On Sunday night, as Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o climbed the stairs to accept her Academy Award, her dazzling ebony skin contrasted her ice blue Prada gown, and I was loath to imagine her as the brutalized Patsey in the Oscar-winning film, “12 Years a Slave.”
Yet there she was, this woman with skin like mine, the center of attention, an icon of beauty, an Oscar winner who has taken Hollywood by storm. But before her years at Yale, and before her role as a slave, Nyong’o had to overcome slavery of another kind — the slavery that existed in her mind.
The color of her skin
As a child, Nyong’o, the daughter of a Kenyan senator, believed that there was something ugly about her chocolate-colored skin.
She was teased about her complexion, and later recalled in interviews that she would go to bed asking God for lighter skin, only to awaken to the disappointment of unanswered prayers. This brilliant, beautiful woman saw her color as something to overcome.
And when I heard that aspect of her story, I immediately understood it, because I lived the same reality as a child.
It’s odd, really, the things we learn as children.
In the black community we learn to separate ourselves by skin color — to acquiesce to a slavery that is not physical, but mental. We learn to aspire to a European beauty standard, and even worse, we learn to hate ourselves when we can’t reach it.
As a dark-skinned child, I suffered the same taunts that Nyong’o spoke about. And those taunts didn’t come from anyone outside my community. They came from within.
As a result, I wished I could be another color — any color — so long as I could look like everyone else, and not be singled out. Like Nyong’o, I never quite achieved that, so I learned to live with the dull ache that comes with self-doubt.
It wasn’t until I reached my teens that I realized there was anything remotely handsome about myself. Prior to that, I hid behind false confidence and a ready smile. When others called me names like “Blacky,” I sometimes pretended it didn’t hurt. At other times, I fought back with a mean, biting wit.
As I grew older, however, and began to see images of men who shared my skin tone — men like Wesley Snipes — things began to change. Not only because I gained confidence in myself, but because the positive presentation of dark-skinned men in mass media impacted the beauty standard in my community.
That is what drew me to Lupita Nyong’o.
This spectacular woman, whose flawless deep brown skin stands out so starkly in a room, did not recognize her own beauty until she saw it in someone else.
“Alek Wek,” she told a crowd at Essence magazine’s Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon last month. “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.”
And now the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has also told us that Nyongo and her skin, and my skin, and the skin of every “dark as night” person in Hollywood and beyond, can be beautiful, and celebrated, and free.
It’s for that reason that I cheered so enthusiastically for Nyong’o when she won, and listened so intently when she accepted her award.
This woman from another continent, with another vocation and another life experience, was speaking not only for herself. She was speaking for every little child who’d ever looked at their beautiful chocolate skin, and believed that skin to be ugly.
In many ways, she was speaking for me.
“It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s,” she said. “And so I want to salute the spirit of Patsey for her guidance, and to Solomon [Northup], thank you for telling her story and your own.”
And then, after thanking so many for so much, she looked down at her Academy Award, looked out at the audience, and uttered the most significant truth I’ve heard an actor speak in a long time.
“When I look down at this golden statue,” she said, “may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from your dreams are valid. Thank you.”
No. Thank you, Lupita.