Lupita Nyong'o's performance in 12 Years a Slave was transcendent. The humble grace of her acceptance speech and honoring of those ancestors who are lost, but still with us, from the killing fields of white on black chattel slavery, to the "post racial" present, was an act of gracious humility, class, intelligence, and generosity.
Lupita Nyong'o removed the "I" and the self from her wondrous sharing of thoughts and ideas and emotions that came with her winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Matthew McConaughey did the opposite when he was awarded the Oscar for Best Actor. He offered up a vainglorious speech that was a tribute to self-motivating, self-fulfilling, and self-praised ego. I am not criticizing Matthew McConaughey; I am making a basic observation.
I am very concerned about the present state of black respectability politics. The title of this project--We Are Respectable Negroes--is a naked tell in that regard.
I have this concern not just because of an unapologetic love of black people in America. Black respectability, and its various tones, hues, challenges, and travails, are a barometer for American political and social life. My concern about African-Americans in this regard is an act of patriotism.
What are black Americans if not a people who love a country that more often than not does not love us back?
I will proceed carefully.
Parrhesia ought not to be a phrase to sound cool with at the bar or riding on the bus with the knowledge that others are listening. Parrhesia is a life principle.
There are many millions of ways to be "black" in America and across the Black Atlantic. Blackness, to borrow from the late and incisively brilliant Stuart Hall, is many things. It is beautiful, ugly, smart, stupid, grotesque, inspiring, awesome, humble, grand, insecure, libidinous, chaste, anxiety filled, confident, mean, and kind.
As human beings, stereotyped, commodified, and often misrepresented, black people are many things. None of these things are simple.
Moreover, blackness takes on many forms when we openly discuss and acknowledge how people of color, and the Other more generally, often do not see themselves with their own eyes. Rather, the power of The Gaze is real. It hampers how too many of us understand the limits and boundaries of our own humanity.
As I watched Lupita Nyong'o speak at the Oscars, and then reviewed her beautiful words at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon, I could not resist the comparison between her manner, intelligence, and grace with the grotesque way that black womanhood is often represented by and through the mainstream mass media.
My claim is not that women (or any other group) are accurately represented by a medium that is prefaced on a "mediated" reality, what is a stand-in for real people and their/our experiences and humanity. However, the historically laden, potent, and particular intersections of blackness and gender cannot be eschewed in favor of some flattened and catchall protest at something vaguely and often imprecisely identified as "misogyny".
There are many ways to be black and female. Lupita Nyong'o is the exception to the exception to the exception ad infinitum. Lupita Nyong'o is a star. By definition, her star persona is a product and a performance, one that hopefully, will continue to receive many opportunities to blossom and grow.
I am interested in the energy she exhibited via the persona channeled at the Oscars.
In too many homes and neighborhoods (across the colorline) Lupita Nyong'o's poise, intelligence, and grace would be considered inauthentic, weak, selling out, or "acting white". Some of these reactions are a function of how in a harsh and mean world such traits are considered signs of vulnerability which signal that one can and should be taken advantage of.
In many communities, such a calculus is the norm and a necessary survival strategy.
Such logic masculinizes some black (and other) women in the worst way possible as it robs them of the best of what it means to be feminine.
How can we in the black American community raise and encourage a model of black womanhood and femininity among the ghetto underclass that is closer to Lupita Nyong'o than the disposable street authentic "strong" black women who are nightmare caricatures better suited to the worst examples of carnivalesque and burlesque negritude as seen in commercial rap videos and elsewhere?
And is it possible that Lupita Nyong'o can become a role-model for graceful intelligence and wit for all young women...and perhaps how such habitus can become an idealized type?