Like the 12 essays in Don’t Let It Get You Down: Essays on Race, Gender, and the Body, Savala Nolan is powerful and complex. She is Black, Mexican and white. She yo-yo diets, hates and loves her body, was raised in poverty but educated among privileged white people. Her mother tried to involve her in local Black communities growing up, but Nolan didn’t feel Black enough. “What are you?” was a common question. Her answers are haunting.
Nolan is a lawyer, speaker, writer and the executive director of the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. The daughter of an incarcerated Black and Mexican father and a white mother descended from owners of enslaved people, Nolan is also the wife of a white man and mother of their biracial child. She worked her way through school as a nanny for rich people, seething over any connections to the Mammy stereotype. She craves designer clothes, cringes over past experiences using hot irons on her hair, has longed for inclusion among wealthy white people (she calls it “self-erasure”) and is dismayed by her own occasionally white-tinted perspective. When mistaken for hired help, she is repelled. When her husband neglected to vote in the 2016 presidential election, she was flummoxed and furious.
In the titular essay, “Don’t Let It Get You Down,” Nolan’s agony spills over as she says their names: Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Jordan Davis and Renisha McBride, challenging her readers to confront the ongoing realities of racial violence. Like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, written as a letter to his son, Nolan’s essays speak to both young and old Americans about our country’s pervasive history of racism. Recounting her pregnant great-great-grandmother’s murder by white supremacists, Nolan says such stories, "including how we learn them, or why we’re sheltered from them . . . [are not] a reason to turn away. It’s a reason to go deeper.” In Don’t Let It Get You Down, Nolan brilliantly does so.