From Patsey to Princess: Why Lupita Nyong'o makes black women proud
On Sunday night I sat watching the Oscars, like many dark-skinned black girls around the world, eagerly anticipating the best supporting actress category.
We sat in anticipation, wanting to be the first to glimpse a moment that was literally going to be out of this world.
Unfortunately, for dark skinned black women, our ‘she-roes’ have been sparse and too far in between.
I can remember being on a school bus in suburban New York headed to elementary school in what I thought was my most fashionable second-grade outfit—red beret, cape, and patent-leather shoes. I walked onto the bus feeling every inch the runway model—only to be greeted by taunts and referred to as “Aunt Jemima.”
In hindsight I realize that Aunt Jemima was probably the only black woman my white classmates knew as “famous.”
Jemima, the woman who wore a handkerchief around her head, was their black cultural touchstone. This was the 1980s, yet this woman, depicted as just few steps removed from slavery and understood as the “help,” was the only example of a black woman my classmates could compare me to.
I wasn’t embarrassed to be referred to as the black woman on the pancake syrup bottle. But the attitude with which my classmates spoke about me, my skin and ensemble made me feel ugly and ashamed of my cape and of my skin. Why couldn’t I be called Wonder Woman or Bionic Woman any of the strong, stylish, powerful white women that were household names?
I was one of just a handful of black kids in a predominately white school district, and regardless of how “fancy” I was dressed or how smart and “articulate” I spoke I couldn’t “dress up” or cover up my difference—my skin.
Aside from my family there were no other black women to point to and claim as my own—as my reflection, as my role models. It was a syrup bottle or nothing. Sure, with each passing decade since that horrid day on the bus in second grade we’ve made progress. We did get Clair Huxtable after all, and there have been black models—but usually ones that fit the Anglo mold.
Nonetheless the allure of, or better yet obsession with, light black skin has remained, and both the runways and Hollywood have demonstrated a preference for “exotic skin” of such bronze color that you can’t pinpoint its origin over chocolate bodies like Lupita’s and mine.
Mixed skin is beautiful—it tells a story, but why is it the only marker of beauty black people can claim?
From hip-hop videos to commercials, mixed skin has become the new normal while black skin has been relegated to “common or boring.”
Lupita Nyongo by contrast has slayed stereotypes, not only about the beauty of dark African skin, but intelligence and femininity as well. Lupita is what I refer to as the Polinista, a woman who is unapologetic about her brilliance and her femininity. She’s chic, smart and stunning—a package that has not been the norm for black women in our society. Lupita didn’t run for the closest wig when it was time for awards season, to literally and figuratively hide her roots—instead she took us to a hair show and dazzled the world with high tops, fades and headbands.
When interviewed on the red carpet she didn’t apologize for her intellect by trying to seem “regular” — her Yale training shined for the world to see. She was a star.
The world loves Lupita because she, the Yale scholar, actor, and dark-skinned woman is the most powerful manifestation of beauty and brains.
Lupita Nyongo’s win took us from Patsey to princess without shedding her skin. Her moment was a moment for all of us—our black is beautiful, our black is brilliant. Period.
Now, when a precocious little black girl gets on a bus dressed to the nines, a syrup bottle will be the last thoughts in the minds of her classmates; instead of Jemima, they will utter Lupita.
Danielle Moodie-Mills is the co-host of Politini, a politics and pop culture show bringing audiences the personal side of politics. She is also an Advisor at the Center for American Progress for racial justice and LGBT equality. Her writings have been published in The Atlantic, Essence, Huffington Post , Ebony and more.