Monday, March 3, 2014

More than Skin Deep

Last night at the 86th Academy Awards, Lupita Nyong’o completed her sweep of the awards season with a win for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her work in 12 Years a Slave. As she gave an impassioned, gracious acceptance speech, concluding with “When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid,” I found myself in tears.

To be clear, I also cried during Jared Leto’s heartfelt tribute to his mother. And when Bette Midler started singing “Wind Beneath My Wings,” I fell apart at the first line, thinking of my dearly departed Ebony and the one and only time I’d ever watched Beaches. But there was no denying the way my soul soared when Lupita took the stage cloaked in glee and gratitude, no escaping how I felt her triumph on a personal level.

And that surprised me.

I didn’t see 12 Years a Slave, haven’t been to the movies since my friend Caitlin and I had a wild and wacky movie-going adventure which culminated in seeing The Sessions more than a year ago. Despite this, I had favorites for random reasons: Jared Leto because he was once Jordan Catalano and Cate Blanchett because I loved her interview on 60 Minutes a few weeks ago. And I shamelessly acknowledge wanting to see beautiful, dark-skinned Lupita take home the gold.

But why?

I didn’t grow up believing I needed to be smarter, sharper, and more capable because some people (read: white folks) might dismiss me out of hand because I was black. My worldview stemmed not from my skin color but from my faith. I was taught to be excellent in all things because greater is He that is in me than he that is in the world, and doing my best was a way to express my love and reverence for God. Belonging to Christ eclipsed whatever negative impact racism could have had on my life, so the latter totally escaped my childhood radar.

And that goes double for my physical appearance. Of my various self-esteem issues—and I had many—my skin color never ranked among them. I was enamored with my brand of brown, fascinated by how many shades it actually contained, and never once wished I were lighter. Yet according to my mother, she didn’t buy me black dolls because they made me cry.

Guess dark-skinned dolls were scary in the early '80s.

But if I have no deep-seated skin issues to speak of, why would I embrace Lupita’s success—which is certainly bigger and deeper than her physicality—as a long overdue victory for me and darker-hued beauties everywhere?

Perhaps because there’s more to me than meets the eye. And although my conscious mind paid little attention to popular skin tones in the media, my subconscious mind very much did.

I remember watching The Cosby Show and feeling special that one of the Huxtable girls, and arguably the most popular, had my name. Though I secretly felt I was more like Vanessa in personality, it wasn’t until Denise Huxtable went off to college that I saw the first television character with whom I deeply and decidedly identified.

Kimberly Reese as portrayed by Charnele Brown.

Kim was intelligent and determined, loyal and socially conscious. I liked her bright smile and kind eyes and could listen to her speak all day long. But with her rich chocolate skin, she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen on television. And despite a lack of any personal issues with race, seeing Kimberly Reese on A Different World profoundly impacted my young life.

Did her existence eradicate my low self-esteem? Hardly. After many years, hours of therapy, and talks with Jesus I am still fighting my way down that long, winding road. But there was no denying how it felt to see someone in whom I could see myself.

It is why tears streamed down my face every time Michelle Obama graced the screen during my day-long viewing of President Obama’s first inauguration. It is why Oprah's Legends Ball fill my heart and eyes to overflowing whenever I think about it. And it is why Lupita’s win last night means more to me than I can understand or articulate and why brown-skinned girls the world over will stand a little taller today when they look in the mirror.

Congratulations, Lady Lupita. And thank you.

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