“Black is Beautiful”: The Photographs That Started a Movement

“There shall be no solution to this race problem until you, yourselves, strike the blow for liberty,” Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) advised, reminding us that the power lies within. A political leader, publisher, writer, and orator, Garvey understood that words could change the world. “The pen is mightier than the sword, but the tongue is mightier than them both put together,” he rightfully observed.

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Garvey’s ideas inspired generations to embrace a Pan-African perspective of the world, invoking the spirit of the Black Power movement decades in advance. The seeds he planted took hold after his death, finding their way on to the global stage in full glory.

Untitled (Pat at Parade). 1967, printed 2016 Selenium tone silver gelatin print, matted and framed 15 x 15 in., 38.1 x 38.1 cm (image)

Photographer Kwame Brathwaite was born in Brooklyn in 1938, to a politically active family hailing from Barbados. Together he and his brother Elombe Brath, now deceased, joined the African Nationalist Pioneer Movement (ANPM) in the late 1950s. By 1961, they created the South-West Africa Relief Committee in the South Bronx to support the fight for independence in Southern Africa. At the same time, the brothers were producing jazz concerts at legendary locales including Club 845 in the Bronx and Small’s Paradise in Harlem. Brathwaite began photographing the concerts, promoting them, and organizing cultural activities like art shows and African dance performances in tandem, dedicating himself to serving the cause.

Untitled (Sikolo with Carolee Prince Designs). 1968, printed 2016Chromogenic print (C-print), matted and framed 11.25 x 11.25 in, 28.575 x 28.575 cm (image)

But it was a beauty contest that changed everything. During the 1961 Garvey Day Celebration, they observed the models competing in the “The Miss Natural Standard of Beauty Contest.” They came to the stage without make up, their hair free from heat press. Real hair, real skin. But that was only within the comfort of this space. The following Sunday, when the winners came to claim their prize money, they wore their hair straight again. They had modified their appearance so as to not draw attention to their natural selves. The colonization of the mind and the body had finally met its match as Kwame Brathwaite, Elombe Brath, and the African Jazz Arts Society and Studios (AJASS) decided to fight back with a phrase that commands respect, and became an immediate hit as soon as it reached the streets.

Untitled (Nomsa with Earrings). 1964, printed 2016Selenium tone silver gelatin print, matted and framed 15 x 15 in., 38.1 x 38.1 cm (image)

“Black is Beautiful” they said. And they meant it. By any means necessary. Together, they set up an office next to the Apollo Theater on 125 Street, and stated Grandassa Models (named after ANPM leader Carlos Cooks’s term for the African continent, “Grandassaland”). AJASS’s first fashion show, “Naturally ’62,” headlined by Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, was planned as a one-time event but proved so popular that a second sold out show was held that same night. AJASS took the show on the road, appearing at Robert’s Show Club in Chicago and Mr. Kelly’s in Detroit. “Black is Beautiful” quickly went nationwide.

Untitled (Sikolo). 1968, printed 2016 Chromogenic print (C-print), matted and framed 15 x 15 in., 38.1 x 38.1 cm (image)

Brathwaite’s archive is everything. His work speaks to Marcus Garvey’s words: “Be as proud of your race today as our fathers were in days of yore. We have beautiful history, and we shall create another in the future that will astonish the world.”

Indeed, that astonishment is palpable in a selection of works currently on view in Black is Beautiful: Empowerment Through the Lens of Kwame Brathwaite (1962–1975) at Cherry and Martin, Los Angeles, now through July 30, 2016. Brathwaite’s photographs reveal the power of the image to transform the world. Decades after they were first made, they speak truth to power in our day and age. They remind us that history is written by the victors.

Untitled (at the beach). 1964, printed 2016 Selenium tone silver gelatin print, matted and framed 15 x 15 in., 38.1 x 38.1 cm (image)

All photos: ©Kwame Brathwaite Photo Credit: Ruben Diaz Courtesy of Cherry and Martin, Los Angeles.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.