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

Debate about skin tone is often cyclical and absolute — light skinned equals privilege, dark equals rejected.

Still of Thandie Newton in Half of a Yellow Sun (2013)
Photo Credit: Slate Films


"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," 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.

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