As the Civil Rights Movement and the African Independence Movement came to the fore in the United States, two brothers helped to build a bridge across the diaspora.
While Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used nonviolence to push for Civil Rights and Malcolm X embraced the ethos of Black Nationalism to fight injustice in the United States, Brooklyn-born photographer Kwame Brathwaite turned to the teachings of Pan-Africanism and Marcus Garvey to introduce the “Black Is Beautiful” movement in the 1960s.
Rejecting the standards imposed by Western cultural hegemony, Brathwaite and his brother Elombe Brath embraced African aesthetics, creating Grandassa Models in Harlem and Naturally 62, a fashion show that set the groundwork for a global revolution in fashion and beauty. With the introduction of “Black Is Beautiful,” the brothers helped to popularize natural hair, a full range of skin tones, and African styles across the diaspora.
“I have been called ‘The Keeper of Images,’” Brathwaite writes in Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite, selections from which are currently on view in a major museum tour across the United States. “My task has been to document creative powers throughout the diaspora—not only in our Black artists musicians, athletes, dancers, models, and designers, but in all of us….I have often been asked how I was granted so much access as a photographer. It was the fact that people trusted me to get it right, to tell the truth in my work.”
Born to Barbadians émigrés who arrived in Brooklyn before settling in the Bronx, Kwame Brathwaite and his brother Elombe Brath grew up in pre-Civil Rights New York, when de facto segregation created thriving Black working class enclaves like Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant. “Being Caribbean, the principles of working hard, doing your best, and establishing yourself doing the right thing were their foundation. They grew up understanding from an early age what they needed to do and being proud of who you are in the ancestral lineage,” says Kwame S. Brathwaite, the photographer’s son who has been instrumental in preserving his father’s legacy.
The brothers attended the School of Industrial Art in Manhattan, quickly becoming cosmopolitan teens, coming of age in the 1950s when jazz defined Black cool. As graduation approached, a small group of friends decided to create the African Jazz-Art Society (AJAS), a collective of radical artists, dancers, fashion designers, and playwrights dedicated to Black Arts. At a time when “colored” and “negro” were popular American terms to define race, the group fully claimed their African heritage.
As white nightclubs in Manhattan began to showcase jazz, AJAS brought it back to the community keeping Black money invested in the neighborhood with the launch of Club 845 in the Bronx. While Miles Davis was too big to book, they could secure rising stars like John Coltrane and Lee Morgan. With these extraordinary talents in his orbit, Brathwaite started photographing shows and making portraits of musicians — a skill that would serve him well.
One Aim, One Destiny
As a progenitor of Black nationalism and Pan-Africanism, Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) helped foster a sense of pride across the diaspora. Following his death, Carlos Cooks stepped up to create the African Nationalist Pioneer Movement, promoting economic autonomy and liberation from Western colonialism rooted in the concepts of “Think Black” and “Buy Black.”
Kwame Brathwaite and the members of AJAS received the message with open arms, quickly understanding the ways in which the synthesis of art, fashion, beauty, music, performance, and commerce could serve the cause. They created Grandassa Models, a collective featuring Black models of all skin tones with African features such as full lips, wide noses, and natural hair. At a time when most Black women relaxed their hair or wore wigs mimicking European textures and men sported low cuts or conks, the afro was a radical, political statement of racial pride that stood out from the crowd.
Since colonization, Western depictions of African culture were largely filtered through the lens of racism and imperialism. As Africa gearing up for an Independence Movement that would span two decades, the West continued to promote spurious narratives of the “dark continent,” fostering a divide across the diaspora, particularly in the United States.
Creating a counter-narrative rooted in racial pride and ancestral heritage became central to Brathwaite’s work. “[My father] understood the value of the image and he took on the role as the person who was responsible so that the images that came out were very intentional and focused on showing us in a positive light,” says Kwame S. Brathwaite.
In 1961, Kwame Brathwaite and Elombe Brath opened a studio next to the Apollo Theater on Harlem’s legendary 125th Street, expanding the collective to African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS). AJASS was instrumental in fostering the spirit of Pan Africanism in the U.S. with the launch of Naturally ’62: The Original African Coiffure and Fashion Extravaganza Designed to Restore Our Racial Pride and Standards at the Purple Manor in Harlem on January 28, 1982.
Crowds ran down the block in the dead of winter as people queued up to see an interactive showcase of Grandassa Models donning African fashions and sporting Afros accompanied by the sounds of live soul-jazz music featuring drummer Max Roach. Co-hosts actor Gus Williams and singer and activist Abbey Lincoln introduced looks inspired by different regions and African tribes, while Brathwaite photographed the looks that quickly became popular among the avant garde. The event sold out, and a second was held immediately after because the crowd was still waiting outside, creating such a powerful demand that shows began to travel, taking the slogan “Black Is Beautiful” nationwide.
“Jazz was the Hip Hop of the 1950s. This music was speaking to social issues in ways that resonated with people. AJASS was able to bring the musicians into our communities to play, perform, and create a personal connection, especially when the Naturally shows came about. They became ‘edutainment’ — education and entertainment. They gave you what you wanted and what you needed in a brilliant way, providing fun times for people to gather in safe spaces and develop their political activism,” says Kwame S. Brathwaite.
“They were creating a bridge back to Africa and helping people understand the struggles we were facing here in America were similar struggles happening in countries that were colonized. When people came from Africa to petition for rights at the United Nations, they would invite them to Harlem to figure out ways to support one another. They created organizations to help people understand that what was being shown on television wasn’t accurate. Self-acceptance and understanding the greatness of our ancestors was at the foundation of everything they did.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
"Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite" is on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts from October 8, 2021 – January 16, 2022. The book is available from Aperture, $40.00.