AFRICA IS A COUNTRY

I just couldn’t help myself. I had to write a follow-up post in response to “How To Say Lupita Nyong’o.” While I think the post is interesting and I liked that all the clips are available to see the repeated mispronunciation of Lupita Nyong’o’s surname, these clips got me riled up for many other and rather different reasons.

It is clear that most of the people (in the videos at least) who pronounce Nyong’o, have given it a go before. However, the bungling of her name is not half as offensive as the problematic nature of the conversations that follow. In fact, why even have a ridiculous conversation about her name at all on these shows? So what. She was born in Mexico and grew up in Kenya and then went to school somewhere else. So what? Migration is now a fact of life. And there’s tons of people like her in most North American and Western European cities, though they’re not actresses and up for an Oscar.

Jimmy Fallon, the one talk show host who gets her name right, spent most of his interview with Lupita discussing her family, going on about their achievements and connections. He mentions (seemingly with great surprise) that her father is a senator in Kenya, that her cousin is on some list of the “20 most powerful women in Africa,” and finally, Fallon completes the family tree by showing an Instagram clip of her younger student brother celebrating his sister’s Oscar nomination in song. All the while, he avoids talking about the reason she is on the show in the first place: her fierce portrayal of Patsy in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years A Slave.”

What young white up and coming actress gets her family tree put on national and international television night after night because she did an outstanding job in a film?

ABC’s “The View” did a slightly better job, but still failed. Whoopi Goldberg asked Lupita and lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor whether they knew about slavery since neither of them are African American. “We are steeped in it,” she added for good effect.

We, meaning Americans.

What an outrageous question. More explicitly since the question came from an African American to two black actors who are themselves part of a diaspora in which slavery and forms of forced labor played central roles. Whether Lupita and Chiwetel know the exact traces of their genealogical roots is irrelevant, as is whether they are African American. Because, unlike more recent historical racial horrors (such as Apartheid South Africa), slavery is precisely that–a deep historical excavation of a Black past that went by and continues to go by as “the bad past.”  Whether you are an African American today or Black British, or from the continent, the legacy of slavery touches you because in some way, your ancestors were part of a dehumanizing project that contributed to where you are today. (Goldberg’s question is also an odd one since she starred in the 1992 film “Sarafina” about apartheid South Africa and must have learned about that country’s deep slave legacy from the mostly South African cast.)

The point is that in every article about or interview with Nyong’o to promote the film or the Oscars, Lupita is made an exemplar of a “beautiful,”  articulate and “special” kind of young black actress. This is by no means new. But what is specific about the way Lupita is being handled by interviewers is how this fascination with her is coupled with how many white viewers of the film just now discover that slavery was a horrifyingly violent system. These two tropes have also become the mainstay in how “12 Years a Slave” is being talked about more recently.

“12 Years A Slave” deserves critical acclaim and commendation. However, most coverage about “12 Years a Slave” focus on is not the film itself, but the lives of the actors who play them in the film. This dismissal of both the complexities that the film deals with and the complicated work of representing and (on-set) reliving the period of slavery, is both deeply troubling and insulting.

Further, the kind of engagement with the film that we have evidenced so far, speaks to a dismissal of work about slavery that has been done on various platforms before–such as literature about Black slave narratives, or visual art or scholarship or music. And these artists and scholars (Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Kara Walker, Yvette Christianse, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, et al), have been working in the field of slave memory, across genres, across borders and across oceans.

Most of the leads are not African American, and neither is Steve McQueen. The fact that there is a different kind of gaze taking place in this film is uncomfortable from a tentative, but predominantly nationalist (North American) position. In this context, many Americans are used to talking about issues that are / have been historically framed as only that of the “nation” and so there seems to be (in American popular media) the sentiment that, “this is only our story to tell.” And because of this discomfort that nobody dares to speak about, the greater emphasis is placed on how and why the leads chose the script, how they felt about playing these roles or did they know about slavery or how to pronounce Lupita Nyong’o’s surname.

Then there’s the emphasis on Nyong’o’s beauty. Words like ‘stunning’, ‘beautiful’, ‘gorgeous’ are used over and over in introductions and descriptions of Lupita. And her PR team is playing along well with promoting the new star in these terms. And while it must be exciting to be nominated for the big awards after your first big Hollywood role and in something as path breaking as this film, the media has fixated on her image and her skin in particular.

So let me conclude this piece by asking: How do we re-memory? Taking cues from the ever compelling memory of slavery in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, I prefer to think of “12 Years A Slave” as a beautifully dignified and artistically moving and provocative work of re-memorying a slave past that continues to be dismissed, as it has been for centuries past. Solomon Northup’s story may be ‘new’ in the details of his journey that we see in the film but the narrative of slavery is not new. We should not forget that. The more we celebrate the topic and not the film as an intervention, the less we are actually part of re-memorying Blackness and more part of the cogs of oppressive racisms that confront us daily, even if we are not literally picking cotton anymore.

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20 thoughts on “What we don’t talk about when we spend time learning about Lupita Nyong’o’s family and getting her name right

  1. Hmm…I definitely agree with the ridiculousness of American jingoism and territoriality over the emotional resonance of slavery, and I have certainly been concerned that the media might be reductive about Nyong’o by fixating on her nationality or image instead of her obviously impressive talent.

    I don’t share the same indignation that media outlets are curious about Lupita’s life and her family in personal interviews – I think she has an incredibly interesting life story by any standard (and one that more young people who share a ‘globalized’ existence want to see normalized or represented in media). I also disagree with the statement “…most coverage about ’12 Years a Slave’ focus on is not the film itself, but the lives of the actors who play them in the film.”

    There has been a ton of coverage on the film, in every gritty detail. If you’re only seeing stuff about the actors’ personal lives, then I’d say you’re referencing a disproportionate sample of what’s being covered. The things that are being referenced here seem to come from gossipy talk shows and red carpet interviews, which I’d only really expect to be shallow in the first place (not many people turn into Jimmy Fallon or The View for hardcore film reviews).

    I definitely agree with the sentiments and concerns here, but it feels like the targets have been placed off-center.

  2. Yea I think the author of this post is somewhat off base. Fact of the matter is, both Lupita and Chiwetel are not American. That in itself is a matter of fascination considering there are plenty of fine black American actors who could done a great job in either of those roles.

  3. Nor is the director American… I’m missing the point. American’s get to make films about everyone else in the world and use American actors but it doesn’t go the other way?

  4. Neither of the lead roles in Long Walk to Freedom were South African, either. These things happen…

  5. Surprisingly the linkage between apartheid and slavery isn’t well understood. Slavery as a formal legal system only occurred in what is now the Western Cape, and the descendants of slaves form the community now known as Cape Coloureds. The settlement of central and eastern southern Africa occurred after slavery had been legally ended in the Cape Colony under British rule; its impact lay in the model of race relations that it had created,

  6. From a wider perspective, the Lupita focus seems to be part of an overall (and rather sudden) “African embrace” in Western media/entertainment/fashion. I can’t help but wonder about the simultaneous timing of all this, and why none of these celebrated Africans, or new Africa worshippers have mentioned AFRICOM… This includes Obama, and like Obama, I can’t help but wonder if Lupita’s “beauty”, style, family (everything but the film’s actual content) is just another distraction. Yet another – very entertaining – diversion putting Africa on this really pretty pedestel, ‘accpeting her’ and all her artistic wonder, while AFRICOM takes over quietly behind the flashing lights. I find it all a little horrifying to be honest, and while I’m very happy for Lupita, Steve et al, I sincerely hope they’re not being using as pawns… the ideal tools in yet another attractive form of media deceit.

  7. Nice read even if I do sway from some of the authors gripes. Gaze is a m**therf***er and we all have it. I’m sure it’s a combination of being black, american, and blah blah…but, 1. her family story is interesting! hey, maybe I just come from a line of slackers, but that type of family tree IS worth talking about in an interview and it wasn’t talked about we’d be saying ‘how come nobody talks about her Senator father!?’ (oh, and migration is not a fact of life for westerners. immigration going on around us, is.) And if the bigger point is that she, as an African, will get this more than white actors, as a hardcore watcher of western tv, I’d totally disagree. When Meryl Streep is on JImmy Fallon he doesn’t talk method acting with her. And when actors do a promo sweep they all get asked the same questions over and over. The media outlets you mention are not offering deep journalism but just satisfying pop culture cravings, which all over the world has the same focus- beauty, style, sex. While the origins of this is debatable that we ALL are presently contributing to this machine, is not. Have you found that non-western, mainstream media outlets interviewing Lupita are more endearing? 2. Yes, learn how to say her name! It’s not rocket science. But let’s put some perspective here. This is not a Lupita is African thing. One word…Quvenzhane. And she’s very much American. And 3. I thought your take on 12 Years a Slave was interesting, but you mentioned the same ole go-to clan for slave narratives, like Morrison. Actually, what you seem to be asking for in a story is not absolutely unavailable–Haille Gerima, Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, and more— we just need to stop only considering who we’re told is only worth considering. I thought 12 Years of Slave at this point in the game was trite. Thanks Dee, for provoking some thoughts!

  8. Thanks for all the comments on the piece! I really enjoyed the feedback and I think most, if not all of the above comments, point out one or more valuable issues about the piece and about the film/ Lupita Nyong’o.
    Just a few things: This article is of course in response to another, which appeared on AIAC 2 days before. Therefore, it is in response to, rather than a specific and isolated argument although of course certain points move away from a standard critique. Some of the above comments take issue with the interviews that I reference and these interviews are embedded in the article I am responding to.
    Secondly, the issue of who plays the lead(s) is always compelling and I find it amazing that so many audiences are perfectly happy when leads from their countries continually occupy lead roles, but as soon as the issue is too close to home (as in the case of 12 Years A Slave), there’s a fascination at the leads being of ‘other’ nationalities.
    And this third point links to the second – the example of Long Walk to Freedom in some of the comments. There was no big hype around British actors Idris Elba and Naomi Harris who play Nelson and Winnie Mandela and I find that highly problematic. Of course this points to the political economy of global cinemas but Africans do not play Africans in big budget productions, as Alastair and Nicolas Patience-B point out. And it also speaks volumes about who calls the shots in global cinema.
    Clarissa, I hear you on many of your points but we do not really see non-Western media interviewers talking with Lupita and I think this says something about which things/ events/ interviews/ narratives are made to ‘appear’ valuable to listen to, to watch, to engage with. And I’m not asking for the story to be different at all. I am suggesting that in our engagement with the film, as viewers, we do not forget that there is existing material of different kinds about slavery and the various tropes around Blackness that accompany that historical discourse. Whether this existing material is the same ol’ variety or not, point is, it exists and that is the larger emphasis. And so I’m also asking why those links are not being made on various platforms.
    Why is slavery being spoken about as a new thing? When it is not slavery but rather an adaptation of an existing book that is new.

    Maybe I sound crazy but when I went to see the film, I was genuinely surprised by the amount of people who, at different points in the film, were crying in the cinema. I could understand the intensity because it is not a happy story and I even tried to imagine some complex issue taking place in people’s minds – the things they/ we never knew. Was it historical guilt? (I am in Britain) Or is it too long ago for that to be a direct emotion? Was it just that it was a sad story?
    I haven’t been able to answer many of these questions and perhaps I am reading way too much into people’s reactions but I simply can’t shake the feeling that whenever racial histories are on screen (and not in a farcical, Tarantino-esque escapade like Django), it sits uncomfortably for a lot of people. I feel that media engagement with McQueen and the leads of 12 Years A Slave, seems to silently echo some of that discomfort in covert and complex ways.

  9. Just because she’s Black doesn’t mean she wants to talk about slavery all the time. If a white actress appeared in a movie about eg- the holocaust interviewers wouldnt constantly make her talk about the holocaust, ignore her as an individual & only let her on their show as a symbol of the holocaust & history of anti semitism.

    And your name is apparently Dee Marco. Maybe people don’t mispronounce your name every time they talk to you, it’s annoying. You don’t think its important because she’s not a woman to you, she’s a symbol of slavery & white racismso she doesn’t need to have a name.

    This website is really bad. If I knew it was you when I clicked the link that brought me here I wouldn’t have clicked.

  10. True point, neither was the teacher in the First Grader (Naomi Harris…. to make it worse, she used a South African Accent, not Kenyan) .. ..Happens

  11. I think a lot of you guys are over analyzing something that NEEDS to be celebrated. Let’s get real. Lupita is beautiful by any cultural standards, I’d even overstate to say she’s one of those rare beauties that are universally attractive. Her talent is also to match. Hollywood sends a lot of damaging messages that reinforce white supremacy, we get it. If we are honest, black women across the world are bleaching their skin and wearing weaves to reach a ‘Beyonce’ standard of beauty. Black men, women, and society at large still reinforce imperialist norms. That’s why seeing an actress like Lupita receiving this type of recognition is a breadth of fresh air. Even internally. I know a lot of black people who are learning to embrace a shade of black beauty that is often ignored.
    But really, there is no need to over analyze something this trivial. Lupita is an intelligent woman. I’m sure she knows exactly what she is doing.

  12. Most fans of Lupita aren’t aware of AFRICOM. Why does everything have to be political? Lupita got noticed because of the dress she wore to the Golden Globes. The people who are her fans are interested fashion magazines not AFRICOM. I’m a fan of Lupita because I like her fashion choices and because I don’t often see someone who looks like me in the public eye. Read her instagram page, that is one of the main reasons her fans like her, no one there is discussing politics. I’m not embracing her because of some western conspiracy dealing with AFRICOM.

  13. And there are plenty of American directors who could have decided to make this movie but decided not to. Yet Steve McQueen decides to make his movie and suddenly everyone is interested in the story and wants comment on how he should have done it. You want to call the shots, make your own movie and put your own money on the line.

  14. I think you are confusing a bunch of different things here. There are people who are interested in film-making and the message of a film and there are others who are interested in celebrity only. The people interested in celebrity only will buy a tabloid with Brad Pitt on the cover to learn all about his private life but have no desire whatsoever to go see any of his films and/or hold a discussion about the artistic merits of his films. You seem to be upset that those in the second groups of fans aren’t acting like those in the first. Well, those in the second group never have and never will regardless of the race or gender of the actor. I have been following Lupita long before all the recent press she’s been getting. Lupita has always made interesting fashion choices and that was what drew people to her on the internet before she became “mainstream”. The film had not come out yet so they obviously weren’t fans of her acting. In fact, she has already secured an endorsement deal with the label Miu Miu. Many of her initial fans weren’t people that would be interested in the issues you are discussing. They just liked her fashion choices. They will actually say they can’t wait to see what she will wear next. That is not to say that you don’t raise some interesting points but to expect the celebrity media to debate the merits of Lupita’s film is like going to a Britney Spears concert and wondering why she doesn’t sing like Mariah Carey. If you want more intellect discussion of this film, I would recommend the Shadow and Act website. Its a place where film-makers and film lovers can discuss race related films and issues in Hollywood. You can also learn about lot of other film projects from the African Diaspora that you might be unfamiliar with.

  15. I was already on the fence about this piece, picking up on a passive dismissiveness of American Black slavery, but I thought I give a benefit of a doubt. Until I read your response and realized that my assumption was correct, particularly this reasoning:

    “And I’m not asking for the story to be different at all. I am suggesting that in our engagement with the film, as viewers, we do not forget that there is existing material of different kinds about slavery and the various tropes around Blackness that accompany that historical discourse. Whether this existing material is the same ol’ variety or not, point is, it exists and that is the larger emphasis. And so I’m also asking why those links are not being made on various platforms.

    Why is slavery being spoken about as a new thing? When it is not slavery but rather an adaptation of an existing book that is new.

    Maybe I sound crazy but when I went to see the film, I was genuinely surprised by the amount of people who, at different points in the film, were crying in the cinema. I could understand the intensity because it is not a happy story and I even tried to imagine some complex issue taking place in people’s minds – the things they/ we never knew. Was it historical guilt? (I am in Britain) Or is it too long ago for that to be a direct emotion? Was it just that it was a sad story?”

    The mere fact that you, as a Brit, were “genuinely surprised” as to why folks might be crying about a not-to- distance past is EXACTLY why those in the Western media including black folks feel the need to ask if non-American born blacks understand the history. Yes, it is protectionism but protectionism from folks, who come to America as outsiders and feel that they can make declarations about the importance or triteness of our history and its stories without consideration of its full impacts for the people, who lived it, were relatives to it and continue to live it. It’s protectionism from black Diaspora, who often times comes to America and admits to having to learn how to be Black but also doesn’t get why “we are steeped in it.”

    The whole paragraph I quoted is akin to telling folks to “just get over it.” Just like this line from your original response:

    “Because, unlike more recent historical racial horrors (such as Apartheid South Africa), slavery is precisely that–a deep historical excavation of a Black past that went by and continues to go by as “the bad past.”

    Nope. Straight up dismissiveness with a side of Oppression Olympics. You tell that to folks, who are literally 2 generations removed from bondage (and much less from the other stuff like Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement), the the fallout that they still continue to experience today is all in the past. You tell that to little black boys, who are being shot to death by racist and by the state. You tell that to blacks who still live, work and occupied segregated spaces. Because what you leave out in your “excavation of the past” is that this entire society was build on the premise of oppressing and regulating the oppression of black folks – I’m talking law (some you think about had anything to do with slavery), social customs, education, trade and the economy (i.e. the history of Wall Street), etc…

    I liked 12 Years. I DON’T care that most of the black featured are non-American born. I too raise an eyebrow at some of the dialog around Lupita. But this “response” is just as problematic as the so-called original offenses.

  16. That’s why seeing an actress like Lupita receiving this type of recognition is a breadth of fresh air.? — because she played a slave in a movie, this is not a beauty award, its a acting award.

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