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Lupita Nyong’o’s speech on ‘black beauty’ underscores her significance in Hollywood

“I want to take this opportunity to talk about beauty, black beauty, dark beauty.”

That’s how Hollywood newcomer Lupita Nyong’o settled into her speech Thursday while accepting the Best Breakthrough Performance Award at Essence magazine’s annual Black Women in Hollywood luncheon.

Nyong’o is up for an Academy Award for her performance in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” which is nominated for Best Picture. And despite the fact that Nyong’o was virtually unknown a year ago, these days she could probably talk about anything. She’s a favorite to win the best supporting actress award at Sunday’s ceremony. The fashion world loves her. And she’s already nabbed the Internet’s unofficial seal of approval — a Buzzfeed listicle that crowned her “a flawless fashion genius.”

As Jezebel put it recently, “Lupita Nyong’o is having quite a moment.” The feminist blog’s Dodai Stewart explained:

Some may argue we’re reaching Lupita Nyong’o over-saturation. I’ll argue that there’s no such thing as too much Lupita Nyong’o. It’s actually extremely vital that we see Lupita Nyong’o — and faces like hers — as often as possible.
Why? Because looks-wise, Nyong’o, who was born in Mexico and raised in Kenya, flies in the face of the traditional young Hollywood starlet. She is black. Her hair is short. Her skin is dark.

Which us brings us back to her speech. The actress explained that she was struck by one letter from a fan, who told her that she had contemplated purchasing a controversial skin lightening cream promoted by Dencia, a Cameroonian pop star, until Nyong’o “appeared on the world map and saved” her.

“My heart bled a little when I read those words,” Nyong’o told the audience, which included fellow actresses Kerry Washington and her “12 Years a Slave” co-star Alfre Woodard. “I could never have guessed that my first job out of school would be so powerful in and of itself and that it would propel me to be such an image of hope in the same way that the women of ‘The Color Purple’ were to me.”

Nyong’o went on to explain that she used to feel “unbeautiful” and even prayed to wake up with lighter skin. That changed when she saw South Sudanese British model Alek Wek become successful. “A celebrated model, she was as dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was,” Nyong’o said. “Even Oprah called her beautiful and that made it a fact.” Oprah was also in attendance at Thursday’s event.

In spite of Wek’s fame, Nyong’o still struggled to see herself as beautiful:

But around me the preference for light skin prevailed, 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. And what my mother meant when she said you can’t eat beauty was that you can’t rely on how you look to sustain you. What is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and for those around you.

That Nyong’o looks nothing like the actresses she’s up against in the supporting actress Oscar category — Julia Roberts and Jennifer Lawrence among them —  only underscores her significance in Hollywood, one that she acknowledged in the last lines of her speech.

And so I hope that my presence on your screens and in the magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside, that there is no shade in that beauty.