Pharrell is right: Happy comes in all shades

Pharrell Williams should be all smiles right about now.

He’s performing “Happy” at the Oscars on Sunday, nominated for best original song. This week, his feel-good anthem from the “Despicable Me 2” soundtrack snagged the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. And the producer-singer-rapper’s album, “GIRL,” streaming on iTunes Radio, comes out on Monday.

Unfortunately, his album cover is bringing up unhappy feelings. It shows Pharrell, wearing a white robe and shades, standing next to three women, all of them wearing white robes and shades. Something about the font and the nonchalant vibe reminded me of HBO’s “Girls.” The blogosphere saw something else: a lack of black women.

Initially, I didn’t get it. I thought one or two of the women looked mixed, like me. But in a world where dark-skinned women are not always celebrated and the doll test of the 1940s still finds black dolls less appealing to children today, it’s important to see all shades represented in art and entertainment.

However, the responsibility to celebrate beauty in all colors and sizes does not rest solely on Pharrell’s shoulders. I have been listening to his music and watching his videos for years, and he doesn’t discriminate. But the backlash got so out of hand this week that he finally confirmed that the woman standing closest to him in the cover shot is indeed black.

He is disheartened by the dialogue. He doesn’t like the idea that black is identified as a certain shade.

“It’s just unfortunate because it’s 2014 and we have a president (who’s black),” he tells


. “Is this what it is? Is it because she’s not brown? I don’t feel funny about our president because he is what



“Meanwhile, has anybody forgotten that I’m black myself? I wake up every day and I wave the black flag. Everything that I’m doing.”

I understand his frustration. But when you think about black beauty in America, as celebrated by movies and magazines, a very clear picture is being drawn. Halle Berry, Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, Kerry Washington — universally hailed as gorgeous, talented and sexy. They are all light-skinned. Janelle Monae? Light-skinned.

We don’t often see a dark-skinned woman universally celebrated as a beauty icon — Grace Jones, Alek Wek and Naomi Campbell are the rare exceptions in America’s narrow concept of beauty.

Oprah, for all her smarts and success, told Essence she never viewed herself as sexy. She said it was an acting challenge to evoke sexiness when she played Gloria in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”

Magazines don’t show her brand of sexy. She didn’t grow up seeing women who look like her. Things are changing. Black beauty and sex appeal come in all shades. And that is finally being seen in fashion mags, movies, music and on TV — even in the White House. Light skin is not the holy grail of black beauty. Tika Sumpter, Gabrielle Union, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Obama: beautiful.

People are so busy taking shots at Pharrell, they aren’t looking at how far we have come. I know, we still have a long way to go. But for Sunday’s Academy Awards, clap along as Pharrell sings his happy song.

Clap for Lupita Nyong’o, too. While the Internet is busy exploding over an album cover and the lack of dark skin, everyone is missing out on a moment. Lupita’s moment. For the first time in my life, I am seeing a woman with dark skin and short, natural hair dominate the red carpets and magazines. I haven’t seen this kind of excitement and passion surrounding a black actress since Halle Berry made her debut.

She caught our eye in “12 Years a Slave,” a front-runner to win the Oscar for best picture, and she is the one to beat for supporting actress. Even if she loses, Lupita is winning.

The Yale graduate has become a fashion icon overnight. Yes, I drew the Yale card. Because I want to make it clear that women should be celebrated first for their smarts, their talent and who they are on the inside.

Still, I am not naive about this world that we live in. We give in to best-dressed lists, the pictures and the fashion. For those reasons, I know we all want to see ourselves represented. We want to know that people who look like us are seen as pretty, too.

Lupita longed for that affirmation growing up.

In a


at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon, she says she prayed for lighter skin as a girl. Only pale skin was on TV, she says. Then Alek Wek became a supermodel and gave her some confidence. Even then, Lupita had to take her mom’s advice and learn to love herself beyond her looks.

“What is fundamentally beautiful is compassion for yourself and for those around you. That kind of beauty enflames the heart and enchants the soul,” Lupita says in her speech. “And so I hope that my presence on your screens and in the magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside.”

It’s imperative we embrace all kinds of beauty. And maybe when that finally happens, dark-skinned women and light-skinned women, black women and white women and everyone in between will be able to see the beauty in one another.

Because as Pharrell so passionately pointed out, there is a black woman on the album cover. I can’t imagine how she must feel, to be so discounted. We have to get past the color divide.

I look at Lupita and I see myself. She doesn’t need light skin and long hair for me to make the connection. Maybe one day we’ll get to a point where we can all see bits of ourselves in one another and shine together instead of living in the shade.