Day 6

Why the decades-old Black is Beautiful movement resonates so strongly today

Photographer Kwame Brathwaite captured key moments in the Black is Beautiful movement, which pushed back against European beauty standards but was also an important element of Civil Rights and Black Power activism.

Celebrated photographer Kwame Brathwaite was known as a keeper of Black history, says son

Grandassa models after the Naturally '62 fashion show at Rockland Palace in Harlem, N.Y., circa 1968. (Kwame Brathwaite Archive/Philip Martin Gallery LA)

In January 1962, when a group of Black women marched the catwalk in a fashion show at the Purple Manor nightclub in Harlem, N.Y., the idea of celebrating African identity was uncommon.

"People were still referring to themselves as Negro, so even to call themselves African was a point of almost revolutionary speak," said Kwame S. Brathwaite, son of famed photographer Kwame Brathwaite, and director of his archive.

The women on stage at Naturally '62 were known as the Grandassa models, a group of Black activists, educators and mothers representing African culture and style while pushing back against European beauty standards. 

They highlighted their natural, curly hair — a taboo at the time — and wore African-inspired dress, while showing off their curves, recalled Brathwaite.

Hosted by the African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS), founded by the senior Brathwaite and his brother, Elombe Brath, Naturally '62 influenced Black culture not only in the United States, but eventually around the world.

"The Grandassa models were establishing this notion of believing you're beautiful, you're incredible just the way you are," Brathwaite told Day 6 guest host Peter Armstrong.

"It was certainly a point that people then quickly said, 'Yeah, I am.'"

Perhaps the longest-lasting effect of that historic evening is its slogan "Black is Beautiful," a line emblazoned on posters for Naturally '62, which spawned a movement alongside the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.

Sikolo Brathwaite, photographer Kwame Brathwaite's wife, wears a headpiece designed by Carolee Prince circa 1968. (Kwame Brathewaite/Philip Martin Gallery LA)

"If you look at the Black is Beautiful movement … it's the precursor to, honestly, the core principles of the Black Power movement," Brathwaite said. Through the 1960s and '70s, Black Power activists sought economic self-sufficiency by developing Black-owned businesses, and promoted Black culture and pride.

"It's core to the Black girl magic and Black boy joy and all of the different things that we see, and ultimately what happened was you have other people understanding that they can bring their whole selves to whatever they do."

Roots in Garveyism, Pan-Africanism

The Grandassa models, and the elder Brathwaite himself, today 82, were adherents of Garveyism, an ideology developed by Jamaican-born thought leader Marcus Garvey.

As a political activist, Garvey championed Black nationalism and Pan-Africanism, and fought to strengthen the African diaspora in the U.S. and around the world.

Brathwaite, and his brother, came to Garvey's teachings of Pan-Africanism through Carlos Cooks, a protege of Garvey's. 

"They then promoted that ideology, created their source of activism and wanted to make sure that connection that was part of the Pan-Africanist movement was established," the junior Brathwaite said.

Naturally '62, and the Black is Beautiful movement it birthed, was a product of those teachings.

Starting his photography career in the 1950s, Brathwaite's father became known as the keeper. He documented every step of the Black is Beautiful movement, the efforts of New York's Black activists and Black culture for decades.

Photographer Kwame Brathwaite, pictured in a 1964 self-portrait. (Kwame Brathwaite/Philip Martin Gallery LA)

He covered many different areas — politics, art, music and fashion — Brathwaite recalled, including the Rumble in the Jungle, a historic boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman held in Zaire.

"Often people joke, if there was any event that was going on, he was there — almost to the point that he seemed like he had a clone because he was often out and about doing the work to document … African history, but ultimately American history."

Brathwaite captured the 'truth'

As a photographer, Brathwaite said his father always wanted to capture the "truth" of the moment.

"If it's a portrait, to show the reality of that person…. So it was ultimately showing the beauty of Black culture through the work that he was doing to document what was happening," Brathwaite said.

Being in this household that was so pro-Black, so pro-Africanist, so into the beauty of our culture, it was an incredible thing.- Kwame S. Brathwaite

Growing up surrounded by the movement and his father's work, Brathwaite was part of organizing and marching in political rallies, but he didn't fully realize the legacy until later in his adulthood.

"Being in this household that was so pro-Black, so pro-Africanist, so into the beauty of our culture, it was an incredible thing," he said.

"And it was also surprising to me to understand that a lot of households, even African American households, did not necessarily share the same ideology."

Black is Beautiful today

Black is Beautiful didn't stay within the walls of Purple Manor. 

The phrase became a political mantra for the Black Panthers as it was chanted at rallies.

In pop culture, its influence is undeniable. The movement sparked interest in Black-focused magazines like Essence.

More recently, Beyoncé's 2020 visual album Black is King evokes the same ideology, and in a recent campaign for her clothing line Fenty, Rihanna celebrated Kwame Brathwaite's aesthetic and photography.

"When I was coming up with the concept for this release, we were just digging and digging and we came up with these images — they made me feel they were relevant to what we are doing right now," Rihanna told Vogue in May 2019.

Today, the Black is Beautiful movement is once again in the streets, as people protest over police killings of Black people and call for criminal justice reform.

"When you think about those different types of murders, and specifically, the one with George Floyd, it reminds us of Emmett Till and how that activated a great amount of the civil rights movement in the community to become more active in fighting for equality," Brathwaite said.

A group of women from an AJASS-associated modeling group, which emulated the Grandassa models, pose outside a Harlem, N.Y., school. (Kwame Brathwaite/Philip Martin Gallery LA)

"That was ultimately the foundation of the Black is Beautiful movement: it was accepting yourself [for] who you are, but then also we need to have equity. We need to have equality."

Until equity and equality for Black people is achieved, he added, the themes behind Black is Beautiful will continue to be relevant.

"That's why today, as you look at the Black Lives Matter movement, and you look at the way in which a lot of influencers and celebrities and people are really just becoming more active, I think that is the foundation which they are driving that inspiration from."

Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Pedro Sanchez.

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