The Photographer Behind the ‘Black is Beautiful’ Movement

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Untitled (Photo shoot at a school for one of the many modeling groups who had begun to embrace natural hairstyles in the 1960s) c. 1966, printed 2017Photography by Kwame Brathwaite, Image courtesy the artist and Cherry and Martin, Los Angeles

Brooklyn-born Kwame Brathwaite was instrumental in beginning one of the 1960s’ most powerful cultural movements, a new exhibition demonstrates

On the evening of January 28, 1962, a massive crowd gathered outside Harlem’s Purple Manor, eager to gain entrance to Naturally 62 – the landmark event that introduced the ‘Black is Beautiful’ movement to the world.

The brainchild of photographer Kwame Brathwaite (born in 1938) and his older brother Elombe Brath (now deceased), Naturally 62 presented Blackness in its natural state through a powerful combination of fashion, music, and politics. The brothers, who were born in Brooklyn to a politically active family, had embraced Marcus Garvey’s Back-to-Africa movement and co-founded the African Jazz-Art Society and Studios (AJASS), a collective of artists, writers, musicians, dancers, and fashion designers. “Our mission was to reach the folks so that they could see their own work,” Brathwaite reveals. “It was a time when people were trying to organize and improve the community, to get themselves in order so that they would not be the low man on the totem pole.”

The brothers worked on two fronts, supporting the African independence movement while embracing Black business at home, producing jazz concerts at legendary locales including Club 845 in the Bronx and Small’s Paradise in Harlem. But it was a local beauty contest that gave the brothers the inspiration for Naturally 62. A year earlier, while attending the annual Marcus Garvey Day Celebration, they watched ‘The Miss Natural Standard of Beauty Contest’, wherein models came to the stage without make-up, their hair free from heat press.

Inspired by this vision of Blackness in its natural state, the brothers launched Grandassa Models in an office next to the Apollo Theater on 125 Street. Naturally 62 was the company’s debut event, a fashion show headlined by AJASS members Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach and featuring Grandassa models in natural hair and African-inspired ensembles. “We wanted Black women to take pride in their own selves, in their looks and heritage and let them be beautiful in their own right,” Brathwaite recalls. “We wanted to let them know they did not need to copy anyone else. They could wear their natural hairstyles and have Black pride.”

The phrase ‘Black is Beautiful’ originated with Carlos A. Cooks, a key link between Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X. With Naturally 62, Brathwaite and Brath popularised the phrase and empowered people of African descent to embody a new standard of beauty that transcended the physical plane. “We started the look of the times,” Brathwaite explains. “We started a tremendous movement to do for ourselves and expanding our rights. We learned what we needed to do in business so that we could produce our own work, be independent and self-reliant.”

Naturally 62 was originally planned as a one-time event, but after seeing the massive crowd, they quickly put together a second show, before taking it on the road nationwide. The show travelled to Robert’s Show Club in Chicago and Mr Kelly’s in Detroit, making ‘Black is Beautiful’ one of the most powerful statements of pride during the Civil Rights, Black Power, and African Liberation movements. A selection of Brathwaite’s photographs from this seminal era are currently on view in Mod New York: Fashion Takes a Trip at the Museum of the City of New York through April 1, 2018, and the accompanying catalogue of the same name, just published by The Monacelli Press.

Mod New York: Fashion Takes a Trip runs until April 1, 2018, at the Museum of the City of New York.