Savala Nolan Takes a Hard Look at the White Gaze and Its Blind Spots

Essays on Race, Gender, and the Body
By Savala Nolan

In “The Art of the Black Essay,” the scholar Cheryl Blanche Butler declared that “the writer does not choose the essayistic form, the essay unfolds out of her.” The essays in Savala Nolan’s first collection, “Don’t Let It Get You Down,” unfold out of her complex relationship with being a big-bodied, mixed-race Black woman.

Nolan is a law professor at Berkeley who clerked in the Obama administration’s office of White House counsel; but these 12 essays are concerned less with her legal career than with her origin story and personal development, born as she was “in between” racial categories and their corresponding expectations. “I’m a mixed Black woman and what folks have sometimes called ‘a whole lot of yellow wasted,’” Nolan writes, “meaning I have light (yellow) skin ‘wasted’ by Black features.” Her father is not just Black and Mexican; he is also poor, “so poor we went to the bathroom in buckets under a ceiling hole repaired with tarp.” He was raised 20 miles from the Mexican border in California, and spent 20 years of his adolescence and early adulthood in and out of prison, condemned to stay poor. On the white, maternal side of her family, Nolan is a “Daughter of the American Revolution,” with a graduate education just like her mom has and trust-fund friends. Because of these mixed-status origins, the forces of social class hang over the entirety of this standout collection.

“Don’t Let It Get You Down” dances in the spaces between binaries of Black womanhood.

Nolan is writing into a long tradition, and its contemporary renaissance. From Du Bois’s “The Souls of Black Folk” to slave narratives, the Black essay is rich with stories of otherness and duality. Writers like Clint Smith, Emily Bernard, Nishta J. Mehra, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Claudia Rankine, Mychal Denzel Smith and Robert Jones Jr. (among many others) bring the modern essay form to bear as much on how the experiences of Blackness differ as they do on how they cohere. This embrace of the heterogeneity of Black womanhood is part of this book’s charm.

Another part is the author’s voice — vulnerable, but rarely veering into self-indulgence. Nolan is so hard on herself that at times one wishes she’d indulge herself more, with some grace, some forgiveness, perhaps a little humor. In “On Dating White Guys While Me,” she explores her naked desire for white male attention, a dynamic more commonly admitted by Black gay writers than by straight Black women. “I’d long sensed that the most succinct, irrefutable way to move up in the world was to be loved by a prototypical white man,” she writes of her relationship with an ex. “I.e., someone at the top.” It is a brutal, beautifully rendered narrative of the perceived “cultural magic in their approval”; Nolan’s holy grail, her passport to belonging. It is a gothic desire, to be objectified so totally that all of your Blackness and bigness disappears. But Nolan’s writing, her stark honesty, conveys how entirely rational this is, as a response to the ways racism, colorism and the patriarchy apportion power to women based on their attractiveness to white men.

That white patriarchal gaze echoes across the collection, with sometimes devastating consequences. In “White Doll,” Nolan recounts the end of her pregnancy and birth of her daughter, Gemma, when her prenatal pain, irregular heartbeat and vomiting went unheeded by her white doctors, despite several trips to the E.R. “We know Black women are more likely to die in childbirth regardless of socioeconomic status,” she writes. “I want credit for surviving a racialized pregnancy.”

“Don’t Let It Get You Down” dances in the spaces between binaries of Black womanhood. When Nolan met her future husband, a white, working-class high school dropout, she realized her earlier mistake in seeking white partners to improve her station in life: “I’d always wanted to be the empress; I was becoming more interested in the gladiator.” From her mother, “thin and frail, like a glass of skim milk,” she’s inherited white diet culture (“I grew up with my WASPy family, with ceaseless diet-and-binge cycles and forced trampoline jumping before dinner”); but from her father she’s inherited a body resistant to such punitive pressure to conform to white beauty standards. Taken together, these essays give the sense that Nolan has not yet solved herself for herself. But they also show how the pieces of our lives do not have to fit neatly in a frame in order to make a portrait worthy of attention.

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