Lupita Nyong’o & What It Means to Be Black

Lupita Nyong'o

When I posted a picture on my Instagram of newly minted Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o giving her acceptance speech at Sunday night’s awards ceremony, I didn’t know or even suspect that there was any question about whether she was black. The photo was of a beaming Nyong’o holding up her award in triumph. Her speech—especially the part where she said, “No matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid”—moved me.

I, like many, had been rooting for her to win an Oscar as soon as the credits rolled on 12 Years a Slave. To me, Nyong’o’s win—and she said as much in her speech—was a win for black girls, black women and women of all colors everywhere.

I like the actress so much, I started referring to her as “Our Lady Lupita.” And I said so in thatInstagram caption, which read, “Black Girl Magic! Get you some. Congrats to Our Lady @lupitanyongo on her Oscar win!” Innocent enough, right?

Promptly, a follower responded, “Actually, she’s Mexican.” It was said as if Nyong’o couldn’t be black and Mexican at the same time. For anyone who is confused by this, I point you toward two documentaries, The Forgotten Roots and African Blood, which show that the Diaspora extends to Mexico, too.

But back to Nyong’o. Her father was a Kenyan professor who was teaching in Mexico when she was born. She also returned to the country when she was a teenager. Calling her Mexican isn’t technically inaccurate. But it’s not the whole story. She’s also Kenyan because both her parents are and because she was raised in Kenya.

And she’s black because—and I can’t believe I have to explain this—look at her. The deep-brown complexion, the wonderfully kinky hair and the full lips all fit the phenotype of the people colloquially called “black.” For me, that makes Nyong’o unquestionably a black woman, even if she hasn’t always felt that way.

“Having come to the United States was the first time that I really had to consider myself as being black and to learn what my race meant,” Nyong’o told Vogue. “Because race is such an important part of understanding American society.”

Not everyone defines “black” the same way. For some, it’s a race that extends across nationalities—i.e., the African Diaspora. For others it’s a way to describe the unique experience of African Americans. The people who fall into the “Lupita’s not black” camp are usually thinking of culture.

Then there are those who place nationality above everything else, which make them consider her Mexican-ness or Kenya-ness only. Nyong’o claims both, saying on the red carpet, “I am Mexican and Kenyan at the same time. I have seen that they are fighting over my nationality, but I insist I am Mexican Kenyan, and I am fascinated by tacos with roasted meat.”

But perhaps there’s something else at the root of this drive to define what Nyong’o really is. It seems that whenever a black woman is recognized for her beauty in America, there’s often a clamor to make her “other” or “exotic,” as if being “just” black isn’t good enough. There always has to be something more that explains why she’s considered a “great beauty.”


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This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. LJF67 says:

    I just cannot with you anymore Ms. Lucas!! Thank you!!! I for one, as a child of parents from North Carolina and Virginia respectively get so tired of this notion that just being plain Black is not good enough when it comes to beauty standards – we do this to ourselves! We constantly have to qualify who and what we are as if to be ” just Black” is not worthy of praise and adoration in and of itself despite the battles waged during the Civil Rights Struggle by “just Black” folks that made it that much easier for everyone else to get here and realize their dream.

  2. BklynBeauty says:

    I thank you for bringing this issue up. I agree whole heartedly. The reality is that there aren’t many instances in Pop culture where being black, just black is celebrated. We have to change that thinking from inside our selves first and our communities ultimately. I would have liked to see Beyonce respond to her ethnic breakdown and state that she is just black, for all the just black girls that love, support and idolize her. It’s like we cant even identify with our own people. On another note it is a blessing to know that much of your history. Most of us just black girls can’t trace back farther than grand parents.

  3. max says:

    These kinds of discussions make me sad. I wish we didn’t spend time quibbling over foolishness like whether someone who is so obviously Black is actually Black. It’s so….small-minded.

    • Lola says:

      I completely agree with you. This should be a celebration for women everywhere. It seems that black people are the ones that have an issue with her not being black? Ridiculous.

  4. Jojo says:

    Haha, Lupita is so right. Her nationality is Mexican and her ethnicity is Kenyan. She lived in Kenya for the overwhelming majority of her life, and lived in Mexico for less than 2 years. Her parents are kenyan and I’m certain she was for the most part raised as any other kenyan child would be in Kenya. Nonetheless, she probably travels using a Mexican passport yet had to learn spanish only a few years ago.

    I don’t understand why people are acting like there are no other accomplished women who are just black as in African American and proud of it: Tyra, Kerri, Michelle O, Angela Bassett, Oprah Winfrey, Shonda Rhimes, etc. What’s wrong with a Trini or Nigerian or African American celebrating someone who they feel is a part of their community?

    I wholeheartedly agree with your comment about the definition of black being somewhat ambiguous. For me, I was born in the states, left to go to West Africa when I was 6 and returned when I was 18. During my formative years, being black was not even relevant. 99% of people in the country was black so it was a non issue. I read about the civil rights struggle but it was as foreign to me as apartheid in south africa or the caste system in India. I really had to learn what it meant to be a black woman in American when I returned. Initially, I felt like I did not fit in with the African American community as I felt our cultures were starkly different. Today I feel at home in both worlds though I eventually still get that comment when I initially meet someone, ” I knew you weren’t American.”

    Africans are mostly in the news when there is political strife so when an African reaches the highest echelon of their field, especially abroad, the entire continent (well most of it haha) celebrates and wants to proudly claim that person. It has nothing to do with being anti-African American or being unappreciative of the contributions blacks in America have contributed to it’s success. It has everything to do with celebrating the little successes of Africans with direct ties to the continent. This was most apparent to me when Obama won the presidency. Since he had direct ties to the contienent it was on fire. I’m certain the reaction would have been different if his father or even grandfather did not have direct ties.

  5. Tressed says:

    Some of y’all seem to be ignorant about the fact that Mexican is a nationality and not a race. She was born there, her name is Mexican and she eventually learned Spanish. Why do some of y’all expect her to deny her nationality?

    And, for those saying that Mexico is only claiming her because she’s an Oscar winner; guess what, the same thing can be said about America. America is not exactly accepting of it’s black population either. Last time I checked, our first Black president of the United States had to show his birth certificate to prove that he’s not African. And, white racist Republicans to this day refuse to claim him as an American. So I don’t know why some of y’all are tripin on Lupita and saying that Mexico won’t claim her when you claim African American and America has shown time and time again that they don’t even like claiming us?

    Understand the concept of having duel nationalities? Lupita isn’t the only one who has that. The director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Inception) is a British-American. He was born in London but also raised in Chicago because his mom is American. Mel Gibson is an American-Australian. He was born in New York, but was raised in Australia. Both of these examples, have dual citizenship. You certainly wouldn’t accuse them of claiming to be a different race would you? Claiming different nationalities has nothing to do with your race it’s about citizenship.

    Stop projecting your insecurities onto Lupita. Her being born in Mexico does not make her any less a black person, just like it doesn’t make African Americans less black for being born in America and not Africa.

    Stop finding controversy where there is none and be happy for her accomplishments. __________________

  6. Janice says:

    You nailed it on the head. Great post! I say this all the time. Whenever a black woman is acknowledged for her beauty there always has to be those chiming in saying she’s only half black or that her great grandmother on her dad’s side was a quarter Cherokee. Like seriously? No one knows how to give props where props are due when it comes to black women.

  7. missmae says:

    Bravo couldn’t said it any better, black is beautiful; as a black woman born in america to Haitian immigrant parents, I never described myself as only american, Haitian is always first I am always proud to be a black woman with Haitian parents. No need to forget what else made you but remember what society see first and embrace it as a beautiful black woman

  8. eveuno says:

    As African-American women growing up in America we are subconsciously obsessed with race and looks, not saying it’s good or bad, just acknowledging it exists. The bottom line is ” if you are Black, Negro,( what ever the politically correct term is) ALL roads lead back to Africa for us. No matter where your parents migrated to ( in this day and age) I say that only because our older ancestors were forced to the places we call home, or where our “Nationality” originates. I appreciate you clearing that up Belle, because I did not know about her Mexican ties, I assumed she was African, which she is?! I just thank God that young Black girls all over the world can look at Lupita, be proud and strive for their goals because they can see success that looks like them with not just straight hair and bleached skin.

  9. Lola says:

    I am so happy Lupita embraces her Mexican ties as well. It doesn’t matter who gets offended by that.

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