The Blind Spots of the White Gaze
Reviewing Savala Nolan's excellent 'Don't Let It Get You Down' in NYTBR + the Black essay is having a moment.
I had the opportunity to review a standout debut book for the New York Times Book Review, out today. Don’t Let It Get You Down is an essay collection by UC-Berkeley law professor Savala Nolan, who clerked in the Obama administration’s office of White House counsel. As I wrote, these 12 essays unfold out of her complex relationship with being a big-bodied, mixed-race Black woman—her father, a poor Black and Mexican man (“so poor we went to the bathroom in buckets under a ceiling hole repaired with tarp”), her mother, a Daughter of the American Revolution (WASP), growing up “in between” racial categories and their corresponding expectations, and dancing in the spaces between binaries of Black womanhood. There’s so much to recommend about this collection—her stark honesty, her voice, which has a vulnerability that never veers into self-indulgence. But what I think is especially resonant is that, while these essays give the sense that Nolan has not yet solved herself for herself, 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.
I mention several authors in the review who have done masterful work for the essay genre—Clint Smith, Emily Bernard, Nishta J. Mehra, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Claudia Rankine, Mychal Denzel Smith, and Robert Jones Jr., among others.
The Black essay genre is having a real moment. We are breaking apart points of departure in blackness, which I really love. I cannot personally relate to Nolan’s desire for the white male gaze, for instance. And that is precisely why the book sparks for me.
There are two books in particular that can help contextualize this type of narrative of self: The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois, and The Art of the Black Essay by Cheryl Blanche Butler. Aspiring writers and curious readers would do well to add some of these to their collection.
Thank you to everyone who purchased autographed copies of Thick from Epilogue Books. Part of your purchase supports the Night School community education mission in the greater Durham, NC, area. I appreciate you and the crew at Epilogue.