I wrote down this speech that I had no time to practice so this will be the practicing session. Thank you Alfre, for such an amazing, amazing introduction and celebration of my work. And thank you very much for inviting me to be a part of such an extraordinary community. I am surrounded by people who have inspired me, women in particular whose presence on screen made me feel a little more seen and heard and understood. That it is ESSENCE that holds this event celebrating our professional gains of the year is significant, a beauty magazine that recognizes the beauty that we not just possess but also produce.
I want to take this opportunity to talk about beauty, Black beauty, dark beauty. I received a letter from a girl and I’d like to share just a small part of it with you: ‘Dear Lupita,’ it reads, ‘I think you’re really lucky to be this Black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight. I was just about to buy Dencia’s Whitenicious cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world map and saved me.’
My heart bled a little when I read those words, 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.
I remember a time when 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. The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself until I was in front of a mirror because I wanted to see my fair face first. And every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I was the day before. I tried to negotiate with God, I told him I would stop stealing sugar cubes at night if he gave me what I wanted, I would listen to my mother’s every word and never lose my school sweater again if he just made me a little lighter. But I guess God was unimpressed with my bargaining chips because He never listened.
And when I was a teenager my self-hate grew worse, as you can imagine happens with adolescence. My mother reminded me often that she thought that I was beautiful but that was no conservation, she’s my mother, of course she’s supposed to think I am beautiful. And then…Alek Wek. A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was. Even Oprah called her beautiful and that made it a fact. I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so much like me, as beautiful. My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome and all of a sudden Oprah was telling me it wasn’t. It was perplexing and I wanted to reject it because I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy. But a flower couldn’t help but bloom inside of me, when I saw Alek I inadvertently saw a reflection of myself that I could not deny. Now, I had a spring in my step because I felt more seen, more appreciated by the far away gatekeepers of beauty. But around me the preference for my skin prevailed, to the courters 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 kind of beauty enflames the heart and enchants the soul. It is what got Patsey in so much trouble with her master, but it is also what has kept her story alive to this day. We remember the beauty of her spirit even after the beauty of her body has faded away.
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.
There is no shame in Black beauty.
Her remarkable speech from Essence Magazine’s 7th Annual Black Women In Hollywood luncheon where she won the Best Breakthrough Performance Award. Remarkable. Just…remarkable. *tears*
Media is not arbitrary, random, neutral nor apolitical.
“Thanks bitch. You really further your stereotype.”
This was the note I found pinned under my windshield wiper recently; and it said more about Toronto and multiculturalism than all the official pieties put together.
To backtrack: A Wednesday mid-afternoon, on Bloor St. just west of St. George. I pull into a (rare) parking space, get out of my car, and notice that I’m in the middle of a space big enough for two vehicles. I hate people who do that, so I get back in, and pull up closer to the car in front, nevertheless leaving ample room for that car to exit. Another thing I hate is to be wedged into a parking spot.
As I’m walking away, a woman — well-dressed, middle-aged, white — accosts me on the sidewalk. “If you move back a bit, it’ll be easier for me to get out,” she says.
“Oh,” I respond, “I just wanted to leave enough space for someone else to park.” I glance at the distance between our cars and also at the space ahead of her car; she hasn’t been squeezed in on either side. “You can get out easily,” I add, and hurry off.
When I return to my car some time later, her little love-note is waiting on my windscreen.
I’m black — well, honey-coloured to be precise, but Canadian society doesn’t allow for such nuances — middle-aged and not particularly dangerous-looking. No drugs, no guns. I was therefore surprised to learn that I embodied a stereotype — one, moreover, that had to do with parking! Who knew? I suppose, as stereotypes go, it’s better than some of the alternatives.
Levity aside, this minor incident is deeply revealing. It shows up Toronto’s multicultural rhetoric for the skin-deep illusion that it is. My antagonist may just have been an unpleasant individual; but had I been white, her note would have been different. Probably still offensive, but without the racist default.
What interests me is how easily she slid into this mode of insult. It is an indication of how close below the surface lies the resentment of the “mainstream” population towards the “others” — a reality which the “others” are perfectly aware of, though no-one talks about it (except the activists). In this woman’s eyes, I am not just uncooperative, or too busy to stop. I am black, unobliging and therefore a “stereotype.” Today a parking spot, tomorrow the world.
Toronto likes to pretend to itself that this sort of encounter doesn’t happen — particularly among the genteel middle classes. Crass racism is assumed to be the territory of Alabama rednecks; here, we intellectual elites value multiculturalism and diversity. Blah, blah. I have no doubt that, had we met in a social situation, this woman would have been all gracious smiles and cordial conversation, the most liberal, open-minded person in the world.
But, anonymous she felt safe to vent. Her note wasn’t about a parking space; it was about the silent, secret resentment that “native-born” Canadians have been forced to suppress ever since political correctness took the place of truth. The same venom can be found in the pseudonymous online responses to newspaper reports that have anything to do with multiculturalism. And Quebec, of course, is the current flag-bearer for such sentiments.
In a way, vile comments aside, I sympathize with these “traditional Canadians.” For the last 30 years, all attention has been turned toward the newcomers: their needs, their fears, their success or failure. At the other end of the time spectrum, the indigenous people also demand attention. Who speaks for those caught in the middle, neither new enough nor “old” enough nor poor enough to merit sympathy and social programs?
In the old days, these people didn’t have to pretend to like the multicultural onslaught; today, they do. The threat of the Human Rights Commission, not to mention social ostracism, hangs heavy in the air. A word out of place can bring ominous consequences.
And so they seethe in silence, with periodic anonymous eruptions. It can’t possibly be healthy — for them, for the newcomers or for the society at large.
Perhaps, rather than all the politically correct lip-service, we should seek out truth. Let people speak, let people answer. Educate rather than punish. Let communication take the place of hypocrisy. I’m sure we would all feel better for it. And maybe we would even start liking each other a little bit more.
#canada is not perfect#canada is not a wonderland#canada is not cute#canada is not harmless (glockgal)