To say “Black is beautiful” now, in certain areas of the country, is to state 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 deeply reverberates throughout 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 Jan. 28 of that year. It was organized by the African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS), a group of artists and activists who had formed in 1956 and included Kwame Brathwaite, a photographer, and his brother Elombe Brath, a graphic artist (who had changed his family name). The aim of the movement was to support and empower Black people to recognize that our naturally inherited African attributes — dark skin tones, broad noses, full lips, and coarse or tightly curled hair textures — in addition to our cultural innovations in fashion, music and visual art, are attractive, desirable and praiseworthy. AJASS essentially fomented a subtle revolution in promoting new, diverse templates for beauty that were not based on the European standards that were America’s prevailing models of beauty at the time.
One of the first things that occurs to me viewing the exhibition “Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite” at the New-York Historical Society is that the movement’s bequest is complex. The Black is Beautiful movement was simultaneously formed in a defensive posture, and a progressive one, using the language of popular culture imagery to make the case that Black people embody their own kind of allure. It has helped make African Americans generally more visible in the mainstream culture: In 1968, one of the first interracial television kisses (this one between a white man and a Black woman) took place on “Star Trek,” between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura, though the scene’s actress, Nichelle Nichols, wore her hair in a straightened style typical for the time.
It’s also placed guardrails around the denigration of Black women and other people of color for their genetically endowed physical traits. In 2007, the syndicated talk radio host Don Imus was fired for calling members of the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, “nappy-headed hos.” Though he was back on the air almost eight months later, his treatment demonstrated the profound consequences of using racial slurs.
Yet, despite this public vindication, the acceptance of natural hair in the Black community is still haphazard. Beyoncé’s Super Bowl 2016 performance, in which she visually referenced the Black Panther Party, showcased dancers with blown-out Afros, and a drummer with natural locks, while Beyoncé herself styled her hair in her signature wavy blond tresses — a look that is likely only achievable by using hair extensions.
The exhibition opens with a famous self-portrait of Kwame Brathwaite staring ahead at his subject, lips slightly parted in wonder, one hand holding the shutter release cable of his Rolleiflex camera. (A print of the same image opens a current 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 has been chosen as a national standard-bearer since he poignantly and elegantly documented seven decades of Black life during his career. The visual historian, now in his mid-80s, still lives in New York, on the Upper East Side, though he no longer photographs.
The show, which is organized by Aperture in partnership with Kwame S. Brathwaite, Brathwaite’s son and director of the Kwame Brathwaite Archive, is arranged in three galleries along an enfilade. There is a mix of social history, material culture (with album covers positioned as wall art), jewelry arrayed in vitrines, dress designs displayed on mannequins, and Brathwaite’s black and white images that are a mix of fashion photography, promotional shots, street scenes and documentary work. These aspects all merge to form a picture of what the then-burgeoning sense of “natural” beauty meant.
Where it gets troublesome is the difference in the ways Brathwaite depicted men and women. There are images of famous jazz musicians, among them Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln and Miles Davis. The men are for the most part dressed in business attire: suits and ties, while Lincoln wears dresses. The men show in their comportment their expectation to be regarded as professionals.
These images are intermingled with photographs of the Grandassa Models. Their name derives from the term “Grandassaland,” which is how the 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 gather from the images that the women are full co-creators of the Black Is Beautiful movement. Mostly, they are presented as paragons of Black glamour and allure, aided by clothing choices, makeup, lighting and Brathwaite’s conscientious visual composition. They come across as passive participants to the viewer’s gaze.
Take the color photograph titled “Sikolo Brathwaite wearing a headpiece designed by Carolee Prince, African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS), Harlem” (ca. 1968). It’s a lovely profile of Kwame Brathwaite’s wife against a burnt-orange background, her bare shoulders and collar bones suggesting nakedness beyond the borders of the image, her gaze lowered, impassive and serene. Most of the images of the models similarly show the women in idealized poses, particularly the gorgeously color-saturated portrait triptych at the end of the show.
I am a little surprised when Brathwaite’s son told me that what the Grandassa Models were doing “was more than the aesthetic; it was about activism.” He added, “They were educators and activists who created content to educate people on the African diaspora.” Only one image — “Wigs Parisian protest, Harlem” (1963), which shows women wearing Afros and carrying placards that urge Black people not to shop at that Harlem store — hints at this history. These women aren’t glamorized by Brathwaite’s lens, and I wish the exhibition had made more explicit their roles as co-developers of the movement.
One other peculiar aspect of the show, which is not at all a failing but a marker of its historical moment: the ways in which Black “natural” hair and style were imagined. There are no photographs of women or men with braided hair, dread locks or extensions. And their clothing tends to be either quite traditional Western attire, typically worn by the men, or African apparel worn by women, which features more decorative and lively prints. Both streetwear and high fashion in the recent past found ways to combine these influences, but the show proves our notions of “natural” appeal and expressions of it are still evolving, and this exhibition is a useful reminder of how limited our palette once was.
It’s a reminder, too, that we primarily judged women along a continuum of attractiveness and men along a continuum of power. (There are a few exceptions here: an image of Abbey Lincoln singing, head high, her body projecting her will into microphone.)
“Black is Beautiful” suggests how much the labor of the Grandasssa models needs to be properly recognized or celebrated. For them the movement concerned far more than merely being “beautiful.” It was about carving out a space where Black culture in all its permutations is understood as among the country’s most noteworthy achievements, and where the great experiment of this nation continues to inventively thrive. Recognizing their contributions may be the necessary next step in the evolution of the movement.
Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite
Through Jan. 15, at the New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, Manhattan; (212) 873-3400; nyhistory.org.