By now you’ve heard the news that Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o won an Oscar for her performance in Steve McQueen’s epic drama 12 Years A Slave. And while I could almost feel sisters around the globe shouting in glee, some have already attempted to diminish Nyong’o’s historic win.
The argument? Her presence in the media is a result of a fetish; she’s only an “it” girl because she isn’t African-American; she ain’t really all that, folks are just pretending; she won because she played a slave; and my personal favorite, she’s only in the spotlight because of the White man.
Let’s be clear: Lupita Nyong’o is a star. Period.
Whether she goes on to have a career reminiscent of Meryl Streep, or if she fades into obscurity, this moment means something to us. And nobody can take that away.
Seventy-five years after Hattie McDaniel became the first Black woman to win an Academy Award in 1939, Lupita Nyong’o took home the trophy. In more than seven decades, only seven—yes, SEVEN—Black women have won in either the Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress categories, which should be considered a tragedy instead of an interesting trivia fact.
When Halle Berry won the Best Actress prize in 2002 we hoped it meant the playing field was finally tilting toward equality, but it did not. While Berry continued to rack up roles, other sisters, arguably more talented actresses, were shut out.
Surely Black women are just as capable of being the leading lady, the love interest, the international spy as their White counterparts (Berry’s assorted roles have proved this to be fact). But sisters were hardly given the chance. Though many of us hoped Halle’s win would trickle down to other actresses, her blackness—light skin, slight-framed—is the kind that has always been acceptable and celebrated both in the media and our community at large.
Which brings me back to Lupita. Reminiscent of sisters who have gone before her—Cicely Tyson, Grace Jones, Viola Davis, Alek Wek—Nyong’o’s presence on the world’s stage matters. Lupita’s kinky hair and sable skin and fearless fashion choices matter.
Why? Because we rarely see Black women—not racially ambiguous/biracial women who identify as Black—front and center and celebrated by the world.
Two years after some wondered whether Davis’s short afro was “appropriate” for the red carpet, Nyong’o appeared and became a living, breathing, billboard for the beauty and versatility of short kinky hair. And while many try to reduce our love of Nyogo’o to “dark skin Black women looking for acceptance,” seeing someone who looks like she could be your sister, cousin, or good girlfriend matters to sisters all over the globe.
Let’s be real, no one calls Hollywood’s obsession with Jennifer Lawrence a fetish. No one argued that Julia Roberts was only famous because she was representing for all the toothy, curly-haired White women. And no one chided (ehem, Black) men for invoking Halle and Beyoncé as their “ideal woman.” But when it comes to shining a light and basking in the flawlessness that is Lupita Nyong’o there’s a problem, because…what exactly?
As she mentioned in her powerful speech at Essence Magazine’s Black Women in Hollywood luncheon, seeing women who look like her in the media was self-affirming. During her address, Nyong’o admitted that she once tried to pray away her dark skin because she thought it was ugly. It wasn’t until she saw supermodel Alek Wek that she realized she was beautiful.
She recalled: 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.
F*ck a fetish, little Black girls all over the globe need Lupita (and Beyonce and Halle and Nia Long and Joy Bryant and Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Naomie Harris and Daniel Brooks and Teyonah Parris and *insert Black actress here*)—because they need to see themselves. They need to see women who look like them being held up as beautiful, and talented, and valuable because it matters. And it feels so damn good.