Nyong'o'd: Is Black Beauty Fools Gold?
Jay Connor: Beauty. Being so many things to so many people is an arduous task, but formally it is defined as “a characteristic of a person, place, animal, object, or idea that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure or satisfaction”. “Perceptual”, of course, pertains to perception. Which, in a similar fashion as its distant cousins Gender Roles and Religion, traditionally has been governed by the combined forces of tradition and authority. It’s no secret that standards of beauty fluctuate between the myriad of cultures and races that permeate this planet, but only one has been on the receiving end of a transatlantic, systematic crusade to render it extinct. That being the inherent beauty of that which is Black. Characterized by its dearth of light, hue, and dignity. Its wide nose, its kinky hair. Its menacing hip to ass ratio, and innate ability to prevail against even the most miniscule of odds. Which is why
White People Magazine recently christening Lupita Nyong’o, perennial paper bag test failure, The Most Beautiful Person of 2014 is kind of a big deal, right? I mean, shit. We’re still peeling off the collective shock and awe from her conquest at the Academy Awards, and now you’re telling me that Lupita, she of audacious chocolate skin and features harvested from rich, Kenyan soil, can finally be beautiful too? Has Master finally relinquished our figurative forty acres and a mule?
Alex Hardy: I would hold off on the celebratory popping of bottles, if I were you. While it is amusing to observe White people seemingly discovering Black beauty for the first time, the struggle ain’t over yet. I imagine she’s ecstatic to be Black Girl Number One right now, but with great
beauty bone structure comes great responsibility. Photographers, reporters, anchors, and others stumble over themselves to enter her presence, baffled at the very brouhaha they find themselves swept up in. She fields skin care questions from well-intentioned White reporters who forget that the key ingredient to Lupita’s radiance is melanin, which ain’t sold in Sephora. After one harrowing movie role and two million magazine covers, she’s been pegged as role model to Chocolate Wonders globally. Men debate her beauty, often shrugging that they “know a lot of girls who look like that.” Hollywood know-it-alls sling theories on Lupita’s viability as a formidable force in film and weigh in on her potential longevity. Then there’s the contingency still in disbelief that someone so stunning and graceful and widely embraced comes from Kenya, that something good actually came out of Africa. It’s a lot.
JC: That it is, but something about this christening makes my inner cynic wag its finger like Mutumbo. Is such reverence genuine, or purely a long forgotten Jamie Foxx single infatuation? Is this advent of Black beauty merely a fad? Upgraded from the clearance aisle of Universal Acceptance, while the likes of Yavapai cheekbones and the “chinky” eyes of the Taiwanese languish behind?
AH: It is hard to gauge how much of it is “genuine.” Mind you, Lupita is beautiful as fuck. Seeing
White People Magazine and hundreds of blogs and editors gushing over this brown beauty is indeed refreshing. Because she is, in my Black ass opinion, so much more pleasant to look at than the dozens and dozens of foot-faced White women who live in fashion mags and make bloggers and Joan Rivers bust nuts in jubilation, event after event. It’s also annoying to see all of humanity react as if she’s the first person with that good, natural sunblock to be unanimously deemed GORGEOUS by The Establishment. There are, however, a number of dynamics at play. Is this another Halle/Denzel at the Oscars moment? Is this another “Okay, fine. FINE. Shit. We’ll hire a Black cast member and some Black ass writers yet give them questionable material. Fuck. Happy now?!?!” moment?
JC: Yeah, this is cake Anna Mae is well within her right to force feed Margot Woelk prior to indulging herself. Especially considering that after all this garish praise Sweet Lu has been draped in, she has yet to announce her next major film project. I say major because fresh off a Best Supporting Actress curtsey at the finish line, being casted as the Mother Wolf in the latest incarnation of “The Jungle Book” reeks of 1967 all over again. Only in Black Hollywood is graduating from a slave to a fucking wolf considered transcendence. Lupine, four legged upward mobility, if you will. And by no means is that meant to disparage or malign her work or her craft, but is that the best her agents could do? And as a Black screenwriter myself, is that even a question I want an honest answer to? No matter your key of choice, tear ducts are the only instrument capable of playing The Ballad of The Black Woman. Where the same carte blanche typically bestowed upon The Beautiful, habitually fails to intersect with Melanin Avenue.
|Hands off, second fiddle.|
AH: Ah yes, The Great Trade-Off rears its unkempt head yet again. Legend has it that 15 score and 12 Lil Kim noses ago, somewhere back in some civilization that predates cocoa butter and Lawry’s seasoning, a delegation of well-dressed Blacks with great skin--led by Mother and Father Blackness (Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones, the two oldest living Negros)--sat down with The Powers and hashed out the following deal:
To the Coloreds
Built-in sunblock and anti-aging properties
Tenacity and Brilliance
(other unnamed benefits)
To the Whites
Most movie roles
Right of first refusal on “traditional” Beauty Standards
(other unnamed benefits)
And so it was written. In exchange for melanin and the ability to find rhythm in the most obscure places, young Lupita now has to contend with often having her talent overshadowed by an endless furor over what she is wearing. We can’t have her becoming the Teyana Taylor of film, being on every red carpet, in every magazine, delighting White fashion editors and trendmakers, with very little actual creative output. You being a filmdude, what do you suppose needs to happen for/to/with her? What should her next move be?
JC: Should be or will be? The obvious answer is she has to continue to accrue momentum in the wonderful world of cinema. But the real question is why does the onus always fall on the aggrieved to rectify their plight? In a $65 billion industry, laden with thousands of scripts sprinkled with post-racial atonement, you’re telling me that the only car they’ll let her drive off the lot is a Raksha? Last I checked, she’s a brilliant actress, so a dearth of talent didn’t provoke this dilemma. And
White People Magazine was even kind enough to ward off her detractors by co-signing on her Kenyan Beauty Universal Acceptance Loan. So if she ain’t ugly (check!), and her acting prowess is profound (check!), what’s the hold up? Why the niche roles? And speaking on the broader issue, why is there such resistance against diversity of any sort in the grand scheme of social acceptance? Particularly in regards to our ovaried counterparts? Yet as bad as we (or they) have it, as the past has already proven, things could be much worse.
AH: I considered that the other day, the fact that as much as WE must fight for visibility and humane portrayals, Native Americans, Asians and everyone else has a far worse battle before them. As for Queen Lupita, I hope she doesn’t take after the aggressively inconsistent Halle Berry and adopt her “A check is a check” way of life, with no regard for integrity or legacy. Lupita, girl, if you’re reading this, DON’T DRINK THAT PICKLE JUICE. I want to be optimistic and know that a producer, writer, or director who gets it will step up to the plate and lace Patsey with the role she needs to help create a JLo moment versus a Lumidee one. I sincerely hope that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s comments that Lady Lupita expressed interest in a film adaptation of “Americanah” leads to something. Ain’t that many red carpets in the world.
JC: Well, I think that’s where part of my frustration stems from. If you’re somebody who decides to make the bizarre career choice of pretending to be other people for a living, omitting race from the equation, prominence in Tinsel Town is entirely derived from three factors (four if you count cocaine): Who you know, how you look, and in extremely rare instances, how talented you actually are. So I’m not entirely clear why others are allowed to be nominally talented or repulsive, while Sweet Lu’s casually dismissed as a Chester French song. Which begs the question: What good is Black beauty in a White world?
AH: Well, without Black beauty, what else would pioneers like Kendall Jenner spend their days creating? In a White world, Black beauty is that impressive, confident friend that people pretend to not appreciate or notice while actually envying and aspiring to emulate. For example. Seeing Hollywood trip over themselves to launch praise at this Nutella-hued beauty, loving and innocently fetishizing her, is like watching a White parent attempt to detangle and wrangle the thick curls of their newly adopted Black child; they know something should be done, but they’re not exactly sure what that something is. People like this, this and this are allowed to be charmingly terrible year after year without reproach thanks to that same force that keeps Nick Cannon’s pockets on swole: Whiteness. There is no other explanation. Since I’m not a studio executive or filmdude, I’ll just have to trust that, while I'm alive, Madame Lupita won’t amble across the big screen with a possum on her head, downtrodden and barren, waiting for her lifesaving churchy Black knight like every other Tyler Perry-created heroine. Shall we burn some sage to ward off those demons of desperation?
JC: But culturally speaking, we haven’t exactly done a stellar job of protecting or extolling our own, especially in the court of public opinion. In fact, attributing these obstacles solely on pigment skipping class that day is a copout, when Black patriarchy arguably does just as much damage, if not more so, within our communities than our blanched landlords. We can’t jump down Master’s throat for depreciating the value of our women at the negotiation table, then turn around and tell the mothers of our children, the women who raised us, and the sisters we shared our adolescence with that their self-worth begins and ends with their vagina. Hopefully Michael’s mirror isn’t too crowded, cuz these ways sure as shit won’t change themselves.
AH: Well, I'm going to follow the Bad Boy Artist Law of Sophomore Album Attraction and hope for divine intervention (aka a call from Michael Scorcese or Oprah) with this one. In the interim, the effect that her ascendance has had on little Black girls worldwide who had never seen a girl with their skin color being praised in this way? That is worth celebrating. Even if Lupita never finds her Carmen: A Hip Hopera or Prison Song moment, she will forever be a role model for bekinked girls everywhere.
Read Episode 07: "Nick Cannon Presents: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Negroes"
Read Episode 06: "Rituals of Tribal Dance"
Read Episode 05: "Exploration, Conquest, and Sonic Colonization"
Read Episode 04: "Melanin (and) Manipulation: The Jackson Legacy"
Read Episode 03: "Principles and Practices of a Bobby Browned Childhood"
Read Episode 02: "Posture and Promiscuity"
Read Episode 01: "Fundamentals of Separation Anxiety"
Jay Connor is a prized pupil of the esteemed Professor Xavier and a Los Angeles based freelance writer. When he’s not preoccupied with accruing overdraft fees while chasing the dream, he can be found disseminating terrorist threats on Twitter and Facebook. Direct all business inquiries, sexual innuendo and Nigerian email scams to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Alex (Colored Boy) on Twitter: @chrisalexander_