Lupita Nyong’o: A new star and the economics of ‘blackness’

Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o has been collecting many gongs for her role in the Hollywood film 12 Years A Slave.

Last Sunday she created a big buzz at the Golden Globes Awards. The Golden Gloves are bestowed by members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for excellence in film and television.

Though 12 Years A Slave won the Best Drama Film award, Lupita didn’t win a personal prize for her part. What she did win, no matter which website, newspaper, or TV channel you turned to, was the best-dressed actress of the night.

A tweep, Lola Ogunnaike, gushed about how “Lupita shut it down in red Ralph Lauren. She looks like a sartorial superhero in that exquisite red cape!”

But it was Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina who took to Twitter and really had a good ball with the impression Lupita made. It was not about her dress though. It was the natural hair.

“Dear African women and your daughters, LOOK! No weave on Lupita’s head,” Binyavanga wrote.

A few minutes later, he was back: “African women in spotlight today forgot chemical burns, fake hair”.

As the discussion got lively, he sent off another volley: “Millions of African women today pulled weaves out with bare hands.”

Then he stuck the knife to African women who do false hair, writing that Lupita’s look said; “Look! No dead camels, and poor women from India on my head!”

But Binyavanga is not one to just wax about Lupita and her hair, so what else might he have been saying? Hardly anyone had the courage to say that Lupita also flaunted her dark skin unapologetically.

So both Lupita’s hair and skin inevitably threw up the question of what “blackness” means in this digital and globalised age.

There is a long and bitter history to blackness, including slavery, colonialism, racism and discrimination against black people (and “people of colour”) especially in the West.

For black people, the legacy of all these have been debilitating. For example, women across all races, for sure, wear extensions, but a Caucasian woman will wear wavy extensions that make her already longish wavy hair look longer, not different.

Skin bleaching

Black women often wear wavy extensions to make their kinky short hair look wavy and long – something totally opposite to what they are endowed with naturally.

Skin bleaching also falls in the same category. A Chinese or Indian woman who bleaches her skin to look white, travels a short journey.

The very dark African woman (and Congolese male musicians) who does the same makes a very very long journey to achieve whiteness (which they never do anyway). To many “black and proud” activists, it is self-loathing that forces black women to seek these alterations that mimic white women.

I understand braids, and have seen many that are beautiful and tasteful. Beyond that, I am hopelessly lost.

However, I do understand the commercial value of racial ambiguity in a digital universe. As a musician or model, it can be profitable not to be too white, too black, too Asian, and too Hispanic, name it.

For example, someone like Beyoncé—every race sees a bit of itself in you. That is important for the more “tribal” consumers who need to feel comfortable that a song is by one of their own. Michael Jackson exploited this brilliantly, though with disastrous consequences to his mind and health.

But everyone who does this basically accommodates himself or herself to the world. They seek racial ambiguity because that is what the globalised world rewards.

Someone like Lupita, or South Sudan born supermodel Alek Wek, who strut their black without coating, however, don’t compromise. They force the world to come to them on their terms - especially if they are also thin. It would not have worked if they were typically big-hipped East African women.

Her confidence, and the absence of self-aware nervousness, was remarkable. Like all stories, though, it is never so straightforward. Lupita was well born, so to speak. And as a middle class kid, she probably didn’t have to suffer the putdowns that crush the confidence of those born lower on the social ladder.

And the problem of false hair and bleached skin is not a women’s issue, it is a social one. Many men demand it. And, sometimes, it is easier to climb up in Africa with false hair and a touch of bleached skin.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group’s executive editor for Africa & Digital Media. E-mail: Twitter: @cobbo3

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