Sulwe, Lupita Nyong’o’s first picture book, subtly celebrates her Kenyan heritage. The main character’s name means star in Luo (Lupita’s mother tongue) and there is an illustration of young girls playing a classic Kenyan jumping game called kati. Sulwe, the story of a young black girl dealing with issues of colorism and self-esteem, is based on Lupita’s Ngong’o’s own life growing up as a dark-skinned girl. Being darker-skinned than many members of her family, Nyong’o learned at a young age that lighter skin is privileged. For example, her lighter-skinned sister received compliments for her beauty while she was often teased about her darker complexion. Nyong’o’s exposure to colorism throughout her life led her to pen a narrative that honors the pain that dark-skinned black girls endure in a society steeped in eurocentric beauty standards.
The book begins by introducing Sulwe’s family members and showing how different their complexions are from Sulwe who “was born the color of midnight.” Her mother, father and sister are “the color of dawn,” “dusk” and “high noon.” At school Sulwe’s sister is given cute pet names while she is called “Darky.” She feels shame, and wants to be as light as her sister so that she can have more friends. She tries to change her color by rubbing her skin with an eraser, wearing mom’s makeup, and eating “only the lightest, brightest foods.” When none of these work, she asks God for a miracle “may I wake up as bright as the sun in the sky.” This too fails. Mom tries to cheer her up, telling her she is beautiful just the way she is, that brightness comes from within, but nothing mother says consoles Sulwe.
The magical part of the story begins late one night. A shooting star visits Sulwe and carries her off into the night. The star tells Sulwe the story of two sisters, Night and Day, who are treated differently by their community. People give Day beautiful names while Night is shunned as ugly and scary. Hurt by their cruelty, Night disappears. Over time, the people miss Night and realize how much they love and need her. “We need the darkest night to get the deepest rest. We need you so that we can grow and dream and keep our secrets to ourselves…And some light can only be seen in the dark.” Night comes to appreciate herself just as she is. When little Sulwe wakes the next morning she too is inspired to be herself.
Sulwe’s mother’s idea that internal beauty is more significant and lasting than skin color is noble but one wishes for a stronger proclamation that deflates the Eurocentric standard of beauty as universal -one that declares that dark skin by itself is beautiful, full stop. However, these issues do not diminish the sheer beauty and aesthetic quality of the book or undermine the book’s main idea that all hues of human complexion are beautiful. Illustrator Vashti Harrison’s paintings are exquisite. Her use of a midnight-sky color palette throughout the book ties Sulwe’s world together and celebrates dark beauty. Her emotional renderings of Sulwe’s expressions ably document the journey of an insecure Sulwe to an empowered, confident Sulwe. Together Harrison and Nyong’o have created a magical adventure that reveals a teachable moment and awakens self-love and acceptance.
Reviewed by Vanessa Oyugi, Ph.D., Howard University
Published in Africa Access Review (June 15, 2020)
Copyright 2020 Africa Access