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

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.

Further Reading