Why you should care

Because Lupita Nyong’o black is beautiful.

Hope Wabuke is a writer based in Southern California. Follow her on Twitter @HopeWabuke.

I don’t remember the first time I was called ugly. But I do remember the day my stunning oldest sister came home in tears because this was what her classmates — and teacher — had called her. I was 6 years old at the time. My sister was 13. In home economics that afternoon in Roseville, Minnesota, beauty consultants had come in to teach my sister and her classmates how to do makeup — something fundamentally problematic in itself — and none of the available colors matched my oldest sister’s skin tone. We are Lupita Nyong’o black, not the lightened skin tone represented in the media because its proximity to whiteness is socially accepted as attractive — the kind that is so pale it can be mistaken for a tan. (See: Rashida Jones on the red carpet.)

On my sister’s black skin, they put pressed powder fit for a light-skinned European — eye shadow, blush and lipstick to match. This was in the 1980s — long before Lupita Nyong’o’s 2014 Lancôme deal or even Halle Berry’s Revlon contract, in 1996. It was still possible to walk into a store and not see any cosmetics that could be used on dark-skinned black women. The beauty consultants tried to style my older sister’s little Afro and then gave up, saying it was impossible. They laughed at her. The other home ec students laughed at her. My sister sat in the corner and cried, her tears blurring the makeup, while the rest of the class finished receiving their makeovers. “I looked,” my sister told me when she stopped crying, “like a clown.”

Our hair must be straightened, they said, or we would have to find a different place to learn.

Shortly after this incident, the school district told my parents that something “needed to be done” with our hair. Wearing it in the short natural Afros that were the norm in my parents’ villages back in Uganda would not be accepted. Your daughters look too much like boys, they were told. It was too confusing to tell the difference. Our hair must be straightened, they said, or we would have to find a different place to learn.

That’s when the terror of the flat iron began. The press of heat against my tender scalp to turn curly black hair into something that could pass for white. The Vaseline that was rubbed on the tips of my ears, and other spots, burned black afterwards; the nerve damage I still feel to this day. How the sound of hot oil sizzling and the smell of frying hair would send me running, hiding in the back of the closet, to avoid this Sunday-night ritual: all of us girls, one after another, and my aunt’s arms, tired of fighting with us to behave. “Hold still,” she’d say. “So you can look presentable for school and not get laughed at for being so ugly with your kinky hair.”

I was not born thinking black was ugly. I thought my two older sisters were the most beautiful girls in the world. I thought my mother and aunts were the most beautiful women in the world. I wanted to be just like them. But by the end of elementary school I understood my blackness as ugly. That whiteness was the only good thing. It was gradual and insidious — layer upon layer of daily words and interactions that cut me into smaller pieces until there was nothing left.

The voices of the world are loud, and I was young and listening too hard to what I should not — to the voices who called us “not classically beautiful”; to the classrooms and media that left out our stories; to those in power who would discount and discredit people who looked like me. And so, shortly after a white classmate in second grade called me an “ugly nigger” and pushed me off the swings and punched me, repeatedly, I began to spend my lunch period and recess in the library. I read, so I could lose myself in stories. For a while that was enough.

I wandered the stacks, looking at the book covers, searching for a face that looked like mine. There was none.

But then I began to want something more: I wanted to see myself. I wandered the stacks, looking at the book covers, searching for a face that looked like mine. There was none — just like there were no faces that looked like mine in the books we read in class or the shows we watched on television at home. Until, one day, I found The Bluest Eye.

It is not just that Toni Morrison wrote a story about a little black girl; Morrison wrote the story of little black girls everywhere. In a world that adopts whiteness — specifically blond, blue-eyed whiteness as the sole standard of beauty — the one thing every little black girl has experienced is being told your blackness makes you ugly. And reading the story of a little black girl named Pecola Breadlove and the necessity of learning to love yourself and value your blackness despite those voices shone a bright light. It validated my existence.

Spurred by Morrison, I undertook my own self-directed reading project of the global black diaspora throughout junior high, into high school. I discovered Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry, Patricia Hill Collins, Maya Angelou, Edwidge Danticat, Jamaica Kincaid, Zadie Smith, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Ruth Forman, Melissa Harris-Parry and more. I began to learn the beauty of black womanhood.

Ten years after my high school graduation, Barack Obama was elected president, a black woman who looked like me became the first lady of the United States, and I held my head up higher, proud to see the reflection of myself — for the first time — in the highest echelons of power in my country. Then, last spring, the image of Lupita Nyong’o, standing proud in her African beauty, was plastered everywhere. And my gorgeous oldest sister found the courage to wear her little curly Afro naturally again.

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