The Poetry Project

Wite Out: Love and Work by Linda Norton

Review by Katie Ebbitt

The explanatory title of Wite Out: Love and Work is an accurate if not condensed summation of Linda Norton’s fourth book, published in May 2020 by Hanging Loose Press. Wite Out’s themes are vast and bold, but the essence of what Norton writes about is the work that it takes to sustain love despite a biased, imperialist, and often harmful world.

Wite Out derives its title from the trademarked correction fluid that Norton uses as a medium in her collage work (one such piece is used for the book’s cover). The title — playful, as is Norton — signals to the serious analysis offered throughout the book on white identity. What Norton does in her writing, as stated in an epigraph by Fred Moten, is to identify “the shit you can’t say shit about.”

As disclosure, this review of Wite Out has taken over a year to produce, not in its writing, but in the digestion of Norton’s text. I am white. Norton is white. How does a white reviewer comment on a book by a white author where whiteness is an explicit query? Wite Out is a book on many subjects including contemporary white consciousness, the history of how immigrants were taught white consciousness, and how whiteness was necessary in denying Black presence and justifying Black subjectation. It does this through a personal framework over a pedagogical one.

While the text is not strictly chronological in its narration, Wite Out starts in 1997 following Norton’s move to Oakland. Much of the book focuses on life in California, but New York and Boston are frequently mentioned, as is Norton’s late-brother, Joey, who died from AIDS in the eighties.

Norton’s background is that of a poor Bostonian whose grandparents immigrated from Sicily and Ireland. Her childhood home was unstable with a rageful mother, “creepy” father, and four siblings. Norton’s recollection of her early years contrasts with her ex-husband’s family and their WASP-y whiteness. Norton notes the explicit racist overtures of her family in constrast to the more covert discrimination of her ex-husband’s.

Norton writes about intimacy with individuals who are Black, including her college friend Vee, love interest Johnnie, and playwright August Wilson. Her relationship to Marcus, a teenager she meets doing volunteer work as his court advocate, provides Norton’s most explicit implications of her being a white woman having friendships with Black people. Norton recounts the paperwork, tedium of bureaucracy, and grapples with the ramifications and legacy of “white saviors.” Norton matter-of-factly describes Marcus becoming a part of her family, which leads into other themes that are predominant throughout Wite Out: care-work, motherhood, and womanhood. The poems that shine brightest in Wite Out are the ones where Norton encounters her femininity. In “My Girlish Days,” Norton writes:

I would have made a meal of him
… but then I’d spend the rest of my life
feeling terrible about it –
‘I’m sorry, dear –
you astonish me,
so I ate you.’ I eat men like air
or something.

Wite Out is a book that is about the life of a white woman who openly engages with her whiteness. Norton never questions that her skin color benefits her. Structurally, the book is a diary interspersed with poetry, but the subject matter and frankness with which Norton reveals herself shows an unusual thinker willing to adapt and reassess her identity based on historical and personal developments she experiences. Wite Out is a profound text in its difficulty to be defined, categorized, or even written about. The book is brave, but takes into account that a white woman writing about whiteness and whiteness’s relationship to Blackness shouldn’t be a brave undertaking. What Norton is doing is rare for a white author: confronting through candid autobiography the influence of whiteness over her life.

#265 — Summer 2021