“I feel a peculiar sensation in my throat when white people borrow– take– something Black: it’s like there’s an octopus in my chest, peacefully afloat, when danger suddenly appears.”
“Because “Freedom” is a song for Black women. It’s ours, even if it’s out in the world.”
“Because guarding the autonomy of my Black mind is the same as guarding my freedom.”
Lines like those above characterize the whole of Don’t Let it Get You Down: Essays on Race, Gender, and the Body— cutting and full of heart, wit, pain, and joy. In her memoir, Savala Nolan shares insight on what it’s like to move in the world as a woman at the center of intersecting identities. Nolan is of Black, Mexican and white ancestry, has been thin and fat, and has lived in poverty and enjoyed wealth. She has the unique lived experience of being both oppressed and privileged. In this book, she shares with us her innermost thoughts on her story, and the larger cultural context of which it is a crucial part.
Through her essays that read like poetry, Nolan skillfully goes from talking about personal experience to culture to media to her family history and back again. She carefully examines her life through a keen lens and crafts her discoveries and observations into impactful and very readable essays.
My favorite essay is “Dear White Sister.” It chronicles a situation in which a white friend of Nolan’s appropriated a Beyonce lyric, which the author knew in her gut was meant only for Black women. Nolan described her uncertainty with how to move forward with this, and her certainty that the song was made for the Black community. She confronted the friend, who— as progressive she thought she was— crumpled with white fragility, and never spoke to the author again. This was a tough situation for Nolan, because they had been friends for 20+ years. In the end she didn’t mind because what she really ended up doing was trading her friendship for “sovereignty.” It is so affirming to see an example of a woman taking a painful moment, learning from it, and finding empowerment in it.
The book is filled with wisdom like this. Nolan also talks about caring for herself, relationships, education, family, classism, and misogyny. She addresses the “Mammy” stereotype that is so prevalent in American media. At times, she directs her words to specific people, including those she critiques for their outright racism and acceptance of it. Nolan writes and thinks in a way that I think we’d all like to: honestly, and with an intimate knowledge of herself.
Why You Should Read It
Along with the beautiful language, I liked the length of the essays. They were not too long, and the essays on the shorter side were effective. The length of the essays makes for a quick read in a few sittings, but the heavier content might require that you put the book down for a while and think through it.
As Emily Bernard wrote in a blurb of this book: “it is not a book to be read; it is a book to savor.” This is one to annotate as you read, then pass it along to a loved one. If you enjoy reading essays, memoirs, or the work of Roxane Gay, I think you’ll really like this one.