The Seduction of Inadequacy, and what the Lupita Nyong’o Oscar win means for millions of young black girls

Lupita NyongoSo last night, Lupita Nyong’o, the delightful and eloquent Mexican-Kenyan actress and Hollywood’s latest ingénue, won her first Oscar for her harrowing portrayal of a young black female slave in 1840’s America. The subject matter was deep and Nyong’o was mesmerising and masterful in her depiction of the character Patsey. The sensitivity and elegance that Nyongo’s powerful performance lent to Patsey’s life was made all the more disconcerting at the realisation that Patsey wasn’t just some fictional character, but a real life historical figure. Those repeated rapes, abject humiliation and attempts to completely strip Patsey of her worth as a fellow human being, actually happened. Eurrgh. *vomits in mouth*

In the film, the movie ends on a somewhat feel- good note, Solomon Northup gains his freedom and escapes the soul destroying madness of slavery, but I know that in the days after watching that movie I often wondered what became of Patsey, the woman left behind to an era of repeated sexual degradation, cotton picking, and life ended in some unmarked grave in a Southern State of America. All because she was black.

Lupita Nyong’o, to her credit appears not to have let all of Hollywood’s fawning get to her head. And in her beautiful Oscar acceptance speech last night, she paid tribute to Patsey (never given the honour of even a last name, further robbing her of any identity other than a vessel, an instrument to do a white man’s work)”It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is due to so much pain in someone else’s”. This! That line right thurrr! What can I say? If I wasn’t already enamoured of this beautiful fellow African Chic… As it was, her raw emotional intelligence and her empathy in her greatest hour made me fall in love with Miss Nyong’o all over again 🙂

So what is it about Lupita Nyong’o? Of course, I was captivated by her performance in what to some is “just another slave movie”, but it wasn’t just that. I saw her on the red carpet, and I was entranced by her sense of style, her eloquence, her wit. I read articles about her background – From being born in Mexico, raised in Kenya, educated in Kenya, Mexico and the US- and found myself relating to this fellow “AfroPolitan”. Perhaps it’s because she’s just 2 months younger than me, (she turned 31 on Saturday) and African (not just of African descent) that I felt this inexplicable sense of affinity. I certainly never rooted for Halle Berry, Jennifer Hudson, Gabourey Sidibe, Viola Davis in this way (although I loved the movies that garnered their nominations) and I think they are all Beautiful Strong Black women.

The articles I read told how, after graduating Hampshire College in the US, she went back to Kenya and practiced her craft as an actress (a profession a lot of African parents don’t always look on with approval. “Na wa oh, your parents pay all this school fees to send you to school abroad, you endure repeated separations from your parents, childhood steadfast friends and family and all that is familiar to you, and you say want to become what? An actress! Ha!” A great many of my generation of African homies can relate to what would generally be the standard reaction to that career choice. #NotPleasing).

Even after Lupita had supposedly “made it”, and was easily identifiable to thousands of Africans from her role in the MTV Kenyan mini series -Shuga, she was still driven by the need to better herself and go back to Yale and refine her craft, to continuously prove herself. Can we say the same of the Nadia Buaris, the Genevieve Nnajis’, the John Dumelos’ aka ‘stars’ of the African film Industry, and Nollywood? This wasn’t some young chit prepared to rest on her laurels… Hell no! She was going to out there and conquer! “Aah”, I thought to myself, “This girl has character!”.

And then I heard about Lupita’s Essence Speech. If you haven’t read it yet, I suggest all young black women (especially if you’re 35 and below) run, google and read it! What it taught me was that in Lupita Nyong’o is a sense of purpose, and an appreciation that Hollywood’s recognition of her talent, style, class and phenomenal beauty will not only bring the Prada dresses and Miu, Miu campaigns – but also provides her with an immense platform to give back a sense of self-belief, a revival of Obama’s “yes we can” campaign to million of dark skinned black girls around the globe. And she uses that power wisely. Like that other fellow gorgeous Afropolitan, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie – she of the fabulous words and ability to turn language into a mesmerising art of seduction. Lupita recognises the “Danger of a Single Story” – that dangerous narrative that Hollywood and the Western World has sprouted for donkeys’ ages: To be black and considered beautiful, you have to be a Gabrielle Union/ Rhianna/ Beyonce with fair skin and a massive weave/ lace front wig. It’s a narrative that’s unfortunately been sadly espoused further by fellow Africans who should really know better. *Ignoramuses like that Dencia character selling her bleaching product “whitenecious” springs to mind*

Black has always been beautiful, tis True, but the various standards of black beauty have never truly been represented in the Western Media (the platform that is most accessible to all). And so like Adichie pointed out in that TED speech, the ‘black story’ or the black experience of beauty or success is too often misrepresented in Western media/ Hollywood, selling the notion and influencing way too many people that the only idea of black beauty is a fair skinned black beauty. Or the only idea of Black success is as a gangster, a rude gyal, a hustler/ 419. Or the misrepresentation of black people as maids, taxi drivers, cleaners, down and outs. The fawning accolades and the global attention Lupita Nyong’os’ intelligence, ethereal grace and brand of beauty has garnered, exposes that myth and reveals that “black story” to be incomplete. Of course it is far more important to be beautiful on the inside, but what Lupita’s awards season has shown is that “There is no shame in Black beauty.” So to my Ebony skinned sisters, please stop seeing your skin as an obstacle and revel in your differences, and in your own unique form of beauty. Recognise that Hollywood’s adoration of Lupita represents Acceptance for all forms of black beauty (and black hair), and raise the middle finger to those who demand you conform to a single narrative of beauty and success. You are not inadequate by any means; you are powerful beyond measure 🙂

Patsey’s story was 150 years ago. In the time since, the most common form of slavery has been abolished, all black people have supposedly been physically emancipated, but the chains of inadequacy remain, and prevent millions of black people, black girls from reaching their full potential, especially in the Western World where Black People are the minority race. Lupita’s trajectory – From Mexico, to Kenya, to Yale, to that Oscar stage last night, shows the freedom and achievement that is within ANY Black persons grasp. If only they free themselves from the sense of inadequacy, grasp the mettle of self-belief, and hone their street smarts into social skills effective for a global world. Coco Chanel said a girl should be two things: Classy and Fabulous. I think Lupita Nyong’o is embodying that sentiment right now, and she’s proving you don’t have to be Beyonce with a Lace front Wig, or even Cara Delevingne or Angelina Jolie to do that. Just be true to yourself and your heritage; have the principles to know your rights from your wrongs; have the strength of character to walk away from those wrongs… and the rest of the fruits of success will follow 😉

#OnwardsandUpwards

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9 thoughts on “The Seduction of Inadequacy, and what the Lupita Nyong’o Oscar win means for millions of young black girls

  1. Thank you. You brought tears to my eyes with this post. Lupita is a strong and intelligent woman and I am happy she is succeeding at such a high level with none of the landmarks of the westernised version of a black beauty….lace front wigs included.

    • Dibs, Moi aussi. Love how she’s proving that her brand of beauty and success isn’t such an alternative extreme, it’s just a different way of being. Not everyone has to be a Lindsay Lohan or Beyonce 🙂

  2. “…but the chains of inadequacy remain, and prevent millions of black people, black girls from reaching their full potential…”
    “… If only they free themselves from the sense of inadequacy, grasp the mettle of self-belief, and hone their street smarts into social skills effective for a global world. ..”

    The last paragraph is a self-righteous lecture that seeks to claim that the source of “the problem” is the confidence level of dark skinned Black women not skin tone bigots. The problem is not the mental state of dark skinned black women but the structually entrenched skin tone bigotry that has stood in the way of many “Lupitas”. Why don’t you lecture those people that practice colorism against dark skinned black women to stop discriminating. There is good research that shows a disadvantage for dark skinned men and women in employment, marriage, police arrests, school punishments and prison sentencing. The “seduction of inadequacy” is not the issue here. Please do not use Lupita’s success to ignore, deny and invalidate systemic skin tone bias.

    • Alchemist, I very much doubt there was anything “self-righteous” about that paragraph. My post is my opinion and not a NYT Editorial. However, that being said, you are also entitled to your opinion on the subject of Miss Nyong’o.

      My post, if you understood it accurately, (and did not just rest your premise on one paragraph) clearly acknowledges the problems caused by the skin bigots (Black and White), BUT ALSO encourages dark-skinned women of colour to rise above the bigotry. To reclaim their self esteem and not allow themselves to be defined by their skin tone or shade. After all the sum of man (woman in this case) is composed of many parts. Lupita herself acknowledges this in her Essence speech when quoting her mothers’ caution of beauty not being able to sustain you.

      Lastly, unlike your good self, I don’t believe in lecturing anybody, but rather encouraging my fellow black sisters to see beyond the outer shell and focus on the many other positive attributes I’m sure they possess. I don’t believe in being stuck in the quagmire of the kind of racism that existed 150 years ago, nor in the negativity of “good research” that “shows a disadvantage for dark skinned men and women in employment, marriage, police arrests, school punishments and prison sentencing”. I happen to live in the 21st century and think there are many ways to combat “systemic skin tone bias”, not least by NOT BEING ‘The Angry Black Woman’ with a massive chip on her shoulder about her race/ skin tone. I think of Lupita’s success as an achievement and I want to celebrate that, and what her success reflects – a good actress whose skills have been honed in a renowned institition like Yale, An African achiever whose intelligence, class and style has charmed all those who have had the good fortune to encounter her, and a dark skinned beauty on top of that, paving the way for Lupita Nyong’o to be a good Ambassador for dark skinned people, girls in particular. Lupita did not let her darker skin deter her from following her dreams. She acknowledged skin bias and then MOVED ON to use her other assets – intelligence and grace to rise above it. In doing so, Lupita like Whoopi Goldberg, like Michelle Obama after her, gives young black girls another role model to look up to and to understand that being dark skinned does not mean you can’t also be held up as a beacon of Success.

      Of course, if you’d rather focus on negative statistics to deter you from being the best you that you can be, then be my guest.

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