As a black feminist I am always here for the celebration of blackgirls, black women, and black wommanness in general (shout out to Dr. Ruth Nicole Brown, arbiter of Solhot, a promise to young blackgirls and women—and others who are doing the work past visibility and towards self-esteem and community accountability). And as a dark-skinned blackgirl who has struggled through self-esteem issues ranging from the “you ain’t the right kind of black” in the 80’s , to the “you gotta be light-skinnededet to be right” tan-black of the 90’s, to the “you ain’t the in style” brown-black of the 00’s, I have often found myself trying to hard to be (in)visible. I had the big butt and a smile but my skin though…
There was no adornment available to make me seen, beautiful, or desirable. I was the homegirl, the chick that checked for you on the sidelines of a ball game, helped you write 25 long ass paragraphs in handwriting that mimicked yours so you could go outside and play at recess with the boys, or pen love letters to the white girl or light as white girl you liked. I waited for you to see in me something worth holding on to but the only time you saw me like a woman it was to practice on me what you would perfect on somebody else, leaving me feeling used but no less your “friend.” I had your back, but did you ever have mine?
I was your best friend’s best friend, who learned from a young age that if I sat quiet enough and still enough you would let me sit at the “popular” lunch table with the “prettygirls.” I graciously shared my lunch money or relinquished my rice krispy treat when you asked, even if I had planned to save it to eat on the bus on the way home. I would have done anything to capture your friendship, bony arms wrapped around bony legs, I sat like a pretzel, still as hell as if my movement might remind you I didn’t belong. In those moments when my elbow slipped out of my hand or my feet accidentally pushed the chair back, now aware again of my presence, I was prepared for the focused teasing about my appearance, my hair, my shoes, or the outright expectation that I get out of your sight.
I was the “other child,” the one who talked too much and whose blackness made her a black sheep. When I asked why my skin was darker than everybody else’s you rolled your eyes and said, “that’s how God made you,” as if it were a curse for some anticipated future wrongdoing. When I speculated that I was punished for not being light skinned I was sent to fetch a switch. Nothing about me was ever right, or so it seemed.
I hesitate to call the visibility of beautiful black women in mainstream media a comeback because they have always been there tiptoeing around trends that decide what kind of black will be acceptable this year. What version of ourselves will we rush to emulate so that we can be “the one” (because there is usually only room for one mainstream cultural black beauty at a time). I resist heralding this moment, spring 2014, as special for fear that it will be claimed post-racial and post sexist (because it’s not). What I can and will say, avidly and proudly, is it’s about damn time. It’s about time that people see what has been here since the beginning of time. Black beauty is ancient. And it’s time for blackgirls to recognize in themselves a beauty so deep it has been there all along, even when it was hiding in plain sight. It was there when we were ashamed of it/ourselves. It was there, when the only times we saw darker shades and hues of brown was in our own family albums or bathroom mirrors under artificial light. It was there when family members called for us by telling us to “bring our black ass here,” and you sauntered your beautiful black ass to the space you were called to. It was there when you wished you were lighter and brighter as if that was the only way your pretty could be seen. It was there then and it’s still there, a beautiful amalgamation of black beauty possibility that comes along in all shades. But today, I want to focus on the deeper shades, the ones that are usually intentionally left out.
So I have been altogether thrilled that two deeply brown black women are filling the interwebs with their beauty, brilliance and words. They are inspiring blackgirls, like them, with words they needed when they were young… and I am all the way here for it. Sidibe and Nyong’o have been sharing their stories, their vulnerabilities, their pain, associated with an outdated yet firmly in place aesthetic that makes black women, especially dark-skinned black women, especially dark skinned black women with natural hair, especially dark skinned black women with natural hair and big bodies, especially dark skinned black women with natural hair, big bodies, and confidence feel like they don’t belong, like they are an anomaly. But it’s time to resist tropes and re-imagine our possibilities and our representations.
Watching 12 Years a Slave, by myself, in a theatre with a hand full of other patrons, all white, I felt vulnerable and exposed, folding my arms as a way of protecting myself from the eyes, assumptions and curiosity that might slide my way through a peripheral glance at my reactions to the film. Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey was mesmerizing and I couldn’t keep my eyes off of her, as painful as it often was, because I wanted to be a witness to/for her. I didn’t blink. Lupita gave a beautiful performance to a gut-wrenching narrative.
I was excited to hear that Lupita was recently named People Magazine’s Most Beautiful Woman of 2014, but I am also suspicious. In many ways Lupita’s beauty is seen as unconventional (not-white) and different (not-American, she is of Mexican and Kenyan descent) therefore exotic and exciting. The exoticization of an African woman’s aesthetic, if we look back to predict forward, is a short-lived moment and doesn’t transcend the individual or translate to other black women’s lives. Lupita’s recognition will make room for her to be seen, across the board, as attractive and desirable but it won’t necessarily translate to everyday blackgirls and women who favor (look like) her.
Lupita was honored with the Best Breakthrough Performance Award at the 7th annual Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon. In her acceptance speech she says (see video),
I, too, prayed that God ‘make me beautiful,’ which to/for me automatically translated into being light skinned. I, too, was willing to barter all I had to get what I wanted but soon learned that I could not bargain with God over the aesthetic of Her/His creation. From the silence I received from my prayers, God seemed satisfied with what s/he made in me.
Lupita’s words and prayer resonated with me, and I imagine with other dark-skinned blackgirls who have grown up in a culture that is determined to make them feel inadequate and unattractive. And while Nyong’o’s story has a happy ending, I can’t help but think about the ones that don’t, and the ones that won’t change because of one representation. Lupita is all that. But we need more!
In comparison, last week the illustrious and fabulous Gabourey Sidibe (I like to call her Gabby since in my mind we’re homegirls) gave a speech at the Ms. Foundation gala that has garnered a lot of praise for her brilliant blending of wit, charm, humor, calling out bullish, vulnerablility and honesty. (If you have not checked out this speech, read it here!) In the speech, Gabby comes for her haters and their attempts at making her feel bad about herself. In true warrior woman fashion Gabby gives it to them like this,
“ I live my life, because I dare. I dare to show up when everyone else might hide their faces and hide their bodies in shame. I show up because I’m an asshole, and I want to have a good time. And my mother and my father love me. They wanted the best life for me, and they didn’t know how to verbalize it. And I get it. I really do. They were better parents to me than they had themselves. I’m grateful to them, and to my fifth grade class, because if they hadn’t made me cry, I wouldn’t be able to cry on cue now. [Dabs tears] If I hadn’t been told I was garbage, I wouldn’t have learned how to show people I’m talented. And if everyone had always laughed at my jokes, I wouldn’t have figured out how to be so funny. If they hadn’t told me I was ugly, I never would have searched for my beauty. And if they hadn’t tried to break me down, I wouldn’t know that I’m unbreakable.”
She goes on, in her speech, urging those who are so curious about her confidence to “ask Rihanna asshole,” in a brilliant critique of size discrimination and the assumption that because she is not a size 6 she couldn’t possibly have a positive body image. And yaaaaaaas, I’m here all day for Gabby, but I’m also here for my friends and loved ones who, like Gabby, experience size discrimination every day, but who don’t have the platform to call folk out or the agency to do so without consequences. So even if the world pays attention and honors and celebrates Gabby’s confidence and self-assurance, what is being done to protect the fifth grade version of her who is being daily taunted with no reprieve and no intervention?
Both Nyong’o and Sidibe’s speeches are responses to hurt and shame, but they are also a commentary on the unjust ways that blackgirls and black women are expected and made to feel inadequate in every way possible. Their speeches offer us a commentary of racism, colorism, sizeism, and sexism in our community that even well known or affluent black women are not immune to. We have some work to do but it is encouraging to know we seem to be moving (slowly but surely) in the right direction.
Update: Please note that the written reflection about bartering with God is the author’s reflections, not a transcription/excerpt of Lupita’s speech. (The wording has been adjusted for clarity). For Lupita’s own words and mention of her prayer to be a different complexion, please watch the attached video of her acceptance speech.