Debate about skin tone is often cyclical and absolute — light skinned equals privilege, dark equals rejected.
“She is very white!” Revered Swedish film critic Jannike Ahlund watches a clip of actress Thandie Newton playing Olanna, one of the Nigerian twin sisters in the film adaptation of the award-winning novel Half of a Yellow Sun by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In January, the Goteborg International Film Festival and International Writers’ Stage Gothenburg co-hosted a conversation between Jannike and Chimamanda in Sweden. The audience laughed awkwardly at Jannike’s assertion. Chimamanda frowned at the description. Critiques of Thandie Newton in this leading role gathered force. Chimamanda was called upon to respond to them.
Half of a Yellow Sun is one of Chimamanda Adichie’s three novels. Chimamanda’s name exploded in popular circles recently when Beyonce included a quote from her TEDx talk, “We Should All Be Feminists,”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hg3umXU_qWc on the track “Flaweless” from her latest album. Half of a Yellow Sun also stars award-winning Nigerian-British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor of 12 Years a Slave fame and African American actress Anika Noni Rose. Rose stars as Olanna’s fraternal twin, Kainene.
Chimamanda seized the opportunity that Jannike’s comment provided to talk about the complexity of shades within blackness and specific issues of international blackness. The criticism internationally has been that Thandie Newton is not Nigerian and is therefore a problematic choice for the lead role.
Nigeria boasts a thriving film culture called Nollywood, which is independent, multimillion dollar making, and proudly rooted in the most populous nation on Africa’s continent. Criticism from Nollywood asserts that Chimamanda, as a daughter of the Diaspora, could have, and perhaps should have, chosen homegrown talent. The film’s director Biyi Bandele – also Nigerian – is the chooser of the talent, of course, but Chimamanda’s star is shining brightly, so the call to explain the choice of Thandie Newton’s casting has fallen mostly on her shoulders.
“I think if people said she’s not Nigerian, and we object to that – I would be very sympathetic,” Chimamanda remarked in response to Jannike’s comment. “But if they said she’s not black, well she’s darker than my brother. My little brother is lighter than me – and we have the same parents. It worries me that to be authentically African, the darker you are the better……. Thandie looks like what is called “yellow Igbo” in Nigeria. If you were light skinned in Lagos, you were liable to be attacked because you were assumed to be Igbo. There’s an expression in Nigeria – “Igbo yellow” – that doesn’t necessarily have a positive connotation. So, Thandie looks like an Igbo woman. I don’t think any Nigerian watching this will say she looks foreign.”
Chimamanda and Jannike’s exchange offered a moment to expand conversations around blackness, to wrestle within the contested territory around complexion, and to focus on international blackness: its tribes, complexities and contradictions. Chimamanda’s response that Thandie might be considered “Igbo yellow” matters, as does her acknowledgement of the critique that Newton is not Nigerian.
Igbo is a tribe in Nigeria, as is Yoruba, Hausa and Ogoni. The term “Igbo yellow” identified you as the “enemy” during the bloody and brutal Biafran War (the subject of the book and film). Thandie’s light skin as Olanna does not equate to the privilege rooted in the history of shadism and colorism in America. Thandie is not Nigerian – and for some Nigerians her authenticity – and that of the film – wanes precisely because of her “foreign blackness.”
Debates and discussions around colorism and shade in America are often cyclical and absolute — light skinned equals privilege, light is Hollywood leading lady, light is the chosen one; dark equals rejected, ugly, undesirable, unimportant. That is indeed a truth, but it is one of many truths. That is the framing of complexion narratives, and that of the legacy of untreated trauma of America’s history where enslaved Africans had babies by slave masters beginning the panorama of complexion on these shores. Historically, the closer to white you were, the better the treatment you received. Time travel though history and in today’s America that legacy persists, manifesting in celebrity, beauty magazines, and leading lady selection. It continues to be the cause of pain and hurt within and among African American communities, and diasporan black folk due to Western standards of beauty. A recent hour long Oprah’s Life Class on Colorism with New York Times best-selling author and teacher Iyanla Vanzant explored the issue with an audience full of black women running the gamut from deepest chocolate to the lightest of light skinned blacks. Actor and director Bill Duke in his documentary Dark Girls also explored the issue of complexion.
Thandie, who is known for starring alongside Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible II, her role in ‘Crash’ and the Oprah produced ‘Beloved’, among others was born to a Zimbabwean mother and an English father. Her Zimbabwean roots make her African, but for this film and this moment – the critique is specifically about sharing the same tribe of blackness in Nigeria. In America, Thandie is a black actress whose features and complexion follow a long line of light skinned women who land plum roles, are leading ladies, become stars and are the chosen ones in comparison to their darker skinned sisters. That discussion is neither new nor news in Hollywood or global black communities. It is being remedied partially by the bugeoning independent film sector and the work of directors like Sundance award winner Ava Duvernay.
Black beauty and Hollywood has long been a battleground with casualties where complexion has sometimes trumped talent and reflects a history unresolved but living and breathing on the big screen. However, in this case, in this film, for this tribe at this historical moment in this nation, the lighter skinned complexion that often came with being Igbo was not privilege, nor did it mean occupying a higher place on the colorism totem pole. The tribal nature of Africans’ self-definition and the historical significance within those definitions gets lost, because black is so often seen in absolute American/Western terms. Of course, international blackness carries layers,contradictions, politics. Half of a Yellow Sun is about a civil war in Nigeria where your light skin singled you out as ‘enemy’. Today, Nigeria is a nation within Africa where 70% of the women admit to bleach their skin to become lighter skinned – according to figures from the World Health Organization. http://www.aljazeera.com/video/africa/2013/04/20134434151827719.html Those numbers mean that folk are bleaching their skin to become the complexion of Thandie Newton, that same ‘Igbo yellow’ that was historically associated with being the ‘enemy’. So many Nigerians are fiercely proud of tribe, region, country and still adopt a practice that provokes the critique of self-hate. Blackness is a story, a history, an evolutionary space navigated and negotiated in myriad, complex, contradictory ways via multiple narratives.
International blackness may also be privileged, exceptionalized, exoticized where the same features, talent might be ignored had they appeared on the body of someone born, educated, shaped in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn or Detroit or Compton or Chicago. Enter Lupita Nyong’o, the Kenyan-Mexican actress nominated for a slew of awards for her viscerally powerful performance as Patsey in Black British director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. The Yale-trained actress is lighting up red carpets all over Hollywood with gown after gown of fashionista deliciousness. Lupita’s hair is natural and kinky, her skin is the deepest chocolate – her beauty is undeniable. It has also been universally acknowledged and defined as such – and so it should. So far, articles about Lupita have unsurprisingly noted how inspiring she is for chocolate skinned women who routinely haven’t made the cut as cover girl in this particular landscape. Vanity Fair’s ‘Hottest In Hollywood’ issue has often been critiqued for its absence of black actors and actresses. This year, Lupita stands centrally, in gold lame, looking like a chocolate goddess. That kind of cover-girl treatment has traditionally been reserved for bodies and hair unlike that of Lupita – and so part of the celebration, say some, has been Lupita’s unAmerican-ness – her international blackness.
There is work that contributes to expanding narratives around blackness. Scholar and producer Dr. Yaba Blay’s pivotal projects–(1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race and “Pretty.Period,” open up the conversations about the two extremes of color – light and dark skinned – contextualizing, clarifying, honoring and celebrating what has often been divisive, contentious, difficult space. On Dr. Blay’s site, she explains her reasoning for Pretty.Period. a visually delicious website that features darker skinned black women. For Dr. Blay, ‘Pretty. Period’ pushes back against the privileging of a single story in relation to complexion. Blay writes, “We focus primarily on the sociopolitical disadvantages that come with being dark-skinned in a society that continues to privilege and prioritize White/Western standards of beauty. Take for example, Bill Duke’s documentary,Dark Girls. Although it was a necessary documentary and indeed resonated with *some* of my own experiences, something about what I saw in the documentary bothered me. Not because it wasn’t true, but because it was the ONLY truth I have long seen discussed.” Chimamanda’s literary talk, “The Danger of Single Story,” examined the cancer of linear narratives when it comes to the experience of blackness.
Adichie referred to black authors and how stereotypes are perpetuated by the publishing industry because of the privileging of a single story, and called for the range of stories and blackness to be honored, featured, acknowledged and respected. I am reminded of that as I am reading Kiese Laymon’s ‘How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America’. Kiese is a simply beautiful writer whose work is rooted in a Mississippi Southern black experience and tradition. I find home in his specific experience of blackness, and as a reader I become connected to his words and work. At a February NYU talk, Kiese was asked about expanding the blackness on the page of his work and including the Diaspora. I thought again about Chimamanda’s call to appreciate the multiple narratives around blackness and wondered why he should necessarily write about any other notion of blackness, other than his root, his branch, his taste, his relationship.
There is the honoring versus privileging of regional, tribal, geographical blackness. In Accra, the capital of Ghana, my Ghanaian friend once asked me what is Black History Month? Her African American friends – now relocated and living in Accra, Ghana – had told her February was Black History Month. For my friend, who was born and raised in a nation that is black, that was a bizarre concept. I understood her lens, I also understood her African American friends. I have not stopped celebrating my tribal and cultural specifics now that I live in New York, we carry our version of blackness with us, it is an intimate, committed, sometimes troubled, sometimes troublesome, often beautiful relationship. The issue is we are less willing to honor each other’s blackness, and too prone to require that our blackness be privileged. Across the Diaspora and right here in New York, we do it in our myriad, sometimes comedic, sometimes hurtful ways. West Africans will call out African Americans for a lack of knowingness in terms of history, a painful reminder of America’s history of enslaved Africans. African Americans will remind those same Africans – get stopped by any white authority and ‘you black’. And, across university campuses, some black professors will call out African students who are uninterested in taking their Africana Studies classes – judging their lack of interest as an apparent dismissal of their blackness. We judge each other’s blackness. The truth is we all want our particular and specific blackness to be honored, as opposed to requiring that American blackness be privileged over our tribe, or that our tribe be privileged over American blackness.
International blackness is tribe not just shade; it is cultural capital, political and it has economic and political consequences. In Britain in the 1970s, the term black was adopted in order to gain political power. A range of African, Caribbean and Asian populations unable to get a seat at the political table gathered to adopt and then invest in the term, ‘black’ in order to acquire political representation. Here in the US, work is beginning around the political possibilities and consequences of the expanding range of blackness. In political scientist Dr. Christina M. Greer’s new book Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration and the Pursuit of the American Dream, she writes, “Black groups in the United States have expanded well beyond the civil rights generation narrative, where everyone is a descendant of US slavery, the South, and the black Baptist tradition. This lack of a new definition of ‘black’ has been perpetrated by scholars of race, urban politics and public opinion.” She continues, “One must ask what the future holds for these groups as they continue to compete for resources, negotiate descriptive and substantive representation….” That competition for resources is manifesting in some Black Student Unions here in New York City. As international blacks call for their island or tribe to be respected, resources assigned to Black Student Associations are being divided and smaller amounts are being given to those individual identifications, creating specific challenges around resource allocation.
Here’s one truth, black folk are all home grown Negroes in one space and international blacks in another. In other words, apparent privilege is often attached to location. I’m a Black British chick, a daughter of the diaspora with parents born and raised in Ghana from two different tribes. I have an Ashanti mama and an Nzema daddy. I claim multiple identities: tribe, color, country, continent. I am Black, Black British, British, Ashanti, Ghanaian, African. So, in London, I am a home grown negro, it is where I was born and mostly raised. In New York (where I now live), I am black, I am an international black. I often hear intelligence ascribed to my Britishness by white Americans, and a somehow superior sense of knowing myself due to being Ghanaian and having a mother who is Ashanti and a pop who was Nzema by black Americans. In South Africa, I am simply another black African – another home grown negro – until I speak, and then my British accent affords me very specific privilege among some white South Africans and I then become an international black, superior – in their eyes – to black South Africans – their home grown negroes.
Chimamanda spoke about the multiple identities she inhabits, “I think I’m many things at the same time. And it’s not so much that there is a hierarchy of identities for me as much as it is in different places I become different things. When I’m in the US or outside of Nigeria, I’m African. I think of myself as African, black, Igbo. I think you become a different version of yourself.” This article’s title reveals the ways in which blackness is framed: as competitive, a face-off. Ultimately, the complexity of blackness as tribe, shade, region speaks to a history that is both powerful and painful and continues to unfold and inform across the big screen, on the page, in classrooms and within families. The beauty of blackness is indisputable. What must also be acknowledged is its range and complexity. Blackness is a love story, a history lesson, a horror story. It is a relationship as well as a reality. Black folk are a panorama of a people: shade, tribe, location – those experiences offer rich, rich narratives – when we honor each vision and version of blackness, we expand notions of what has too long been defined as absolute. Who are you told you are when it comes to your blackness? Who does the telling? Who do you say you are when it comes to your blackness?
By Ester Armah | Published in AlterNet on February 23, 2014