Demetria L Lucas didn’t even suspect that there would be any question about whether Lupita Nyong’o was black.
When I posted a picture on my Instagram of newly minted Academy Award-winner Lupita Nyong’o giving her acceptance speech at last Sunday night’s awards ceremony, I didn’t know or even suspect that there would be 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 colours everywhere.
I like the actress so much, I started referring to her as “Our Lady Lupita”.
I said so in my Instagram 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 towards 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 returned to the country as a teenager. Calling her Mexican isn’t technically inaccurate. But it’s not the whole story. She’s also Kenyan because her parents are and 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 US 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 – like the African diaspora. For others it’s a way to describe the unique experience of African-Americans.
Then there are those who place nationality above everything else, which makes them consider her Mexican-ness or Kenya-ness only.
Nyong’o claims both: “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.”
It seems that whenever a black woman is recognised for her beauty in the US, there’s often a clamour to make her “other” or “exotic”, as if being “just” black isn’t good enough.
With Rihanna, who has scored more Vogue covers than Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama, there’s always an emphasis on her being from Barbados.
Beyoncé – a Texas girl who was introduced to fans as “just” black – was suddenly advertised in Revlon ads as French, native American and Creole when she hit beauty-icon status. It’s the pop-culture equivalent of black girls and women who like to say “I have Indian in my family”, as if the addition somehow makes them better.
I wish we could all accept that “the black”, wherever it comes from, is worthy of acknowledgement on its own.