She can act, she can sing, she is intelligent, she is gorgeous and she is an author. There is nothing Lupita Nyong’o cannot do! Her sudden shot to stardom was something we never anticipated but is also something we never knew we needed. Now the Mexican-born Kenyan actress has written a children’s book titled “Sulwe” that pushes boundaries, educates the masses and reinforces a strong message of self-acceptance.

The story centres on a girl named Sulwe who is the darkest member of her family. She goes through several measures to lighten her skin because she believes she is ugly and unattractive. It is not until Sulwe goes on an extraordinary adventure through space and time that she finally comes to accept her God-given looks. As a person who did not appreciate how rampant colourism is in our society, I was awed when I found out that a children’s book that centred on such a topic was being released. We are a society that often shies away from talking about uncomfortable topics and one such topic is colourism.

Nyong’o based her book on her own childhood experience and a speech she delivered at the Essence Black Women in a 2014 Hollywood luncheon. If you have not seen the video yet I suggest you look it up as soon as you possible (not before finishing this piece I hope!). You can feel the attentiveness that borders tension as the talented actress delivers the heartfelt speech.

I was not sure how children would receive a book that dealt with such an issue. When I finally sat down to read the book, I had my breath taken away and was floored at more places than once. I instantly awarded it five stars on my Goodreads account. The writing skillfully grabs your attention and hooks you until the very end. Vashti Harrison delivers glorious illustrations that captivate the reader with each flip of the page. Harrison has done many other illustrations for the genre and I am beginning to see her as a force to be reckoned with in the world of illustration.

What makes this book so powerful is that it speaks not only to children but to adult audiences. This is because self-acceptance is a lifelong battle for most people. People of colour would probably relate more to Sulwe’s experience because not only do we as people of colour experience racism from other races, but we also experience a more complex form of racism, known as colourism, within ourselves. The fairer somebody is, the more likely they are considered likeable and attractive to their darker-skinned counterparts. We need more books like “Sulwe” to help us appreciate ourselves and celebrate people of different cultures and races.

Lupita Nyong'o

The theme of bullying is a powerful one because it is an evil that most children have to face when growing up. Sulwe experiences this bullying from her schoolmates because her skin is so dark. When all is said and done we are taught of the versatility of the world that we all share. We learn to be comfortable with who we are and how we were created. The main character is so relatable you feel as if you could be her or she could be your classmate or the proverbial girl next door. When we often pick up a children’s book we expect to come across gentler topics, not one as striking as colourism.

The most touching part of the book is Sulwe’s prayer for divine intervention from the heavens. I can never go through that part without having to pause and recollect my mingled-up feelings for a short while. This part of the book makes you wish that you could pull her out of the pages, hug her and reassure her that she is perfect just the way she is. The beautiful thing about this book also is that we are taught about the true beauty that we must aspire to have, compassion for oneself and for others that surround you. This is a lesson that all of humanity should learn at this time when we are too often engulfed by our personal struggles. It would never hurt to show a little kindness to a stranger now and then, it always goes a long way.

Pushing boundaries is nothing new for society and that is something we see clearly in Ms Nyong’o’s stunning book. Even though the younger readers might not get it when they read it, the power of words is that they are eternal. Hopefully, the words will linger inside of their hearts for years and years to come. So to a world that needed Lupita Nyong’o, we salute her for her unstoppable talents. What next to expect from one of the most influential women from the continent? Only time will tell.

 

Kudzai Mhangwa recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Business Management and IT from the Catholic University of Zimbabwe. He writes poetry, plays, short stories and essays from his home in Harare, Zimbabwe. He is also the founder of ‘Flower’s Touch’, an initiative that aims to provide relief to underprivileged girls by making reusable sanitary wear. When he’s not writing, Kudzai reads or plays the piano.
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