Receiving Essence magazine's best breakthrough performance award for her role in 12 Years a Slave Thursday afternoon, Lupita Nyong'o delivered a poignant revelation about the rejection of her own dark complexion that plagued her childhood.
"[M]y one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned," she said in a confession, asking young girls to "feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. "
There's no question now that Nyong'o's external beauty has been validated now—that would be an understatement.
In fact, her personal narrative of victory over what she called "self-hate" is the exclamation point on months of effusive praise about the 12 Years a Slave actress that seems to have two main components: There's enthusiasm for Lupita the star, with her glowing elegance, charisma and talent. And then there's an undercurrent of intrigue—for many black women, it can look and feel more like ecstasy—about very fact that beauty in a dark brown-skinned, naturally coiffured package is being admired at all.
The tale of Nyong'o's journey from bargaining for lighter skin as a child to stepping into the spotlight of adoration has a fairytale, made-for-Hollywood quality. What can be glossed over in this celebration is that the story of colorism—the plot twist in her hero's journey that transformed her from an actress to an inspiration—was not.
To see how it's playing out you have to look just under the surface of the red-carpet commentary and just past the effusive social media praise, where the "Gorgeous!" "Flawless!" and "Perfect!" refrains could fool an observer into believing that we've all come out on the other side of dysfunctional "white is right" thinking.
Yaba Blay, author of One Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race, knows as well as anyone about how harmful that colorism-fueled attitude can be when it comes to black women's beauty. Her most recent project, Pretty.Period, is what she calls “a visual missive in reaction to the oh-so-popular, yet oh-so-offensive 'compliment,' 'You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl.' " ("Our collective response is: 'No, we're pretty, PERIOD,' she says.")
"I'm a big Lupita fan," says Blay. But when it comes to celebrating the actress' spotlight, she's withholding her "YASSS!" for now.
"I'm skeptical of all the fanfare. She's a trained actress, and if it were all about her acting skills, I'd feel different. But now she's been put in this fashion-beauty-icon box. I just don't trust the mainstream, and what feels like a fetishism and exoticism in their obsession with her in this moment.
"She's beautiful, stunningly so, but so are a lot of women," Blay adds. "Why does it take the Lupitas and the Alek Weks for you to see that?"
She's not the only person who's made note that the 12 Years a Slave star isn't an anomaly.
As far as black women's embrace of Nyong'o, Blay says, "I trust that they can see the beauty in other women, but there is a part of me that questions the bandwagon, particularly in social media world.
"Would we keep posting and sharing? But if the mainstream hadn't jumped on her, would we be fawning in the same way?" she wonders. "I don't think their ability to see that in Lupita translates to their ability to see that in the large community of black women. Beauty has not been associated with black skin, so she emerges as an exception to the rule."
In reactions to Lupita, others see a reminder of the stubborn attitudes that made the actress hate her own skin color in the first place.
These conversations around Nyong'o's success, on the other side of internalized colorism—from the cathartic expressions of praise to the skeptical analysis and frustrated accusations—signal that her personal, made-for-the-big-screen tale of victory is, for black women, much more a beginning than a happy ending.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root’s senior staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.