I was walking through an airport the other day when I spotted the glossy cover. An unabashedly black Lupita Nyong’o, sporting her very own nappy black hair, cropped short, beamed on the cover of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful” issue. Another first for dark black women in American popular culture, courtesy the luminous Lupita. But for the half dozen white faces surrounding her, she looked like she belonged. I smiled back.
As many of our friends will know, Sindiso’s recent blog, “The story behind ‘He’s creepy’” is only half the story. That unflattering, if understandable, impression Sindiso formed of me on our first encounter seven years ago came, as she noted, in response to my involuntary exclamation, “You’re beautiful!” I say “involuntary” because the words – indeed the whole encounter at a hotel in Washington, DC – were entirely unplanned; never before, or since, have I said those words to a woman I did not know. And although Sindiso was not the first black African woman I had ever met, I confess that she was the first I considered beautiful.
So how was it that, seven years before the first unabashedly black woman ascended to the cover of People’s “Most Beautiful,” a pale-faced kid from a lily-white town in New Hampshire could meet a dark black woman from urban South Africa and call her beautiful? It didn’t happen overnight…
I’ll try my best to unpack my journey from ignorance to embrace of the beauty – indeed, the humanity – of black people (beginning with my wife) in five roughly chronological and still-overlapping stages. I hope my story is one of forward progress, but I know I have a distance yet to go.
Side note: For white readers, perhaps a few of these stages resonate with your experience relating to black people? For black readers, perhaps you’ve found yourself on the receiving end of white ignorance, pity, curiosity or the like, once or countless times, and care to share your impressions? As always, we’d love to hear you.
First stage: ignorance
For more than half my life, I have been basically ignorant of black people, their culture(s), their humanity. I cannot tell you if there was a single black person living in either of the two towns in which I grew up; if there was, I never saw or spoke to them. In none of my eight years attending primary school in Wilton, NH do I remember seeing a black student or teacher at our school. During my four years of public high school with some 1,700 students drawn from nine New Hampshire towns, a single black freshman arrived my senior year. Our paths never crossed. I can recall only one instance growing up when I shared a table with a black person and called her by her (Anglicized) name: a Nigerian woman, Debbie, whom we hosted for a short time when I was in middle school. Her visit was memorable but brief.
Put differently, black people were nothing to me personally. They occupied no part of my life. And what I did not know, I could not understand, much less love.
Second stage: pity
Of course, the lack of human relationships with black people did not prevent me from forming impressions on my own. You cannot grow up in America – even in rural New Hampshire without a TV – and not pick up ideas about black people from the surrounding culture. Thus, the second stage in my journey toward “You’re beautiful,” informed primarily through books and occasional news reports, was pity. When I thought about black people at all, I felt sorry for what I took to be the generally simpleminded, addiction-ridden, and violence- or victim-prone black man, and the homely, welfare-dependent black woman who was scarcely even female and anything but romantic in my eyes. White was certainly “right.”
For example, there was the ignorant and superstitious “Jim” in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (I scarcely paid him any mind as Tom Sayer, the pluck young romantic, was my hero in those early years); there was the helpless victim Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird (the righteous Atticus Finch was my hero by the time I reached high school); and there were more than a few docile Uncle Toms. Meanwhile the news furnished a steady stream of ugly reports of black gang violence and criminality, out-of-wedlock births by “welfare moms,” drug-dealing, addiction, and the like. Dark faces and dark feelings seemed to go hand-in-hand. Finally, one early human encounter bears note with respect to pity. Although I can scarcely remember the time she spent with us, Mabel, an African American woman, apparently had a room in our house when I was very young. The single memory I attach to her is of her abrupt and unhappy departure from our home after she had done something wrong. I remember harsh words in the driveway and a sense of general dysfunction – nothing more.
Third stage: curiosity with a hint of exoticism
Not until the very end of high school and my move to Washington, DC to serve with City Year, did black people start to become fully human to me, a source of curiosity with the growing possibility of friendship and even romance. I suppose a measure of curiosity preceded the move, thanks to a children’s biography of Harriet Tubman I stumbled upon in the library in 3rd grade, and the lyrical young-adult novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and its sequels in middle school. A youthful sense of injustice, of the need to right a wrong (think Atticus Finch), had taken hold.
In Washington, I found myself part of a diverse corps where young black people my age both affirmed and overturned my stereotypes. I was intrigued and wanted to learn more about their varied lives, from the black guy on my team who had served time in jail and didn’t have a place to spend the night, to the black girl from a middle-class family who had recently decided to wear her natural hair “out loud,” to another black girl with programming accolades on her way to Harvard. Also during this time, I dreamed of traveling to South Africa to spend a year of service in Soweto, the townships where Sindiso was born and raised. In retrospect, there was probably more than a hint of exoticism and “missionary zeal” in the notion (I had read Joseph Conrad not long before). Instead, I spent the summer after City Year teaching English in southern China – a tale for another day.
Fourth stage: plausibility
Without these human encounters and the curiosity they aroused, I could not have arrived at the penultimate stage: plausibility. To reach this stage, I had to leave the complex and often chaotic world of urban AmeriCorps service behind and enter the academy. Implausible as it was (and is) to traverse both race and class in my romantic life, Yale afforded me a community of black people who were intellectually and often socio-economically my peers. In that safe space, where nothing seemed irreversible and lasting commitments were uncommon, I dated young women of different races and cultural backgrounds. Their experiences and perspectives added meaningfully to my own. Still, their skin was never more than a shade or two darker than mine – a legacy of racial commingling that tragically began with centuries of brutal rape by white masters (as Lupita’s recent character poignantly depicts).
I suppose I owe a modest thanks to Halle Berry and Beyoncé, the only two women of African descent to precede Lupita on the cover of People’s “Most Beautiful.” Although I now lament the fact that scant few photos exist of them wearing their natural “black” hair, their presence in popular culture helped pave the way for me to embrace black beauty.
Final stage: embrace
Thus, the final stage of embracing black beauty for what it is: simply, straightforwardly beautiful in its own right. I think there was something in the air that day seven years ago when, pretending I was the hotel bellboy, I awkwardly took Sindiso’s bag from her hands, placed it in the trunk of her waiting car, opened and then closed the door for her, all with a mere two words: “You’re beautiful.” Never before had I said so little and meant so much.
The truth is, I cannot say I had ever noticed a dark black woman before Sindiso, much less considered her beautiful. I’m not sure I could have gotten there without a nudge from above :) But thanks to a peculiar sequence of encounters after I left home, especially at City Year and Yale, I know that white is not the only “right.” A wider swath of God’s humanity has become human, even family, to me now. Not to mention I have found the love of my life, who just so happens to be black – Lupita Nyong’o black. And as People magazine “made public” to the world last week, black is also beautiful.