Savala Nolan Takes A Hard Look At The White Gaze And Blind Spots


Essays on Race, Gender, and Body
by Savala Nolan

Scholar Cheryl Blanche Butler said in The Art of the Black Essay that “the author does not choose the form of the essay, the essay emerges from it.” Essays in Savala Nolan’s first collection, “Don’t Let It Down You Down,” reveal her complex relationship with being a large-bodied mixed-race Black woman.

Nolan is a law professor in Berkeley who works as a clerk at the Obama administration’s White House law firm; however, these 12 articles are more about his origin story and personal growth, born “between” racial categories and their corresponding expectations, rather than his legal career. “I’m a mixed Black woman, and what people sometimes call ‘a lot of yellow waste,'” Nolan writes, “means I have fair (yellow) skin because of black features.” His father isn’t just Black and Mexican; he is also poor, “so poor that we went to the bathroom in buckets under a ceiling hole that was repaired with linoleum.” He grew up 20 miles from the Mexican border in California and spent 20 years of his adolescence and early adulthood condemned to being poor in and out of prison. On the white, maternal side of her family, Nolan is a “Daughter of the American Revolution” with a graduate degree and trust fund friends just like her mother. Because of these mixed-status origins, the forces of social class hang throughout this stunning collection.

Nolan writes on a long tradition and its contemporary renaissance. From Du Bois’s “Souls of the Black People” to slave narratives, the Black essay is rich with tales of otherness and duality. Clint Smith, Emily Bernard, Nishta J. Mehra, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Claudia Rankine, Mychal Denzel Smith, and Robert Jones Jr. Authors like (among others) bring the modern form of essay on how experiences of Blackness differ. as they do about how they combine. This embrace of the heterogeneity of black femininity is part of the appeal of this book.

Another part is the author’s voice – vulnerable, but rarely smug. Nolan is so tough on himself that sometimes one asks him to indulge more with a little grace, a little forgiveness, maybe a little humor. In “On Dating White Guys While Me,” she explores her naked desire for the attention of white men, a dynamic more widely accepted by black gay writers than straight Black women. She writes about her relationship with her ex: “I have long felt that the most succinct and irrefutable way to rise in the world is to be loved by a prototype white man. “I mean, the one on the top.” A brutal, beautifully rendered narrative of the perception of “cultural magic in their affirmation”; Nolan’s holy grail, his passport of belonging. It is a gothic desire to be completely objectified so that all your Blackness and greatness disappear. But Nolan’s writing conveys his stern honesty, how utterly rational this is, as a response to the ways racism, colorism, and patriarchy allocate power to women based on their attraction to white men.

This white patriarchal look resonates in the collection, sometimes with devastating consequences. In “White Baby,” Nolan describes the end of her pregnancy and the prenatal pain, irregular heartbeat, and vomiting of her daughter Gemma, which despite her multiple trips to the emergency room, was ignored by her white doctors: she’s likely to die at birth, regardless of socioeconomic status. “I want credit for surviving a racist pregnancy.”

“Don’t Let It Let You Down” dances in the spaces between the duos of Black femininity. When Nolan met her future husband, a white, working-class high school dropout, she realized her previous mistake in seeking white partners to improve her position in life: “I always wanted to be empress; I became more interested in the gladiator.” She inherited the white diet culture from her mother, “weak and fragile like a glass of skim milk” (“I grew up with my WASPy family, constant cycles of dieting and overeating, and forced trampoline jumping before dinner”); but she inherited from her father a body that withstands such punitive pressures to conform to white beauty standards. Taken together, these trials feel like Nolan has yet to figure it out on his own. But they also show that parts of our lives don’t have to fit neatly into a frame to make a standout portrait.


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