On Friday, February 28th, 2014, mere hours before she snatched the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in 12 Years A Slave, Lupita Nyong’o delivered a powerful speech on the power of black beauty at a luncheon for Black Women In Hollywood. In the speech, Nyong’o took the opportunity to respond to a small part of a letter a fan wrote her about the beauty of being dark black:
“Dear Lupita, 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.”
What stands out about the letter is, on the one hand, highlighting the challenge of being black in Hollywood and, moreover, being “this black.” Pause and let your self think for a moment about what “this black” even means, and what it’s like to receive a letter from a young girl who is basically trying to get rid of her own blackness.
I don’t need to rehearse the history of black skin lightening and hair straightening processes here, but what I do want to highlight is the importance of having a black actress who has thought so closely about the beauty of being dark black in predominantly white Hollywood.
So here’s how Lupita responded:
1. “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.”
2. “And every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I had been 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.”
3. “And then Alek Wek came on the international scene. 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.”
4. “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.”
5. “When I saw Alek (Wek) 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 light skin prevailed.”
6. “What is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and for those around you. That kind of beauty enflames the heart and enchants the soul.”
7. “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 shade to that beauty.”
Put simply, Lupita’s own struggle with being dark, dark black underscores exactly why we need more black actresses. We feel isolated when we grow up feeling ugly, like our skin isn’t the right shade. This is why talking about race and beauty politics is so vital — if anyone is still wondering.