To say “Black is beautiful” now, in certain regions of the country, is to say the obvious. In other places, it may sound like a deliberately provocative political statement. Both responses are part of the legacy of the “Black Is Beautiful” movement, which was founded in the early 1960s and still resonates deeply in American visual popular culture.
The event that sparked the movement was a fashion show titled “Naturally ’62,” held at Harlem’s Purple Manor nightclub on January 28 of that year. It was organized by the African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS), a group of artists and activists which had formed in 1956 and included Kwame Brathwaite, a photographer, and his brother Elombe Brath, a graphic designer ( who had changed family Name). The purpose of the movement was to support and empower black people to recognize that our naturally inherited African attributes – dark skin tones, large noses, full lips, and coarse or very curly hair textures – in addition to our cultural innovations in fashion, music and visual art are attractive, desirable and commendable. AJASS basically fomented a subtle revolution by promoting new and diverse beauty models that were not based on European standards which were the dominant beauty models in America at the time.
One of the first things that comes to mind when seeing the exhibition “Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite” at the New York Historical Society is that the legacy of the movement is complex. The Black is Beautiful movement formed in both a defensive and progressive posture, using the language of popular culture imagery to argue that black people embody their own kind of attractiveness. This helped make African Americans generally more visible in mainstream culture: In 1968, one of the first interracial TV kisses (this one between a white man and a black woman) took place on “Star Trek”, between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura. , although stage actress Nichelle Nichols wore her hair in a slicked back style typical of the era.
It also placed guardrails around the denigration of black women and other people of color for their genetically gifted physical traits. In 2007, syndicated talk radio host Don Imus was fired for calling members of the Rutgers University women’s basketball team “diaper-headed hos”. Although he returned to the air nearly eight months later, his treatment demonstrated the far-reaching consequences of using racial slurs.
Yet despite this public justification, the acceptance of natural hair in the black community is still hit-or-miss. Beyoncé’s 2016 Super Bowl performance, in which she visually referenced the Black Panther Party, featured dancers with blown-out Afros and a drummer with natural highlights, while Beyoncé herself styled her hair in her signature wavy blonde braids – a look that’s probably only achievable using hair extensions.
The exhibition opens with a famous self-portrait of Kwame Brathwaite staring intently at his subject, lips slightly parted in wonder, one hand clutching the release cable of his Rolleiflex camera. (A print of the same image opens an ongoing survey at the University of Minnesota’s Katherine E. Nash Gallery: “A Picture Gallery of the Soul,” featuring the work of 100 black artists.) Brathwaite was chosen as the door -national flag since poignantly and elegantly documenting seven decades of black life during his career. The visual historian, now in his 80s, still lives in New York’s Upper East Side, although he no longer takes photographs.
The exhibition, curated by Aperture in partnership with Kwame S. Brathwaite, Brathwaite’s son and director of the Kwame Brathwaite Archives, is held in three galleries along an enfilade. There’s a mix of social history, material culture (with album covers positioned as wall art), jewelry displayed in display cases, clothing designs displayed on mannequins, and black-and-white images of Brathwaite. which are a mixture of fashion photography, promotional photos, street scenes. and documentary work. These aspects all coalesce to form a picture of what the emerging sense of “natural” beauty meant then.
Where it gets awkward is the difference in how Brathwaite portrayed men and women. There are images of famous jazz musicians, including Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln and Miles Davis. The men are mostly dressed in business attire: suits and ties, while Lincoln wears dresses. Men show in their behavior their expectation to be seen as professionals.
These images are mixed with photographs of the Grandassa models. Their name derives from the term “Grandassaland”, which is how black nationalist Carlos A. Cooks, whose teachings Kwame and his group followed, referred to Africa.
I gleaned this information from the wall texts, but you won’t guess from the images that women are full-fledged co-creators of the Black Is Beautiful movement. For the most part, they’re presented as paragons of black glamor and allure, aided by Brathwaite’s careful clothing choices, makeup, lighting, and visual composition. They appear as passive participants to the gaze of the viewer.
Take the color photograph titled “Sikolo Brathwaite wearing headphones designed by Carolee Prince, African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS), Harlem” (circa 1968). It’s a lovely profile of Kwame Brathwaite’s wife against a burnt orange background, her bare shoulders and collarbones suggesting nudity beyond the picture borders, her gaze downcast, impassive and serene. Most of the images of the models similarly show the women in idealized poses, especially the beautifully color-saturated portrait triptych at the end of the show.
I was a little surprised when Brathwaite’s son told me that what the Grandassa models did “was more than aesthetics; it was about activism. He added, “They were educators and activists who created content to educate people about the African Diaspora.” Only one image — “Wigs Parisian protest, Harlem” (1963), which shows women wearing Afros and carrying signs urging black people not to shop at this Harlem store — alludes to this story. These women are not glamorized by Brathwaite’s lens, and I wish the exhibition had made their roles as co-developers of the movement more explicit.
Another peculiarity of the show, which is not at all a fault but a marker of its historical moment: the way in which the black “natural” hair and style were imagined. There are no photographs of women or men with braided hair, dreadlocks or extensions. And their clothes tend to be either fairly traditional Western clothes, usually worn by men, or African clothes worn by women, which feature more decorative and lively prints. Streetwear and high fashion in the recent past have found ways to combine these influences, but the show proves that our notions of “natural” appeal and its expressions are still evolving, and this exhibit is a helpful reminder of the limitation of our palette.
It also reminds us that we primarily judged women on an attractiveness continuum and men on a power continuum. (There are a few exceptions here: an image of Abbey Lincoln singing, head held high, his body projecting his will into the microphone.)
“Black is Beautiful” suggests how the work of Grandasssa models should be properly recognized or celebrated. For them, movement was about more than just being “beautiful.” It was about carving out a space where black culture in all its permutations is understood as one of the country’s most remarkable achievements, and where this nation’s great experience continues to thrive in inventive ways. Recognizing their contributions may be the next necessary step in the evolution of the movement.
Black is beautiful: the photography of Kwame Brathwaite
Until January 15, at the New York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, Manhattan; (212) 873-3400; nyhistory.org.