Lupita is Beautiful, but Black BEEN Beautiful

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Photo courtesy of: http://www.all-theprettybirds.com/

by: Yaba Blay

I love Lupita Nyong’o. I do. But I am uncomfortable with her image. 

Every time I see her, my heart smiles the same way it did in 1997 when I stood in the checkout line at the Winn Dixie on South Claiborne Avenue in Uptown New Orleans and saw Alek Wek’s image for the very first time, on the cover of Elle magazine no less. In that moment, it felt like Alek and I were the only women of *that* complexion in the entire city of New Orleans. Tears in my eyes, I bought every single copy on the stand. Growing up, I never - and I do mean NEVER - saw anyone who looked anything like me on the cover of any magazine that had anything to do with beauty. Ever. Not even on Black magazines. Especially not on Black magazines. It felt like our time had come. Finally.

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That is, until my male friend who accompanied me to the grocery store that day offered his opinion, or rather, his theory on why Alek Wek was put on the cover of Elle magazine. According to him, “White people know damn well she ain’t pretty! They put her on there to make fun of us!” No matter which way he tried to spin it, I wasn’t trying to hear it; and no matter what I fired back with, he wasn’t changing his opinion. Finally, I asked him, “Well if that’s what you think about her, then what the hell do you think about me?” His response –

Y’all look completely different. See you? You not *that* black (in New Orleans, folks tend to use ‘black’ rather than ‘dark’ to describe dark skin tones). You that ‘Foxy Brown’ kind of chocolate. You black and pretty. But you see her? Nah. She just black.”

I’ll never forget how easily he spit those words ‘just black,’ nor will I forget the disgust that marred his face. That is what sticks with me nearly 20 years later, not his sorry ass excuse for a compliment. I am not anybody’s flavor of chocolate. Not ‘Wu Tang Chocolate Deluxe,’ not ‘Coming to America Sexual Chocolate’ and especially not ‘Foxy Brown Chocolate’ – you can keep that. I am not dark but pretty – there are no buts. I am not pretty for a dark skinned girl. I am pretty. Period.

And so is Lupita.

But there is an air of exceptionalism about the Lupita Nyong’o that the media is feeding us. As if to suggest that she is the exception, and not the rule. And that is what makes me uncomfortable with her image though I love it so.

The first time I saw her in motion was in 12 Years a Slave. Her sublime embodiment of Patsey affected me so deeply that I found myself in tears the morning after watching the film – in the shower, holding a bar of soap. For weeks, Patsey lay heavy on my spirit, a testament to the magnitude of Ms. Nyong’o’s talent. And even now, as I watch Lupita’s image travel throughout the mediasphere, I am reminded of Patsey. Because, you see, the beauty that the world is fawning over now is a beauty that has always been there. Always. Lupita is beautiful, but Black BEEN beautiful.

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Perhaps I should be applauding the mainstream for finally recognizing brown-skinned beauty, but if I had waited for America’s beauty culture to validate my own beauty, my self-esteem would be shot. And so I’m bothered by what appears to be yet another type of media training about Blackness – not one that would prepare the masses to amend their standards of beauty, but rather one that continues to suggest that a dark-skinned beauty like Lupita’s only magically appears every so often.

Lies.

I see Lupita every day. I see her as often on the streets of Philadelphia as I do on the streets of Accra. I see her in my classroom. I see her at the corner store. I see her at the mall. I see her everywhere.

And so do you. Only you don’t know it. If it took the media’s fixation on Lupita’s Otherness to introduce you to the beauty of dark skin, then you don’t know what you’re seeing when you look at dark-skinned women. Or maybe you don’t even see us. That is, if you rely on the media to tell you what to see and how to see it.

Yes, Lupita is beautiful, but please believe, Black BEEN beautiful.

Ready to see us differently? Need a little push? Consider this your new vision board. You’re welcome.

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