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.