Wearing the Crowns We Choose: Why We Really Love Lupita Nyong'o

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“Brown girl,
you are lovely
in every shade.” +Maza - Dohta

If I ever wished to be anything other than a Black girl, those days ended with my childhood. I have hair relaxer to thank for that. While I don’t recall ever wanting to change the color of my skin, I did struggle with my hair’s texture and length, wishing it would fall and flow like that of the white girls I saw on television. If not theirs, I wanted it at least to resemble the looser curl patterns of other girls I had seen.

My first relaxer helped me to realize that changing something on the outside would never change what was happening inside. I gradually discovered that my elusive search for a look other than my natural one was an imposition, filtered through the media to peddle “western” norms and Eurocentric aesthetic ideals.
The temporary nature of the relaxer and the value placed on straight hair enslaved me into becoming a faithful consumer of someone else’s enterprising commercial product. A mirage. The contradictions were blatant, the price was high and the burden heavy. In due course, I decided I would purge (wash and rinse) myself of the delusion.
I have lived comfortably with my hair and its beautiful versatility ever since.
I often imagine the countless Black women who are also imprisoned by society’s idealization of white beauty and who struggle daily to fit the mold, even if it requires deforming themselves. So many bleach their skin, fry their hair and stain their souls.
Black Beauty & The Lupita Effect
Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o’s debut in the film adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s memoir, 12 Years a Slave, has catapulted Nyong’o into the public eye. As a newcomer in her first performance after graduating from the Yale School of Drama, her unprecedented rise to fame has re-sparked discussions on Black beauty. Her burgeoning successes in the film and fashion industries foretell the beginning of a climate change within two of American society’s whitest spaces.
Despite her warranted recognition, I was initially turned off, and to a certain extent still am, by the conversations buzzing around Nyong’o. I am one of the many whom writer and political commentator Esther Armah alludes to in her article, “Lupita: Black Beauty’s Intimate Revolution,” “that sound the alarm of suspicion about the white gaze on this chocolate beauty, and the suspicion of an acceptance for a blackness that has long navigated the territory of rejection within white and black society.”
Admittedly, I am wary of the praise lavished on her for her beauty and poise. Often, I half expect the “She’s ( blank ) for a Black girl” conversation to punctuate the public’s overt kindness. The absence of such caveats, or the care given to talking around Nyong’o’s complexion, especially from non-Black folks, I suspect is an intentional omission and not evidence of transcendence.
I feel this way because decolonizing such myths and biases is not an easy process. Moreover, it’s an ongoing struggle marred by objectification, body favoritism and the politics of respectability.
In many ways, Nyong’o is the ideal candidate onto whom we project the fulfillment of our desires. She is intelligent, educated, beautiful and natural. Through our gaze she can easily embody the mythic “Cinderella” figure. A girl transformed into a princess because she is recognized as worthy by an entity outside of herself. She is the cinder girl, who seems to have transcended her “circumstances.”
Nyong’o’s Kenyan-Mexican background also accommodates this growing narrative as it privileges beauty and talent that is not Black American, but what Armah discusses as “international Blackness” in another recent article, “International Blackness vs. Homegrown Negroes: Lupita Chimamanda, Thandie and me”.  Armah explains: “International blackness may also be privileged, exceptionalized, exoticized where the same features, talent might be ignored had they appeared on the body of someone born, educated, shaped in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, or Detroit or Compton or Chicago…”

Black Women, Self-liberation and Well-being
While I believe that many of these reservations are based in the realities that Black folks, especially Black women, constantly confront under the white gaze and even from one another, I am compelled to see the good in celebrating Nyong’o. This good rests in a hope for self-liberation and emotional well-being that underlies the chatter about her appearance. Thus, we love Nyong’o for giving a voice to countless women of color.
In her acceptance speech at the 7th Annual Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon, where she received the Best Breakthrough Performance Award, Nyong’o spoke candidly about her struggle to accept her skin tone:
My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome and all of a sudden, Oprah was telling me it wasn’t. It was perplexing and I wanted to reject it because I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy…To the beholders that I thought mattered, I was still unbeautiful. And my mother again would say to me, ‘You can’t eat beauty. It doesn’t feed you.’ And these words plagued and bothered me; I didn’t really understand them until finally I realized that beauty was not a thing that I could acquire or consume, it was something that I just had to be.
The beingness to which Nyong’o speaks is something I’ve recently begun to understand. I was 25 when I started to think proactively about my emotional well-being as a Black woman. I was attending a public conversation between author and poet Ntozake Shange and image activist Michaela angela Davis at the Brooklyn Museum. They discussed topics like Shange’s manifesto-esque choreo-poem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuff”, Tyler Perry’s adaptation film For Colored Girls, feminism and the Egyptian Revolution.
It was on this occasion that I first heard Davis discuss Black women and the state of our collective mental health. In the simplest terms, Davis stated that the major struggle for the current generation of Black young folk will be to seek our happiness and fulfillment and to not go hungry. “Black girls deserve to be happy,” she proclaimed. Her words resonated with me as I realized how Blackness and womanhood are profoundly connected to notions of strength and invincibility, but not happiness and contentment.
Although this conversation was familiar to me, never had I felt the weight of the strained connection between strength and mental health as I did in that moment. In a sense, I became deeply aware that I could give myself permission to end my inner struggle. I realized that the strength Black women possess has always been a point of great pride for me. One to which I cling defiantly, because I am pleased to belong to such a sisterhood where Black women wear strength like a crown.
However, I now realize that my defiance is also tied to an acceptance that Black women should struggle and always remain strong. I no longer simply accept this. Strength is a battle Black women have already won. Therefore, even with the contemporaneous global women’s liberation movements – all of which affect Black women – our mental health and well-being deserves priority.
Self-liberation from such superficial aesthetic confines  is the mold into which we pour the gold to fashion our crowns. As Nyong’o shared in her speech, letting go of the superficial and embracing her inner self – the beingness – liberated her from perpetual hunger.
Beyond the politics surrounding her physical appearance and international appeal as a beautiful, well-educated woman, we love Nyong’o because she reminds us that other crowns fit as well. That we must give ourselves permission to seek our happiness and wear the crowns we choose.

Tania L. Balan-Gaubert is a Haitian American native of Chicago. She received her master’s degree in African American Studies from Columbia University and currently resides in Brooklyn. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @tanialaure.

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