenseless around all these white folks.”

I’m not really joking, but Nova laughs. “Girl, bye. It’s cool.

I’ll text y’all once this is over.”

I search her face for some hidden appeal for me to stay, but there’s nothing.

“How you getting home?” I ask.

“I’ll catch a ride with Trent.” She looks around the gym. “He’s still here, huh?”

“Yeah,” I tell her, “he’s in the auditorium helping them do some nerdy thing with the lighting.” I rub Nova’s arm. “Girl, seriously. We can stay. You look kinda—”

“Girl, I told you I’m fine.” Her tone is still pleasant, but I can hear the annoyance at the edges. “I’ma holla at you later, okay?”

I frown at her. I feel Ev staring at me, waiting for me to move.

“I’m serious,” Nova says with a nervous laugh. “Look, I’ll download you on some stuff tomorrow. Nothing I’m trying to get into tonight.”

“What kind of stuff?” I ask.

She looks down at her scepter, avoiding my inquisitive frown. “Stuff you’d have to promise you wouldn’t tell anyone else.”

Nova quickly glares at Ev, who doesn’t catch it because she’s sending a text.

“You know I got you. Always,” I reply.

“I promise, I’ll tell you tomorrow,” she says. “I just wanna enjoy tonight. Live in the moment.”

We say our goodbyes with a round of hugs and air kisses, and my stomach gets heavier as we walk away. As we’re leaving the gym, we run into Trenton reentering, looking a little disheveled.

“Y’all bouncing?” he says.

I nod, then add, “Hey, you not leaving anytime soon, huh?”

“Nah, why?” he says.

“Something’s up with Nova,” I tell him. “She got a text and started acting a little weird after she checked her phone.”

Trenton sighs. “She’d tell you before she tells me anything.” True. But knowing she still has someone here who has her back would make me feel a little better about leaving her. “Do
me a favor and make sure she good, all right?” I say.

He grins before nodding.

After weaving my fingers with Ev’s, I glance over my shoulder. Nova’s in the same spot we left her, looking down at her phone.

Did I just make a promise I won’t be able to keep?

Excerpt copyright © 2023 by Jumata Emill
Published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

The Black Queen will be released on January 31, 2023, but you can preorder it now.



Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.