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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

8

On Lupita Nyong'o: "Blackness, in a context of white American oppression, is a role. It is not intrinsic to her identity"

Stacia L. Brown writes wonderfully about what it means when a "(comparatively) carefree black girl wins an Oscar."

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.

By "carefree" here Brown means that Nyong'o is privileged (family support, an MFA from Yale), beloved by media, apparently effortless under the weight of having become the "boilerplate of every blackgirl dream deferred," gracious in processing a breakout role that asked her to "deeply [connect] with part of the diasporic experience that is foreign to her family in ways it is not to the American black’s." Unlike black American actresses, Nyong'o is not "saddled with centuries of diminishing returns." Brown quotes Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie saying, "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. [...] 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.

All of Brown's essay here on her blog.



8 Comments / Post A Comment

Lucienne

I want to love this piece, but I can't quite manage it.

marry

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Rookie (not the magazine) (not that there's anything wrong with that)

I really liked this in the comments:

"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."

Lupita's nationality and her upbringing may have a lot to do with her future in Hollywood. This is going to sound so gross but as an African, she's likely going to be considered "exotic" - I feel like it might be the same sort of thing as a lot of black models we see in high fashion spreads. She has that sort of image - not just tall and slim, but statuesque, long-necked, with high cheekbones and short hair. I feel like we see a lot more women who look like that in Vogue-type publications than we see, say, Tyra Banks clones. The fact that she's so eloquent and carries herself so well, that she's been to Yale, and that she comes from a well-to-do family from another country definitely seem like reasons why white Hollywood would treat her differently.
It sounds racist as hell, but I know and am related to some white people who seem to have more interest in Africans than they would in black North Americans. Then again, that might be the case for people of other races as well. For instance, we treat white English actors differently than we treat white American actors with English names, don't we? (/royal we)

With any luck, this performance and awards season will help Lupita establish a different sort of career in Hollywood - one where she'll be visible, but where her race won't be the most important thing about her.

harebell

@Rookie (not the magazine) (not that there's anything wrong with that)

It's all so ironic since, given the forced sex that so frequently took place during the slavery period, most white and black Americans who are not recent immigrants are cousins and unacknowledged kin. We are interrelated.

Rookie (not the magazine) (not that there's anything wrong with that)

@harebell That's not something I had thought of! Food for thought.

I don't live in the US, and like you, racial situations are different here. (I'm not saying that they're better or worse - the history is just different.) There's only so much I can say from the perspective that I have, but the idea of Africans as something exotic to be admired is definitely something I see here.

idrathernot

@Rookie (not the magazine) (not that there's anything wrong with that)

Very well said. Thanks for sharing your well-thought-out thoughts!

harebell

I think it's a great thing that Lupita will shake things up a little. I moved to the US as an adult and was really shocked by how little conversation goes on between black and white Americans -- and how tense encounters are compared to encounters between strangers of any other race. Having lived for a number of years as a white person in West Africa, I had never experienced that level of tension and lack of talking and exchange before - never, never. It's not natural. But I think people in the US feel like it is natural, even though it isn't. We are all just people. Although I completely understand why it's like that for historical reasons, and for reasons of fear on both sides, it is just horrible and so damaging for both white and black people. Anything that can shake up these patterns of distrust and encourage more talking and time spent together seems like such a positive thing to me.

Even after living years in the US, if I reflect on it, the vast majority of my friends who are black are immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean, not African-Americans -- it's just so hard to cross those mental boundaries for people formed by US polarized conditions -- and it makes me sad.

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