When a (Comparatively) Carefree Blackgirl Wins An Oscar.

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This is a story of an elegance carefully cultivated. This is no sudden ascendancy to delicate silks and bold brocades, no tale of a girl plucked from obscurity or hardship, conferred the brass ring of Tinseltown by princely powers-that-be. It is, instead, a story of privilege, of justice. It is what happens when a Kenyan senator entrusts his daughter’s post-secondary education to The Yale School of Drama, rather than insisting she study medicine or law or finance. And these — the highest accolades in the field — are what’s expected when such a daughter is daring enough to pursue a life in pictures, within a family of professors, physicians, and politicians.

This is not a reality as well known to American black girls with silver screen ambitions. We watch our stateside actresses languish in Hollywood for decades, delivering pounds of flesh just for bit parts: girlfriends in black films and girlfriends in white films and staid, put-upon wives in comedies, action films, biopics. And yes, even now, the occasional brave domestic, even now, the harrowingly tortured slave. We see them shed their apple-cheeked innocence all too quickly, becoming more vocal and more cynical about the dearth of complex and meaty work for them to do as they age.

Our ingenues rarely win Oscars. It is our seasoned comediennes, sassing their way through lines like, “Molly, you in danger, girl!” or throwing frying pans at their pregnant daughters, who take home the gold. It is the reality star who belts a gut-wrenching beggarly torch song to a man already walking away or the naked grieving mother sexing the guard who executed her husband, the round, battered, quick-witted maid who bakes her own excrement into pies. They are the ones who win. And we are proud of their achievements. We take everything we get, and we are glad for, if critical of, it.

We know how hard those actresses had to work to get it, know how many low-budget straight-to-DVD flicks they made to keep themselves visible, how many blond wigs and gold teeth and fishnets they had to don and exactly how much of their bodies they had to bare — just for the opportunity to be seen. We suffered through Whoopi encouraging her ex to appear in blackface. We accept not just the existence, but the five-year run of The Parkers. And we swallow the painful realization that though many a role easily procured by a Paltrow, a Portman, or a Witherspoon could be played, if not better, certainly just as well, by an actress of color, the film would not likely be attended by as large an audience.

Because this our sisters’ lot in all of the American workforce. We are offered little, we earn less, we hustle harder and stress more — all in response to the idea that our appearance and ideas and work are not as marketable as a white colleague’s would be. Why should Hollywood be different?

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We are gathering our awe and placing it like so much frankincense and myrrh at the feet of Lupita in direct response to this resignation. This awards season she has become the boilerplate of every blackgirl dream deferred, and it is understandable. Her skin, a brown so rich and deep it seems to welcome the seeding of our hopes and the promise of harvest, is politicized (and romanticized) because such things are inevitable in any country where skin color can ignite or exempt citizens of resentment or responsibility. Nyong’o herself speaks to the significance of women who look like her ascending in high-visibility markets. She cites Alek Wek and any number of American black actresses as her own self-image inspirations. And she is similarly self-aware of what it means to be a literal projection of an audience’s desires, history, and needs.

But the story of Nyong’o’s near-instant entree to the A-list is uniquely her own. She stars in an elegant, brutal British film about American slavery, deeply connecting with part of the diasporic experience that is foreign to her family in ways it is not to the American black’s. And she graciously accepts a well-deserved Oscar for that portrayal without having to carry the full weight of the awards’ contentious racial history.

If she hears any naysaying speculation, any claims that she “only” got the Oscar for playing a slave or that the win isn’t one the black community can fully claim because she “isn’t ‘black’ enough,” the criticism will not dampen the moment, will not force her to interrogate her joy to the degree that it would for an American black actress.

She is not saddled with centuries of diminishing returns. Accordingly, Lupita is a carefree black girl par excellence — and we have yet to see what the career of a black actress this successful with just one feature-length role under her belt, and this comparatively unburdened by Hollywood’s racist legacy, looks like. (Consider other recent black American actress nominees with one role their belts — Quevenzhane Wallis and Gabourey Sidibe — and how their reception in Hollywood and media compares to Lupita Nyong’o’s. Neither swanned through her awards season unscathed by racist, appearance-policing coverage — and Sidibe is still the subject of think pieces that actually use their headlines to implore that the public treat her with more respect.)

It is this lack of similar encumbrance — perhaps above all else — that excites me so about Nyong’o. We have yet to see what happens when a privileged black woman begins her acting career with Ivy League theatre pedigree, unchallenged fashion icon status, and an Oscar for her very first role.

It would be easiest to succumb to the skepticism I’ve been keeping at bay. I know America; it’s my homeland. It is not Nyong’o’s. I’d imagine — and I could well be wrong — that she is coming into Hollywood with the un-self-conscious approach to race that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah heroine Ifemelu (and indeed, Adichie herself) have brought with them to this country.  Adichie was famously quoted last year as saying that American blackness did not initially occur to or appeal to her:

In Nigeria I didn’t think of myself as black. I didn’t need to. And I still don’t when I’m in Nigeria. Race doesn’t occur to me. Many other things occur to me. But in the United States, yes…. Also, race is something that one has to learn. I had to learn what it meant to be black…. If you’re coming from Nigeria, you have no idea what’s going on. When I came to the United States, I hadn’t stayed very long, but I already knew that to be “black” was not a good thing in America, and so I didn’t want to be “black.”

While I don’t get the impression that Nyong’o, having spent the last two years of her life immersing herself in study and portrayal of the American slave experience, would hold the same perception of American blackness as Adichie initially did, it is safe to say she can still hold herself aloft from it. For her, blackness, in a context of white American oppression, is a role. It is not intrinsic to her identity. She will play plenty of other roles, but she will not feel “relegated” to stereotypical portrayals in quite the way that American black actresses do.

I already know what Hollywood will try to make her. I know the gradations of blackness they will implore her to learn. But I do not know how she will resist. I do not know what she herself will teach. But she is entering the field with just enough privilege and confidence to inspire my hope that she will do just that: instruct rather than simply accept — and learn from black actresses (rather than white directors) how best to navigate this space.

Watch with me. And just you wait.

When a (Comparatively) Carefree Blackgirl Wins An Oscar.

59 thoughts on “When a (Comparatively) Carefree Blackgirl Wins An Oscar.

  1. This is real. African-descendants from Africa, Europe, South America etc come to the country with a notion of immigrant not “slave-descendant.” This orients them differently from the start. Thus, they receive and are received by our workforce differently that those who are born here.

  2. Thank you for perfectly capturing my deep, deep ambivalence at her win. For all of her tremendous talent, it does feel as though she’s been able to simply drop into American culture, skim the cream off the top, and walk away with an Oscar.

    I’m a first-generation immigrant of West Indian ancestry, but I’ve lived here since I was a little girl (age 6). As a result, I got chewed up by the same cultural biases and double standards that plague other women of color. It wasn’t very long ago that I was told I would be pretty if I was lighter…and I’m at least 4 shades lighter than Lupita. Now Lupita is (rightly) being lauded for her performance – but, even more radically, for her appearance. As much as this turn of events pleases me, I can’t shake the feeling that the only reasons Hollywood is comfortable with her are (1) that she’s thin as a whippet and (2) that she’s not burdened with the same legacy of racial exclusion, crushed aspirations, and lingering self-hatred (colorism, anyone?) that plagues most black people in the U.S.

    It’s easy to be a Carefree Black Girl when you do not, in fact, have a care in the world. Having the love and support of a well-to-do, politically connected upper-middle-class family changes everything. Most of us haven’t been so lucky.

    Part of me really hopes that Lupita DOES actually encounter a few speed bumps. At least then, her experience might begin to resemble the experiences of hundreds (thousands?) of other black actresses, who will probably never hoist an Oscar on awards night no matter how superb their performances.

    1. 9jah says:

      Lawyerette – .

      Is the idea correct that she should feel pain because some of us do — or that NONE of us should? Or put another way, if the system is creating speedbumps and she manages to avoid this, is she really the problem or the system that creates the challenges in the first place?

      Are we ascribing the same “privilege” to “well-to-do, politically connected upper-middle-class” black Americans of which they are some, or Carribbeans – or Latinos/Asians?

      There are many in the world (here in the U.S., back in the Caribbean and in Africa) that could hold it against you that you are doing better than they – for instance because you have the opportunity to live in the U.S. Would it be fair to wish you ill? Of course not.

      I would hope you would re-think this some more.

    2. Kwamya10 says:

      You’re missing the point my friend. She’s saying the hardships are inevitable in hollywood but citing Lupita as what is possible when oppression is avoided.The concerns you’re talking about are set upon you and everyone like you in this country. Lupita isn’t burden by them and she’s lucky for it and the only kind of person who could have achieved what she has right now. What Hollywood ignores doesn’t discount its quality. A superb performance will always be with or without recognition.

      As for Lupita’s cares those are hers and she knows them well enough.

    3. Rumbera says:

      I too, am a first generation West Indian, moved state side when I was 7 years old. I’m saddened by parts of your post.

      First, I will say that Lupita has NOT escaped the ravages of colorism, as Nigeria is one of the most colorist countries on earth. Please google her incredible speech that she gave at an Essence event on the subject.

      I am pretty close to Lupita’s coloring. I am proud that she somehow managed to overcome the racial and sexual biases enough to keep her effervescent spirit. I can only pray that my daughters will discover her secret and do the same.

      1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

        I’d just like to say that I didn’t write that Nyong’o has completely escaped the ravages of colorism. I actually link to the Essence speech in this post. It’s in these sentences: “She cites Alek Wek and any number of American black actresses as her own self-image inspirations. And she is similarly self-aware of what it means to be a literal projection of an audience’s desires, history, and needs.”

    1. Well yes. Who wouldn’t be bitter that they weren’t born into a wealthy, connected family. More of us should be. Glib acceptance of a subpar position in the world is exactly what the article seems to challenge. All the while, I am under no illusions as to what this represents. Success for Lupita, and Lupita alone. All with all things under a neoliberal plutocracy.

  3. matt says:

    Dare we stake so much upon the collective exercise in industrial strength narcissism that is the Oscars? Dare we expect anything from Hollywood other than expressions of privilege (or plundering false flag maneuvers into the seas of normalcy) on such occasions? Should we puzzle over the relatively unburdened shoulders of an elegant African actor while indulging in the uncomplicated enjoyment of the elegance of an Australian actor, as we take in the whole superficial pageant? Might we simply celebrate the semblances of grace, when and to the extent observed, and otherwise keep up our guards? (Using another example from the awards pageant, I can appreciate in Matthew McConaughey some sentiment approaching gratitude and love, while rejecting his words as narcissistic and/or nonsensical.)

    This is not to deny the validity of the conversation, but to suggest a few caveats.

  4. Kristin says:

    As a white woman, I would like to say thank you for writing this piece. I’m embarrassed to admit that this perspective, that of a black person not reared in the states and the carefreeness(?) this gives, is not one I’d considered before though, brought to my attention, is almost blindingly obvious. And then further, how this person and her achievements and accolades might be perceived and felt in the African-American community. Thus far she has been wonderfully gracious as well and thought provoking and delightfully charming. I was already looking forward to more in her career, but now I’ll be watching with even more interest.

  5. 9jah says:

    We don’t talk enough about the merging of Africans/first-gen Africans into the larger African American experience. (And to a significantly lesser extent carribbean blacks etc). This is important and you make some good points but I have an alternate perspective.

    First, privilege. Privilege in America is inherently cultural/racial, not merely class-based. Lupita may have had a Yale drama degree (as I’m sure do several aspiring AfAm actresses) that does not equate to cultural acceptance or privilege. Certainly no more than say, Condola Rashad, Zoe Kravitz or the daughter of any black politician with an interest in film would have. Lupita’s apparent privilege leading up to her fame amounted to: starring in Shuga a Kenyan soap opera – no surefire predictor of Oscar glory – and taking a role as a slave in a film by a relatively unknown black director.

    So the contrast of Lupita, on the one hand and AfAm actresses on the other hand to suggest privilege is misleading (and potentially divisive).

    Lupita’s good fortune to me, is primarily about Lupita. She was phenomenal in her role. Ergo her nomination, She is also exceptionally confident, warm, charismatic and articulate. An AfAm in the same vein might also become the “it” girl. I would argue that Sidibe received the same kind of initial positive spotlight (with the exception of predictable jokes about her weight – which might have happened to Lupita if she was the same size). I believe it is less an African or privilege thing than a personality thing.

    The idea that if you’re Lupita, “the Academy Award is what happens” is quite a bit careless. It is also very convenient in hindsight. True, our ingenues rarely win Oscars. but do non-american black ingenues routinely win oscars? No. Lupita is the first African woman to earn a nomination or win an Oscar for anything.

    Here’s what Lupita would have seen in foresight: black women get limited, cliche roles, dark skin black women even less so, Africans can only play slaves, but only if you are a man (or more specifically, Djimon Hounsou), and African women as actresses don’t exist.

    Lupita is a black, very dark skinned, African woman with a funny name. The odds of a hollywood career were virtually zero no matter who daddy was. I wouldn’t label this privilege.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful perspective, 9jah. You make great points as well and I understand your umbrage with the use of the term “privilege” here. I used it not just because of class (although class is important to consider here); I also meant privilege as the option to separate herself from American blackness while working in American cinema. She has the benefit of citizenship elsewhere and an identity shaped by a historical knowledge of her family lineage. How she experiences Hollywood (and its racism) may feel less psychically damaging than it does for U.S. Born black actresses (Yale-educated and otherwise).

      I absolutely agree that her personality and performance have won her this moment. I’m less certain that, were she an American black actress, that winning combination would have been enough. There’s an exoticism of the foreign-born actor/actress of color in Hollywood that lends itself to broader reception or fascination than a similarly great, charismatic, U.S.-born black actress is likely to garner with any ease (see: Thandie Newton). This is true of U.S.-born actors of color who aren’t “African-American” but can be cast in “African-American” roles (see: Zoe Saldana).

      I don’t mean that divisively, but I also don’t think it’s imagined.

      That Lupita is the first black African actress to win an Oscar gives us a timely and relevant opening to parse these kinds of ideas. I’m glad we’re doing so.

      1. 9jah says:

        Prof —

        “I also meant privilege as the option to separate herself from American blackness while working in American cinema.”

        I think a bit of the issue with how we tend to handle race as black folk in this country is we don’t reflect on our choice, or agency, enough. With all due sensitivity to the historical challenges to doing so, of course.

        I would make a point that while there may be a “privilege” relating to staying aloft from the burdens of American blackness, there may be an equal or greater burden unique to being African and seeking to work in American Cinema. to make the argument simple, let’s say there is Africa-specific xenophobia in Hollywood. It is the point I was making in saying an African woman actress is a non-existent concept. And for Lupita to make it, she would have had to scale a different, but at least equal psychic limitation.also relating to race. The idea that maybe she would be viewed at as unattractive, native, fundamentally unable to hold a candle to “real” actresses.

        Ultimately, my point is a shortcoming of black folks in this country (and frankly, elsewhere too) secondary to institutional racism is our eyes being shut to our own agency. We are not even focused on this, much less ready to effectively explore the matter.

      2. 9jah says:

        Sorry, I should note by the way, that I completely agree that there is an elusive distinction between the likes of Zoe Saldana, Thandie Newton et al. and say… Taraji Henson. But then the likes of Kerry Washington, Gabrielle Union and Tika Sumpter can be categorized as having the benefit of mainstream reception.

        There is a nuance here, but I don’t know if it’s purely about African-American vs other. It may be the uncomfortable nuance about a “type” of African-American. Maybe it reflects for these black folks (exotic or not) a culture of speech and articulation, and style. Then it becomes a question of whether its accepable to encourage conformance to such standards if they are largely race-neutral.

  6. Thank you for writing this deep piece about Lupita winning this award, which has been so moving to so many of us. It’s important to think about why it is capturing our national attention, why it is so meaningful to so many of us, and what it could mean, moving forward as a culture.

  7. 9jah says:

    Sorry more….!

    As to Lupita’s un-self-conscious approach to race, I agree with you. But you make no value judgment if this is good or bad. Permit me to take the baton.

    If pigeonholed, I think Lupita will be “issue-conscious” but remain unencumbered. She is already issue-conscious if you listen close – she speaks for dark-skinned women and for African-American women (saluting and thanking Patsey for her sacrifice). This is activism, done poetically and with a smile. Activism that cloaks itself more in black triumph than white rebuke. Activism that is confident.

    This confidence is not uniquely African. See Gabourey Sidibe’s response to weight jokes in the article you linked: “I most definitely cried about it on that private jet on the way to my dream job last night #JK”. Basically, she recites her personal triumph and says suck it.

    To be unencumbered is not to reject activism or racial identity. It is about emphasizing one’s singular experience above all. I believe this is a good thing.

    Do we as a community agree that this is a good thing? Can we become unencumbered? How do we become unencumbered? I am a Nigerian-American man. I also identify as African-American. Unfortunately, I have experienced many of the racial incidents black men sometimes face in America. This is however counterbalanced by every single other moment in life where I didn’t face those issues. These are the moments to be prioritized in terms of my goals/dreams etc.

    12 years a slave is very instructive. A black man made the best movie of the year, A black man wrote the best script. A black woman gave perhaps the finest performance. And they triumphed. The movie made $140M worldwide. Yes, they weren’t all African American, but no reason they won’t be in the future.

    In the aftermath, there have been countless articles about what white people will let us do going forward. This is fine but we we also need to reflect on the agency we exercised in this instance and can continue to exercise. Think about how to build African American cultural capital in unfamiliar places like Asia and buttress it in Europe, South America and Africa. This way we address race issus but position ourselves to shoot through any cracks in the concrete.

    1. I never accused Nyong’o of rejecting racial identity or activism (and I’ve linked to her Essence speech on skin color and self-perception here, as well as noting her Oscar speech and its nod to the historical pain of slavery).

      To be unencumbered means to be able to move within an oppressive space without feeling the full weight of oppression — kind of like Northup’s experience of slavery could feel so much like an unlawful sentence with a possible end, while those born into slavery and working right alongside him experienced and internalized it differently).

      I also agree that self-confidence isn’t uniquely African and hope that I’ve in no way implied that black actresses lack it. The ways it’s attacked and how those attacks are internalized may differ based on cultural (and, of course, personal) experience. Sidibe is perhaps a great example of how this intersection can work (U.S.-born raised, with a Senegalese father and black American mother) and her career post-Oscar-nomination has been instructive in its own way, just as Lupita’s will be in hers.

      1. Pooky says:

        Tired of being of being portrayed as a person from an unlucky lot who have “cumbersome” history. Like, it is some embarrassing “daddy issue” I need to work through.

        Solomon Northrup is a real hero! An overwhelming amount of slave history, in the Americas and parts of the Caribbean, reflects this kind of s/heroism. Clearly, McQueen has to keep making movies of this nature so that you can find more appropriate adjectives for this history.

        And regardless of whether Ms. Nyong’o instructs the masses well or not, I am not entrusting her with the duty of representing me or my legacy just because she has a shiny “unencumbered immigrant” platform. <__< #swerve

      2. I don’t think “cumbersome,” “burdened,” “unjust,” “harrowing,” “gruesome,” or “shamefully inhumane” are inappropriate adjectives to describe histories of enslavement throughout the diaspora. And I’m very much aware that yet aren’t the only adjectives that can be used to describe the experience of the enslaved. I’ve also said nothing about any if this history being “embarrassing.” It isn’t. But denying that reverberations of slavery’s effects or failing to discuss that the institutional racism it ushered in still leaves playing fields grossly uneven in this country won’t make those facts any less real.

        We all want and deserve more diverse representation. This film and its multinational cast prove that such representation may be more widely embraced in the future. Nyong’o, should she choose to remain in Hollywood, will absolutely be called upon to represent black American women again. Whether you entrust her with that representation or not, and regardless of her nationality, she will have it.

  8. […] Ten years of hard work in the less sexy corners of the entertainment industry is not part of the classic “It” girl narrative. In the past, ingenues were beloved for the fact that they were successful but still wide-eyed innocents, providing a breath of fresh air to cynical industry insiders. According to a how-to book published last fall by Alexa Chung is already looking back on her ingenue days, the “It” girl makes everything look easy because there’s nothing less cool than trying too hard. hard work is an absolute requirement. […]

  9. Allo says:

    Thank you for your article. I am a huge fan of Lupita (dating back to her Shuga days!) and am still processing the ways in which she has been received post-12 years a slave. I am also a Zimbabwean woman who has been in the states for over 6 years, and I would like to add a few comments to this conversation

    I always have a hard time reading through articles that discuss the relations between African-Americans and Africans for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there is usually a silence around the legacy of colonialism and forced labor in African countries that many of us carry. So yes we carry the identity of immigrant in the states and not of slave-descendant, but if you are going to give an in depth discussion of the challenges that we cannot grasp associated with our identity, then please at least mention this. No we do not have an experience specific to a US context, but we do have historical contexts that we have come from that in many cases have necessitated our move to the US.

    And please identify your privilege as an American in being able to have your voice as dominant and more far reaching in this conversation. Identify that intersectionality of identity cuts across race, class, ethnicity and NATIONALITY. Question why slavery occurred in countries across the Americas and Africa, and yet the US narrative is the most dominant. I am not trying to play oppression olympics and imply that Africans had it worse or vice versa, that would not be a fruitful discussion and it would be difficult to come up with a compelling conclusion. I am not implying that there is too much discussion of slavery in the US (there is not!!!), but I am saying that in this globalized world if you are going to black and be traveling across the world, there is a level of privilege attached to being American black (please note class comes into play of course, so consider comparisons in equal socioeconomic class). So not giving that discussion due diligence is a bit of a smack in the face. I get some benefits (sadly) for being ‘exotic’ from time to time yes, but had my elder sister been born 1 month earlier, she would have been born into a colonized country which would limit where she could live and work, and what time she could be outside of her house. There are many layers to each story.

    So in summary, I think when you describe her as care-free you are discussing more class than citizenship or nationality. I think if you are going to discuss nationality, and if you would like to be an ally to all black sisters (regardless of where our passport is from), then do justice to the discussion of nationality or leave it alone and focus on class. If you are going to discuss nationality, don’t fall into the trap that so many do where they silence the narratives on African history and identity to sum everything up as just as ‘immigrant’ i.e. our experience is molded just by the move to the US with little attention given to the context of that move.

    1. Allo-

      Thank *you,* for your comment.

      I accept all your criticism of my essay’s limitation as more than just valid but absolutely essential. I wrote this as an initial impression of Nyong’o’s Oscar win (and the wholehearted — deserving! — Hollywood reception that preceded it). And I wrote that from a personal vantage. It is an admittedly myopic one. Just as U.S. black history isn’t taught in many African countries (and isn’t adequately taught in many parts of the U.S., either), the histories of African nations aren’t taught in any comprehensive way in most of our school systems (as I’m sure you know). My knowledge of the complexities of Kenyan history is especially limited, and though I know that slavery/white supremacy isn’t at all specific to America, its history in the U.S. is the knowledge base from which I’m most comfortable drawing.

      That I haven’t mentioned African colonialism in this piece doesn’t mean that I don’t know it exists or that it plays a role in how classes/castes are formed in various nations. It also wasn’t my intention to “silence” African history narratives, and I apologize if the writing came across that way.

      But a.) I’d be doing a disservice to the complexity of that discourse if I mentioned colonialism in the limited space of 1200 words, just to nod to its existence. b.) That facet of the discussion isn’t here because of how class and nationality seem to intersect in Nyong’o’s case, in particular. My assertion is that both her class and her nationality have impacted her reception in the U.S. and that that reception differs in some identifiable ways from that of U.S.-born black actresses.

      I agree that when I speak to her being comparatively “carefree”/unencumbered, it has to do with class, but I do think that it also has to do with her nationality. I don’t think her experience would be that of every Kenyan actress who attempted to break into the Hollywood ranks. It may not be true of *any* other Kenyan actress. That’s another part of why I’m not comfortable addressing these larger issues you raise (which absolutely should be addressed elsewhere and often!) within the confines of a piece on her mainstream reception in the U.S. vs. that of American-born black actresses. It’s unique to her background. It’s my understanding that the context of Nyong’o’s move to the U.S. was to pursue graduate study at Yale. That she can do that and that it has been so successful for her is related both to class and to her exceptional talent. That Hollywood’s reception of her has been so unwavering has to do with the ways in which her identity was shaped before she came her. That’s where nationality comes in for me.

      1. Allo says:

        Thank you for addressing my concerns! I must acknowledge that I probably came across as a bit to critical for a piece that I otherwise loved. Perhaps this is the result of feeling silenced way to often? You shout when a whisper would have sufficed. It is a difficult space to be in, navigating this country as both a black woman in the US and an African woman, your allegiance is questioned on both ends in multiple situations which is a whole other article. Perhaps I get defensive because I have seen countless African American actresses play African women and while I am proud to see that narrative shared, it rubs me the wrong to have that ownership not be mine, or for women from where I’m from (maybe something similar to what you feel about the positions African American women have had to play in the past). I agree with you about how her nationality has shaped her career in a different way than an African American woman’s would have. But I guess I don’t really get why that is so much of an issue. Your article makes me feel like her legitimacy was in question because ‘she did not suffer like rest of us’. She isn’t African American, she will be treated and received differently and she does bring in a different rich heritage and background with her. So maybe there is something to be said about trying to place her in the context of African American actresses of old and trying to see where she will end based on those trajectories. Maybe it shows the great lack of notable African actresses, so really there is not anyone else to compare her to. Because when you look at your representation in the media (and believe me, US media is the most widespread in the world so what is portrayed here is far reaching) you can see a long string of actresses some who have made you proud and others perhaps less so. I don’t see anyone (I mean, guess Thandie and Theron kinda count??). So whatever Lupita means to the esteem and confidence of African American women, she means multitudes more African women.

        Sorry, I did not re-read your article when I made this comment so maybe you did address these but I had forgotten. I am really grateful for your article and do not want it to seem otherwise just because I picked on the one thing I take issue with! Thank you xoxo

      2. I definitely want to stress that I understand how this situation cuts both ways. American black actresses have certainly faced backlash for portraying African characters (especially in biopics or in films that aren’t even U.S.-produced). We get how frustrating that is, especially if it’s not so exceptional a performance that it warranted bypassing all the African actresses who could’ve better played the role.

        That Lupita’s experience will be different than a U.S.-born black woman’s due, in part, to her nationality/class isn’t all that big a deal; it’s just worth noting. Her success — as the first black African woman to win an Oscar — is worth of study/observation/analysis, because it’s unprecedented — and, perhaps far more importantly, because it encourages black women from all over the diapora to begin unpacking the issues/slights/hurt we politely fold away in front of each other. (Case in point: you and I probably wouldn’t be having this edifying exchange without Lupita.)

        I also want to stress that I didn’t write this to call her credibility into question. She gave a transcendent performance; she deserves the acclaim that attends it. But now will come the long-term politics of establishing a future in Hollywood. It’s a space black American actresses know intimately and Nyong’o, just entering it and without the indignity of years spent “fighting for scraps” (as Viola Davis asserts: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/21/viola-davis-black-actresses-crisis_n_3466460.html), has a unique vantage — one I’m very intrigued about.

        I want her to remain “carefree.” I like watching her; I think she’s gorgeous; and I’m unbelievably proud that she’s on this grand stage. Part of writing this was about pondering whether that’s possible given the U.S. actress of color space she’s entering, though.

        Anyway, in closing, just know that I appreciate you engaging me and I honor your point of view. Thanks so much for commenting here. :)

  10. JAO says:

    I like your piece and I am watching too…

    As a Kenyan woman now American citizen (married to an African American), I just wanted to mention that it is highly likely that she went through what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie went through. I am refering to ‘one learning what black not being something one wants to be in America’. Any introspective African woman who came to America as we did (as I did) for college education and then with certain ambitions should identify with this…even though they may not articulate it quite the same way.
    I almost want to say that it is a phase that we pass through.

  11. JAO says:

    I like your piece and I am watching too…

    As a Kenyan woman who later became an American citizen and then married an African American, I just wanted to mention that it is highly likely that she went through what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie went through. I am refering to ‘one learning that black is not something one wants to be in America’. It doesn’t mean you deny your blackness, it simply means you try to dissociate from stereotypes and blackness beyond at that time you have not come to fathom that it is propaganda as well as fully grasped the implications of residues of the system of slavery in America.
    Any introspective African woman who came to America as we did (as I did) for college education and then with certain ambitions should identify with this…even though they may not articulate it quite the same way. I almost want to say that it is a phase that we pass through lightly or deeply depends on your particular path.

    Thanks.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experience. I find heartening that you consider it a “phase,” something to be worked through. I think American-born blacks have similar attitudes toward black immigrants that have to be worked through — and the best way to do that is with candor and empathy.

  12. Kenyan_Guy says:

    I just stumbled upon this blog and I LOVE it! I have literally read the entire article including the 30 plus comments. I have to be honest that I have not come across a forum/blog that is intellectually written and responded to like this one. As an African (kenyan) Man residing in the U.S. I can see the issue from both perspectives. I am very Happy for Lupita as a fellow African and I agree that she is not encumbered with the generational negativity regarding slavery. I for one am glad that she isn’t. I notice how people keep mentioning that she “speaks well….confident…graceful..’ etc. when I hear those comments, the cynic in me wonders why people are (pleasantly) surprised by this? is it not expected of a black woman / African Woman to speak and carry herself at that level? There is definitely some level of bitterness from other blacks (African, Caribbean and American) who feel she is “undeserving” as she “has not gone thru what we’ve gone thru”. Truth is, Every Parent wants the best for their children. She was fortunate enough to have parents of means who could afford to encourage her to pursue her dreams. If we were in Lupita’s shoes, we would have all done the same thing. When the casting call was done for 12 years, I doubt that anyone would have turned down the opportunity because they felt they were “not black enough”. She grabbed it, took the opportunity and is now reaping the rewards. We should congratulate and be happy for her. However, despite my support for Lupita, I question why she has to act a slave role to win an award? Do w as black people only win these coveted awards when we play negative roles that remind us of a painful past?

    1. Thanks so much for reading! We share that musing about whether or not black actors will always have to play painful or problematic roles to win an Oscar (it doesn’t have as much bearing on nomination, but always seems to factor into the win). In this case, if a portrayal of slavery had to garner the win, one as gripping as hers, which was a powerful acknowledgement of slavery’s deepest atrocities, is befitting. I can’t side-eye that too hard; it’s a good thing, I’d say.

  13. Zaine says:

    Thanks for the great read. While I think you make some excellent points, there are a few aspects of Nyong’o’s story that play an important role in her unlikely ascendency in Hollywood that you missed out on. Others have already spoken about the issues of both colorism in Africa as well as the horrific legacy of colonialism in that continent. I think to compare her to Wallis and Sidibe ignore the fact that one is a child, who by the way is starring in the remake of Annie, while the other is a far from the mold of Hollywood beauty standard as any well known actress in a long time. But more importantly, I reject the notion that in terms of her blackness because Nyong’ is African she has the privilege to enter a carefree black girl role. This ignores the tremendous struggle to integrate in to a foreign country, integrate into alien social sphere with strange cultural codes, and find networks of support in a land where you know few. Sure, in some ways her Africaness may afford her some privilege, but in other ways her immigrant experience surely burdened her. Its hard to capture the complexities of that experience here, but I will add that while Hollywood certainly has a history of othering blackness within an American context, it also others those of different nationalities greatly. Listen to an interview with Nyong’o, and you will see that her use of words, her humour, the way she constructs sentences and her body language are distinctly un-American. While you seem to see this exoticness as an asset, and while this may be the case in unique instances, I can guarantee you as the child of immigrants it is most often a burden.

    1. Thanks for reading! I appreciate your insights.

      I just want to address a couple points:

      1. I said upthread in these comments that I’m neither denying the existence of colorism nor ignoring the complexities of African immigrants’ navigating American race politics. I’m also not asserting that all African immigrants benefit from their nationalities when on American soil. This is *just* about the factors that have converged to result in Nyong’o’s Oscar win — which are indeed one of the “unique instances” you concede as realities here.

      2. I’d like to note that, while Wallis is starring in an Annie remake, her casting has experienced publicized racial backlash. The trailer was spammed in its YouTube comments because “Annie ‘should’ be white.” And that racial backlash was absolutely expected here in America — because it always occurs. The black actress’s features and appearance are then critiqued in great detail by people who disapprove of her non-whiteness in a role they associate with whiteness. To the American public’s knowledge, this has yet to happen to Nyong’o here because she’s just had one feature-length role here. That’s the base of knowledge from which I argue. And I think I did note in the piece itself that now that she’s here, she will have to contend with the same Hollywood race politics that black actresses have navigated for decades before her arrival. Then, we will see if her nationality helps or hinders her ability to progress in Hollywood.

  14. Jasmine says:

    Very interesting article that really articulated a concept that many articles tried to but never really did.

    Lupita has managed to gain the attention and accolades because she did what few other actresses have done, she fit into a narrative that is transcendent of race. The Cinderella comparison is what comes to mind, the story of young woman of “noble” birth (real life Lupita) who is forced to become an abused slave/servant but nonetheless works diligently (the role of Patsey), the jealous “stepmother” (Lupita herself mentions that Patsey was in a (disturbing manner) treated as a child by the Epss and given milk and biscuits until Mrs Epps become jealous of the inappropriate attention Mr Epps gave her).

    Interestingly Lupita combined the role she played as Patsey with her own narrative and thereby the designer dresses, the ‘belle of the ball’ and lastly Cinderella dress at the oscars all play into this. When she talked about every little child realizing that “no matter where your from your dreams a valid” and the seemingly innocent manner in which she has carried herself (very Alice in Wonderland), the bright colors the giggles the many childhood stories she gives in interviews.

    This an essential part of why people react to her in the manner that they do. As traumatic as her character was, she maintains a “loftiness that neither labor or lash could rid her off” that lends itself to the lack on encumbrance you speak of.

  15. I am never really one to take notice of kind of stuff. I watched 12 Years A Slave as any other slave movie, never really taking time to soak in the depth of the message being passed across . I notice Lupita although I fully focus on Chinwetel and I was a bit fascinated by the way she portrayed her role. I was so sure she was going to get an award or something for her portrayal of a slave girl. But reading this post has shed a whole new light on her own story and the story of all blacks in general. I am a Nigerian, not so grown, and I am tired of the way I am being looked at each time I plan to step outside the shores of my country to take a vacation. I have so much potential and I know it so why treat me differently because of the color of my skin. I am also tired of the way African-Americans are portrayed in movies. Before I left the shores of my country, I had already formed the opinion that the blacks over there are thugs and prostitutes struggling to make end meet, no more no less. I never saw the potential that existed in every single one of them until I was treated and looked on in the same light and I began to form an entirely different opinion.
    I had previously seen Lupita’s Oscar as just another media buzz; a lucky black girl making her way to fame, stardom and shiny lights but this has changed my view. It is now seen as a victory from the caging mentality which has crippled the thinking of blacks. A victory from the stereotype view that we must be doctor and engineers before we can make something out of ourselves. In general, it is a real victory for her. She will never be looked on as just any black when she steps on the streets. #Africa #Blacks

    P.S: Dear Mr. White Man, Africa is not a country.

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