Friday, June 27, 2014

Lupita Nyong'o: My New Shero

By the time I watched actress Lupita Nyong'o win an Oscar - after watching her dance with grace and confidence in the aisles, give host Ellen Degeneres a tube of her lipgloss and take part in the crazy Oscar selfie that actually crashed Twitter - I was already a huge fan.

Her portrayal of Patsey, a slave woman in the critically-acclaimed and Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave - which I blogged about here in November of last year - was at once beautiful and haunting. It was a role that Lupita, with dual citizenship in Mexico and Kenya, was born for. She understands the meaning of "beautiful and haunting" first-hand. Her deep sense of Patsey's pain spoke through her portrayal, and I immediately wondered, "Who is this woman?"

I screamed when screenwriter John Ridley won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. I screamed when the production team, including Director Steve McQueen, won Best Motion Picture. And I absolutely screamed when Lupita won an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.

I love this woman for her talent, her fashion sense and her beauty. I love her more for her confidence. Her refusal to be molded into Hollywood's and the world's standard of beauty.

It wasn't until recently that I learned how long a journey she has endured. How many years she's had to fight her own fears and insecurities. How winding the road has been to her current place of confidence and peace in who she is.

The May issue of Essence Magazine includes the entire speech that Lupita shared at an exclusive Essence event. She shared this speech just days before her Oscar win.

I had to share her story and a sampling of her speech here in Deep Waters.

Lupita spoke of "Black beauty" and "dark beauty". She shared her struggles to accept her dark skin as a young girl. And she shared this excerpt from a letter from a little girl fighting her own demons concerning her dark skin...

"Dear Lupita, I think you're really lucky to be this Black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight. I was just about to buy [skin-lightening] cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world map and saved me."

Lupita says her "heart bled" for this young girl. At the same time, she was thankful that her first role out of school was so powerful, enabling her to be an "image of hope." She also shared her own childhood battles with skin color.

"I remember a time I, too, felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin. I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin, and my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter skinned... When I was a teenager my self-hate grew worse, as you can imagine. My mother reminded me often that she thought I was beautiful, but that was no consolation..."

Things changed for her when a game-changer entered the world of international fashion. Alek Wek, the Sudanese British model that mesmerized us with her entrance into the fashion world in 1995, was an ebony-skinned model like the world had never seen. Her face was on the pages of magazines everywhere, and Lupita says even Oprah had praised her beauty. Her heart was torn over what to think of this new "standard" of beauty.

"It was perplexing and I wanted to reject it because I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy. But a flower of confidence couldn't help but bloom inside me. When I saw Alek, I inadvertently saw a reflection of myself that I could not deny."

Alek had planted the seed for that "flower of confidence" in Lupita. "Now I had a spring in my step because I felt more seen, more appreciated by the faraway gatekeepers of beauty, but around me, the preference for light skin prevailed. To the beholders that I thought mattered, I was still unbeautiful."

Meanwhile, her mother continued to impart wisdom in her, teaching her that beauty is not something to acquire or attain - it is a matter of existence. "Beauty was not a thing I could acquire or consume; it was something I just had to be... What is fundamentally beautiful is compassion, for yourself, for those around you. That kind of beauty enflames the heart and enchants the soul... And so I hope my presence on your screens and in 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. There is no shade in that beauty."

Amen, Lupita. Amen Sister.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Finding Our Wings: The Invention of Wings

Last night I completed my latest read, a book that I'd been hearing about for months - The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees. This was a good read - a great one even.

The Invention of Wings tells the story of Sarah Grimke, the daughter of Southern slaveowners in early nineteenth-century Charleston, South Carolina and Hetty, a.k.a. Handful, a slave girl owned by the Grimke family. On her eleventh birthday, Sarah receives a special gift from her parents - her very own slave girl. That girl is Handful.

This story follows both women as they come of age in the early 1800's, as they share the sense of powerlessness they both feel as women, and for Handful, as an African American slave woman. We dip into the valley-lows with the women as they experience loss, betrayal, rejection, and paralyzing fear. But we also follow them to their mountain-highs as they embrace purpose, friendship, love and courage.

We witness them finding their voices, with Sarah literally finding hers. We watch them become women of faith and calling. We see them discover their place in the world, why God had created them in their Momma's wombs. Why He had brought them into the world during their time. Why He had planted them in the South, in Charleston, a place that felt as stifling and suffocating to Sarah and Handful's psyches as the coastal city's sweltering summers felt to their bodies.

With the danger of being a plot-spoiler looming over me, I'll contain myself from telling any more of this story. For now, I'll share some beautiful quotes.

There was a time in Africa the people could fly. Mauma told me this one night when I was ten years old. She said, "Handful, your granny-mauma saw it for herself. She say they flew over trees and clouds. She say they flew like blackbirds. When we came here, we left that magic behind.
~ Handful

We might stay here the rest of our lives with the sky slammed shut, but mauma had found the part of herself that refused to bow and scrape... ~ Handful

Goods and chattel. The words from the leather book came into my head. We were like the gold leaf mirror and the horse saddle. Not full-fledge people. I didn't believe this, never had believed it a day of my life, but if you listen to white folks long enough, some sad, beat-down part of you starts to wonder. ~ Handful

My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it's the other way round. ~ Handful

I'd been wandering about in the enchantments of romance, afflicted with the worst female curse on earth, the need to mold myself to expectations. ~ Sarah

Strangest of all, it was the first time thoughts of equality had entered my head, and I could only attribute it to God, with whom I'd lately taken up and who was proving to be more insurrectionary than law-abiding. ~ Sarah

Lucretia and I had formed a bond that went beyond friends. And yet I felt the difference between us. I noticed it at Meetings when I saw her on the Facing bench, the only female minister among all those men, the way she rose and spoke with such fearless beauty, and every morning when I went downstairs and there were her children sticky with oat gruel. I would get a faintly vacuous feeling in the pit of my stomach, not from envy that she had a profession, or these little ones, or even James, who was not like other men, but of some unknown species, a husband who beamed over her profession and made the oat gruel himself. No, it wasn't that. It was the belonging I envied. She'd found her belonging. ~ Sarah

I wanted to say, who am I to do this, a woman? But that voice was not mine. It was Father's voice. It was Thomas'. It belonged to Israel, to Catherine and to Mother. It belonged to the church in Charleston and the Quakers in Philadelphia. It would not, if I could help it, belong to me. ~ Sarah

So... If you haven't read The Invention of Wings yet, go pick it up.

More importantly, like Sarah and Handful, I pray that we find strength in our personal valleys of loss, betrayal, rejection, and fear. May we also embrace our own mountaintops of purpose, friendship, love and courage.

May we, as daughters of God, find our voices. May we become women of faith and calling. May we discover our place in the world, why God created us in our Momma's wombs. Why He brought us into the world at this very time. Why we were born in our hometowns and planted where we currently dwell.

Even when our surroundings and circumstances threaten to stifle and suffocate us, may we walk in God's purpose and calling for us. May our lights shine brightly for Him, for our fellow sisters, and for the world.

May we rise above it all, flapping the wings that the Lord has given us.