International Blackness vs. Homegrown Negroes: Lupita, Chimamanda, Thandie and me

International Blackness vs. Homegrown Negroes: Lupita, Chimamanda, Thandie and me


Esther Armah

“She is very white!” Revered Swedish film critic Jannike Åhlund 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 Beyoncé included a quote from her TEDx talk, “We Should All Be Feminists,” 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…

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…

…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…

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