Review: Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry by Joya Goffney

“She’s right. I am a warrior. I faced my to-do list. I fought for my freedom…and now I’m here. I’m back at the place where I first found myself, finding more pieces of who I am.”

Quinn keeps lists of everything—from the days she’s ugly cried, to “Things That I Would Never Admit Out Loud,” to all the boys she’d like to kiss. Her lists keep her sane. By writing her fears on paper, she never has to face them in real life. That is, until her journal goes missing…

An anonymous account posts one of her lists on Instagram for the whole school to see and blackmails her into facing seven of her greatest fears, or else her entire journal will go public. Quinn doesn’t know who to trust. Desperate, she teams up with Carter Bennett—the last known person to have her journal—in a race against time to track down the blackmailer.

Together, they journey through everything Quinn’s been too afraid to face, and along the way, Quinn finds the courage to be honest, to live in the moment, and to fall in love.

I enjoyed reading Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry for two reasons. The first is that it is a relatively light-hearted, teen romance with a dark-skinned black girl and a dark-skinned black boy at its center. I loved reading the descriptions of Quinn’s hair, Carter’s waves, and all of the black slang and language shortcuts. I felt like I was reading about myself in certain instances which is why representation in books is so critical and highly fought for.

The second reason I enjoyed this book is for its exploration of race, class, and prejudices. Throughout the book, we get to peer into Quinn’s internal monologue and witness her deep moments of introspection and transformation. There are a few notable scenes where conversations about race, class, and prejudices enter the book. One that lingers is the instance where Quinn’s father unexpectedly runs into Carter (who is just trying to find the restroom) when he gets home from work:

“I roll my eyes, shaking my head. I can just imagine it now: Carter comes out of the bathroom as my dad walks through the foyer, having already taken off his shoes at the door. When they see each other, my dad’s voice booms, ‘what are you doing in my house?’, the accusation clear in his eyes.”

The “accusation” in question is that Quinn’s father takes one look at Carter, a tall, dark-skinned black boy that he does not recognize, and assumes he is burglarizing their home. An argument ensues between Quinn and her family while Carter excuses himself, embarrassed and angry that in just a glance, he was unjustly profiled by another black man.

“Having heard enough, I go outside and try to extract the disgust in Carter’s eyes out of my head. What must he think of us? I don’t know exactly what happened, but it’s shameful that he had to experience that in a Black home. My home.”

This situation does eventually get resolved and Quinn’s father acknowledges his impact and apologizes. Nevertheless, it extracts an important realization for Quinn that black people can and do hold prejudices against other black people—especially against other dark-skinned black people. This prompts her to realize her own prejudices she’s held against Carter and other black peers at their school (which is predominantly white) and forces her to consider for the first time that maybe that is part of the reason she primarily has white friends.

Social class also plays a role in the above scenario: it is imperative to note that Quinn and her family are very wealthy (her mother is an attorney and her father is a chief surgeon). Because her parents are wealthy and successful, Quinn frequently feels shameful of her elevated class status compared to her other black peers. On top of this, she feels undeserving of the material things her parents are able to provide for her. It also doesn’t help that Quinn doesn’t have great grades, and her mother goes on an extensive rant to her about this after she fails a history quiz:

“‘He’s letting you retake that quiz tomorrow morning, but you better understand that you won’t get many chances like this, especially not with skin as dark as ours. You have to work twice as hard as everyone else. Figure out what you want to do in life, Quinn…this undecided mess is just’—she waves her hand dismissively—’a luxury only rich white boys can afford. You are not that. You have to be better than that if you want to compete.'”

Though it goes unarticulated, this tirade from Quinn’s mom implies numerous things. The most overt thing is clear: she is worried for her daughter’s future based on her current trajectory. But it is also very clear that Quinn’s mom is speaking from experience in this scene. She knows first-hand that black women will be met with skepticism and be presumed to be underqualified in professional settings. Because of this, she does not allow Quinn to indulge or take her elevated class for granted. She knows that despite whatever grit and intelligence Quinn may have, to an outsider looking in, all it takes is one glance. (Which is ironically exemplified by her own husband with Carter 70 pages earlier).

I get analytical about these concepts because to me, it is fascinating to dissect. Goffney does an excellent job at balancing how much reflection Quinn has during these instances while also allowing space for the reader to make their own observations and draw their own conclusions. There are more instances where important issues come up during this book, but for the sake of not indulging the analytical side of my brain too much, I’ll leave it for you to discover.

In all, I enjoyed Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry for its focus on black teen love and drama and the opportunity to think critically about race, social class, and prejudices. If you’re like me and enjoy a mix of light-heartedness and pensive introspection, this is the book for you.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

P.S.: there’s more!

I featured this book in my Black History Month recommendations video this past weekend! If you want to hear just a little bit more about why I enjoyed Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry, or if you’re looking for more black books to support, check out that video:

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