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Conversation with Lupita Nyong’o

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This is a guest post by Monica Valentine, Program Specialist in the Library’s Center for Learning, Literacy and Engagement. 

Oscar-winning actress, producer, activist, and author Lupita Nyong’o recently sat down with Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden to talk about her debut children’s book Sulwe, her career, and her experiences with colorism. Nyong’o defines colorism as “the preference for lighter skin” and it is the focus of her book, which draws on her personal experience of having a younger sister with lighter skin.  Nyong’o recounts seeing her sister’s skin color admired while hers was never mentioned or acknowledged as beautiful, but her mother’s consistent affirmation of Nyong’o’s beauty and seeing other dark-skinned women celebrated as beautiful eventually led Nyong’o to self-acceptance and to embrace the color of her skin.

The full conversation is below, along with timestamps for major topics and related resources from the Library.

Timestamps for Major Topics 

  • Hear Lupita Nyong’o talk about how colorism affected her self-esteem growing up and how she tried to change her skin color just as the character Sulwe does in the book (1:00)
  • Nyong’o reads briefly from Sulwe (2:00)
  • Nyong’o shares how seeing a popular dark-skinned fashion model on a talk show and hearing her called beautiful leads to a change in her own thinking (2:50)
  • Nyong’o defines colorism and recognizes that is not an issue exclusive to girls. (4:15)
  • Hayden and Nyong’o discuss the illustrations in Sulwe by Vashti Harrison and how Nyong’o and Harrison came to work together on the book (5:20)
  • Nyong’o discusses her life, including born in Mexico and raised in Kenya. Hear her feelings of not belonging, and learning to speak Spanish at age sixteen (8:05)
  • The experience of winning an Academy Award for her first film Twelve Years a Slave and how she recommitted to storytelling after early success left her doubting her skills (8:50)
  • Nyong’o and Hayden discuss her roles in films including Star Wars and Black Panther (10:15)

At the end of the video, Dr. Hayden provides a link where you can view all of the Children’s Africana Book Award (CABA) winners.

Explore More with These Resources from the Library: 

  • Read more about Nyong’o’s life, her career in film, and her Kenyan heritage in this blog post.
  • Listen to traditional Kenyan music performed at the Library by the group Winyo.
  • Watch Kwame Mbalia, a 2020 CABA Honoree with Ghanian roots, speak at the National Book Festival about his book Tristian Strong Punches A Hole In The Sky. Mbalia’s book blends African American folktales with West African mythology.


  1. April 9, 2021

    To Dr. Hayden and Ms. Nyong’o:

    Thank you so very much for this interview, it was spectacular and so is the book “Sulwe.” I love the content and I have to say that it is not just a healing source for young children, it has also helped me to feel better as well. I am an adult now, but I was bullied as a little girl about my dark skin, and when I heard Ms. Nyong’o talk about her experiences and then read the book too, I began to put those negative memories related to “colorism” and my own past experiences behind me. I even shared the book with my adult Daughter and told her what happened to me while I was growing up. So remember Ms. Nyong’o, your book is not just for children, it is also for adults. I am glad that God did not answer your prayer about the color change. I love you Ms. Nyong’o, Sulwe, and myself just as we are.

    Once again, thank you and Dr. Hayden very much. All the best!


    Rachelle Warren, Ed.D.


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