The Huge Cultural Significance Of Lupita Nyong’o

Lupita Nyong'

Lupita Nyong’o is no longer a young woman who graduated from Yale, made her feature film debut in a critically-acclaimed movie, and became a fashion favorite. As of this past weekend, when she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her unforgettable performance as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, and when that film went on to win Best Picture of the Year, Lupita Nyong’o the person became Lupita Nyong’o the movement. And for those of us watching closely, this movement (the correct pronunciation of which you can find HERE) has great cultural significance. Attention must be paid.

First of all, if you were able to make it through that without shedding a single tear, then props to you. But for the rest of us actual humans, that speech was everything. And the orchestra playing “Pure Imagination” at the end was absolutely perfect. Still, her acceptance speech at Essence magazine’s Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon is a favorite for many of us:

I want to take this opportunity to talk about beauty, black beauty, dark beauty. I received a letter from a girl and I’d like to share just a small part of it with you: “Dear Lupita,” it reads, “I think you’re really lucky to be this black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight. I was just about to buy Dencia’s Whitenicious cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world map and saved me.”

My heart bled a little when I read those words, I could never have guessed that my first job out of school would be so powerful in and of itself and that it would propel me to be such an image of hope in the same way that the women of The Color Purple were to me.

I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin, I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned. The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself until I was in front of a mirror because I wanted to see my fair face first. And every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I was the day before. I tried to negotiate with God, I told him I would stop stealing sugar cubes at night if he gave me what I wanted, I would listen to my mother’s every word and never lose my school sweater again if he just made me a little lighter. But I guess God was unimpressed with my bargaining chips because He never listened.

And when I was a teenager my self-hate grew worse, as you can imagine happens with adolescence. My mother reminded me often that she thought that I was beautiful but that was no conservation, she’s my mother, of course she’s supposed to think I am beautiful. And then … Alek Wek. A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was. Even Oprah called her beautiful and that made it a fact. I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so much like me, as beautiful. My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome and all of a sudden Oprah was telling me it wasn’t. It was perplexing and I wanted to reject it because I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy. But a flower couldn’t help but bloom inside of me, when I saw Alek I inadvertently saw a reflection of myself that I could not deny. Now, I had a spring in my step because I felt more seen, more appreciated by the far away gatekeepers of beauty. But around me, the preference for my skin prevailed, to the courters that I thought mattered I was still unbeautiful. And my mother again would say to me you can’t eat beauty, it doesn’t feed you and these words plagued and bothered me; I didn’t really understand them until finally I realized that beauty was not a thing that I could acquire or consume, it was something that I just had to be.

And what my mother meant when she said you can’t eat beauty was that you can’t rely on how you look to sustain you. What is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and for those around you. That kind of beauty enflames the heart and enchants the soul. It is what got Patsey in so much trouble with her master, but it is also what has kept her story alive to this day. We remember the beauty of her spirit even after the beauty of her body has faded away.

And so I hope that my presence on your screens and in the magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. There is no shame in black beauty.

In a world where women of color are still lightening their skin, in a world where the typical black woman on screen looks like Halle Berry or Paula Patton, in a world where Kerry Washington and Gabrielle Union are considered to be dark-skinned beauties (and it is still a big deal that they are being so embraced by Hollywood), Nyong’o as a fashion and beauty icon (she’s also the new face of Miu Miu) is no small thing at all. The legacy of slavery still very much operates in our culture, and part of that legacy pertains to black women with lighter skin being labeled more beautiful and more valuable (a scene in 12 Years a Slave shows that, indeed, slave owners were willing to pay more for those enslaved blacks with lighter skin). For hundreds of years, black beauty has been defined by non-blacks, and while that is still very much happening today — even with Nyong’o’s story — it is wholly refreshing to see all shades of black beauty finally being embraced in a very public light.

When Nyong’o hit the Academy Awards red carpet she was, of course, bombarded with questions about her gorgeous pastel-blue gown. It was designed by Prada, and — more importantly — she said that it reminded her of her hometown, Nairobi, Kenya. And wouldn’t you know it — Kelly Osbourne of E!‘s Fashion Police immediately and appropriately labeled the look #NairobiBlue, which then began trending on Twitter. It is also no small victory to see the name of an African city become equated with a thing of beauty, to become beautiful itself.

But race and black beauty aren’t the only issues at play here. While many folks might have looked at her rise to fame as a rags-to-riches story, it’s important to note that Nyong’o comes from a middle-class upbringing. She prides herself on being the daughter of a Kenyan senator, and the cousin of Isis Nyong’o, who recently made the Forbes list of Most Powerful African Women. She completed her undergraduate studies at Hampshire College and earned her MFA from the Yale School of Drama. All of this to say that she is an educated, fabulous, talented force of nature. And judging by her Instagram account, she’s just as much as superfan of all things pop culture as the rest of us. Her presence in this world is huge right now, and watching her inspire young men and women everywhere makes the notion of celebrity status far more enjoyable.