Yaya Alafia arrived on TV screens more than a decade ago as Yaya DaCosta, the young model proud of her African and Latina roots in Season 3 of America's Next Top Model. But, as she tells NPR's Michel Martin, she has come a long way since competing on the series. "I have practiced such deliberate amnesia when it came to that show," she admits. "Just hearing my voice at such a young, vulnerable age, forced into this other world that I wasn't prepared for."
But that experience did prepare her for a successful film career. In 2013, she starred in three films: Mother of George, Big Words and The Butler, in which she played a Black Panther.
"[My father] was an organizer in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. My mother did a little bit of work with the Black Panthers," she says. "It felt kind of natural for me going on that audition."
A graduate in Africana studies and international relations from Brown University, Alafia celebrates the fact that she is "one of those Africans in America that's kind of a mutt, for lack of a better word." And although her roots stretch from Nigeria to Brazil, she believes that "when people start to get a little too specific, it serves as a divisive tactic."
Originally from Harlem, she spent a trimester of high school abroad in the Dominican Republic. She says her experience there made her aware of complicated issues involving racial identity. "I didn't realize how deep-rooted the brainwashing went and how much self-hate there was. ... My host mother would yell at me, saying ... 'You're going to burn out there, don't get too dark, you could be so pretty.' And that really had an effect on me."
Later, when she studied in Brazil, she says, she identified with her Latina side more. "It made me samba even harder," she remembers, "and even when I was living in Brazil, I made a point to not speak English and to demand the respect" that darker-skinned people were not getting.
"My neighborhood consisted of only lighter-skinned Brazilians, and so if you were darker than a paper bag, you're either poor, you were begging on the street, you were in the favela next door," she explains. "It made me connect and want to make change, even if it just meant changing the hearts and minds of people in my neighborhood. ... But, yeah, it really outraged me because colorism is real, too."
"I think unity is in order now," Alafia states. "I feel at home in a lot of places, but I am truly an African-American."
Tell Me More is observing Black History Month by speaking to voices with roots in Africa who are making an impact around the world as part of a global diaspora.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's February, and it's Black History Month. This year we decided to observe by speaking to voices with roots in Africa, who are making an impact around the world, as part of a global diaspora. You might remember Yaya Alafia when she was Yaya Dacosta, the young model who repped her African and Latina roots in season three of "America's Next Top Model." She has since gone on to have a successful film career. Last year, she starred as Black Panther, Carol Hammie, in Lee Daniels' "The Butler." Here is a clip with the David Oyelowo, who plays the butler's son and her boyfriend.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BUTLER")
DAVID OYELOWO: (As Earl Gaines) What are we doing here? I thought this was going to be our community service.
YAYA ALAFIA: (As Carol Hammie) This is community service.
OYELOWO: (As Earl Gaines) Someone kills one of us...
ALAFIA: (As Carol Hammie) Community protection.
OYELOWO: (As Earl Gaines) Are you ready to kill somebody, Carol? 'Cause I ain't.
ALAFIA: (As Carol Hammie) I am.
MARTIN: And Yaya Alafia is with us now to talk more about her career and her heritage. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us, and congratulations.
ALAFIA: Thank you so much for having me. It's exciting to be here.
MARTIN: Now you were telling us - and I do want to mention that the fabulous Angela Davis 'fro that you were rocking in "The Butler" - is that your natural look?
ALAFIA: That's my hair. It can do a lot of different things. But that's definitely - it was coming out of my scalp.
MARTIN: That was definitely your fabulous 'fro.
ALAFIA: That was.
MARTIN: Excellent, excellent. You were telling us that you actually had a background to bring to that role, that your parents were activists. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?
ALAFIA: Definitely, coming from a father who was an organizer in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, my mother did a little bit of work with the Black Panthers, you know, back during that time. So it felt kind of natural for me, going on that audition for that role. I kind of just pulled from stories that I'd heard from them and then, you know, married them with the make-believe world of the movement in "The Butler."
MARTIN: Well, speaking of movement - your heritage crosses continents as many peoples does these days. Your heritage involves both Brazil and Nigeria. Could you just tell us how those two came together?
ALAFIA: Not two, I'm one of those Africans in America that's kind of a mutt, for lack of a better word, even though I have cousins that will say they're Brazilian or - I self-identify as an African in America. I think that when people start to get a little too specific it serves as a divisive, you know, tactic and I think unity is in order now. So, yeah. I'm all about the diaspora and I feel at home in a lot of places, but I am truly an African-American.
MARTIN: Well, you know, speaking of that, I just want to play a clip from when you were one of the contestants on "America's Next Top Model." I'm sure you'll remember this moment because I know I remember this moment because it starts with a comment from one of the judges. And here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICA'S NEXT TOP MODEL")
UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: You have this intensity to prove your sort of African in this, and I think that sometimes it's overbearing. It's just too much. It's sort of a layer on top of a layer.
ALAFIA: In response to trying to prove myself as an African, that's just where I come from. It's very natural to me.
MARTIN: How did you take that comment?
MARTIN: I know that there were many shoes being thrown at the screen in my...
ALAFIA: You know, it's so funny, you say that you're sure I remember that - I have practiced such deliberate amnesia when it came to that show because it's been over a decade. Hearing that felt sad. You know, just hearing my voice at such a young, vulnerable age and, you know, forced into this other world that I wasn't prepared for. So it's interesting because how unfortunate is it that someone was able to even say that? She said it's too much. How could it be too much?
MARTIN: I know, it's hard to envision that term being applied to someone else.
ALAFIA: It's too much for her because she's made to feel uncomfortable.
MARTIN: Do you feel that - I know that you said that at this point you want to identify as an African in America, but I think other people appreciate the opportunity now to be able to express themselves as, you know, African-American and Latina, right, or Afro-Latino, right? And so is that something that you feel perhaps has opened up now that perhaps was not the case 10 years ago when people didn't really understand what that was.
ALAFIA: Absolutely. And it's so refreshing. I mean, at the age of 16, I took a trimester in high school abroad. And I went to the Dominican Republic, and that was the first time - even though I had grown up in Harlem, kind of at the border of Washington Heights where where the community is largely Dominican - I didn't realize how deep rooted the brainwashing went and how much self-hate there was. And, you know, so I lived with a host family, I had five play sisters that I actually looked like so it was a wonderful experience. But every time I got back home, my host mother would yell at me saying, no, you know, like - (speaking Spanish) you're going to burn out there, don't get too dark, you could be so pretty. And that really had an effect on me.
MARTIN: What effect do you think it did have on you?
ALAFIA: It was heartbreaking. And it made me - you know, it's interesting because as a teenager I definitely identified more, like you're saying it's refreshing for people to be able to identify as an Afro-Latina - it made me, you know, samba even harder and kind of - even when I was living in Brazil, I made a point to not speak English, you know, and to demand the respect that people in the community that I was living in weren't getting if your skin was darker than a certain hue because I was in school there so I had a nice apartment.
But my neighborhood consisted of only lighter skinned Brazilians, and so if you were darker than a paper bag, you're either poor, you're begging on the street, you're in the favela next-door right up the hill. So it was very important to me to go into these stores and to be racially profiled and to be disrespected at, you know, the age 19 and to speak Portuguese - and then my accent was great at the time so they didn't know that I wasn't from there. And to insist on service and respect as a Brazilian because as soon as you speaking then they're like, oh, hello, nice to meet, you know, like then they want to help you, then they want your money.
And I was like nuh-uh, I'm going to dress the part and I'm going to talk the part because this is outrageous, you know. So that's the effect that it had on me. It made me connect and want to make change, even if it just meant changing the hearts and minds of people in my neighborhood. And maybe I didn't change anything, maybe I just, you know, annoyed them that day, which is fine, which is great. But, yeah, it just really outraged me because colorism is real too, you know.
MARTIN: Congratulations on the baby, by the way.
ALAFIA: Oh, thank you.
MARTIN: Is it OK if I mention you had a little boy?
ALAFIA: Yes, thank you.
MARTIN: So last year was a big year in a number of ways for you.
ALAFIA: A number of ways, yes. Thank you.
MARTIN: Which was the bigger event? "The Butler" or the baby?
ALAFIA: Oh, by far the baby.
MARTIN: Well, finally, it's Black History Month and I was hoping I could get you to pass on some thoughts about what this means or perhaps now that you're a mom what lessons do you want to share about that?
ALAFIA: You know, it's interesting 'cause I was raised in a family that kind of did Black History Month every month. It's hard for me to, you know, get caught up in holidays that are kind of arbitrary. But it's much better than the alternative, which is complete ignorance. And if it takes one month for people to kind of bow and appreciate and learn and study, and for the kids to finally get some information in school, then that's great. But my son is definitely going to get his history year-round.
MARTIN: Yaya Alafia is an actress. She was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Yaya, thank you.
ALAFIA: Thank you. Thank so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.