From Top Model To Black Panther, Yaya Is 'Truly African-American'

Whether competing on <em>America's Next Top Model</em> or acting in<em> Lee Daniels' The Butler</em>, Yaya Alafia has never shied away from issues of race and identity. She talks to host Michel Martin as part of a special series for Black History Month.

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.

Yaya Alafia arrived on our TV screens over 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 then. "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 the show did prepare her for a successful film career. In 2013, she she starred in three films Mother of George, Big Words and The Butler where she played an activist. "Coming from a father who was an organizer in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. My mother did a little bit of work with the Black Panthers," she points out, "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."

As a teenager, 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." But she says that spending time in Latin America while growing up made her aware of how "deep-rooted" issues of "self-hate" in terms of racial identity went. "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 really outraged me because colorism is real too."

"I think unity is in order now," Alafia states. "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."

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