Kwame Brathwaite: Photographing a Revolution
by Schuyler Price
“The blackness of my figures is supposed to be unequivocal, absolute and unmediated. They are a response to the tendency in the culture to privilege lightness. The lighter the skin, the more acceptable you are. The darker the skin the more marginalized you are. I want to demonstrate that you can produce beauty in the context of a figure that has a kind of velvety blackness.” —visual artist, Kerry James Marshall
The idea for “Naturally 62” was sparked by the annual “Miss Natural Standard of Beauty” contest hosted by the African National Pioneer Movement for their Marcus Garvey Day celebration in Harlem. Kwame Brathwaite, a co-founder of The Bronx based, African Jazz Arts Society (AJAS) was the unofficial photographer of the pageant. Unlike traditional beauty contests, this pageant promoted natural Black beauty, so the contestants didn’t use cosmetics or have straightened hair.
According to Brathwaite, the problem was, a few days later, the pageant winner was walking around Harlem wearing makeup with her hair straightened. In the early 1960s, most Black people frowned upon natural hair considering it to be unkempt. Kwame’s older brother, Elombe, who co-founded and led AJAS, wanted Black women to feel proud and beautiful wearing their natural hair.
The AJAS was a group of artists who hosted live jazz music performances in The Bronx. In the 1950s and 1960s the appreciation of jazz music served as a meeting point for Black creatives, intellectuals, and political activists. The AJAS envisioned a troupe of Black women who would promote natural hair and beauty through a community-based fashion show.
In 1962, AJAS recruited eight women from the community for the organization’s inaugural event, “Naturally ’62: The Original African Coiffure and Fashion Show Extravaganza to Restore Our Racial Pride and Standards.” The name was shortened to “Naturally ’62.” The women were called the Grandassa models. Grandassa was derived from the word, Grandassaland, a term Black Nationalist, Carlos Cook used to describe the African continent.
With the creation of Grandassa models, the AJAS added “Studios” to its name, becoming African Jazz Arts Society & Studios (AJASS). The organization realized that Kwame’s photographs of these Black women with natural hair and wearing African-inspired clothing was a key component to exposing African culture to Black Americans.
In 2010 on the television program, “Conversations with Harold Channer,” Brathwaite stated that the “Naturally 62” event had plenty of detractors. These people didn’t believe that there was an audience for an event centered on Black women who didn’t wear makeup or straighten their hair. According to Brathwaite, one Black man told him, “Who wants to see nappy headed Black b–tches?” Undeterred, the group moved their operations from the basement of Kwame and Elombe’s house in The Bronx to a rented office near the Apollo Theater in Harlem and got to work.
AJASS enlisted jazz drummer Max Roach to perform and singer Abbey Lincoln, who wore her hair naturally, as a co-host. The event was held on January 28,1962 at the Purple Manor, a small venue not far from Marcus Garvey Park in central Harlem. The event was so successful that a second show was added that evening to accommodate the overflow crowd. AJASS immediately scheduled the next show for April 1,1962 at the Sunset Terrace Ballroom.
On the day of the second Naturally ’62, Kwame Brathwaite received word that there was a fire at the Sunset Terrace Ballroom. Brathwaite has speculated publicly that the fire may have been intentionally set. He said that there had been grumbling among some Black hair stylists in Harlem that they’d lose business if women stopped straightening their hair. The show went on as scheduled at Smalls Paradise.
The two Natural ’62 shows and the others that followed around the country were used to educate urban Black Americans about African culture, history, and fashion. The Grandassa models were the ambassadors of the “Black is Beautiful” movement. Brathwaite’s photos of them acted as an important cultural bridge between Black Americans and the African continent.
The Grandassa models’ self-presentation was revolutionary—the natural hair and the African inspired garments. It was a look that was in direct opposition to Western ideals of beauty and the advocacy of cultural assimilation. The popularity of the Grandassa models led to Black women wearing Afros and adopting Afrocentric jewelry and garments. Many Black men who saw the Grandassa models expanded their notion of beauty beyond light skin and straight hair.
As I’m completing this article, I learned that legendary actress Cicely Tyson has died at the age of 96. Tyson was a lifelong New Yorker who embodied the politics of the 1960s. Tyson refused to take acting roles that demeaned Black people. In 1963, perhaps inspired by the Grandassa models, she became the first Black woman to wear her hair naturally on television. Tyson wore a short Afro on the series, “Eastside/Westside” that was set in New York City.
Tyson’s hairstyle rapidly popularized natural hair across the country. Everyone however wasn’t pleased with her appearance. In an interview, Tyson said that she received angry letters from Black beauticians claiming that she was ruining their businesses.
I stumbled onto Kwame Braithwaite’s work years ago while doing research about the Black Power Movement. I found it curious that art historians and cultural critics have rarely noted Kwame Brathwaite’s work or its cultural and political significance. His involvement in the AJASS, the development of “Naturally 62,” and his photographs of the Grandassa models ushered in a radical shift in Black American culture.
It’s also remarkable that AJASS is also not credited for using the word “African” in 1956 as a clear declaration of their political and cultural perspectives. Their activism predates the Black Power Movement by a decade. The Black Power Movement didn’t officially kick off until 1966 with the founding of the Black Panther Party (BPP) in Oakland, CA and Kwame Ture’s (Stokely Carmichael) election as Chairman of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
The BPP and the Kamoinge Workshop, a Harlem-based collective of Black photographers founded in 1962 to combat racist depictions of Black Americans, are better known than AJASS. It appears that the Kamoinge Workshop and BPP used the media as a key strategic tool to document their activism. In comparison, AJASS seemed to have used the media primarily to disseminate information about their events. The result is that the histories and photographs of the Kamoinge Workshop and the BPP were widely archived and available to scholars and writers.
Kwame Brathwaite’s son, Kwame Samori Brathwaite, Director of the Kwame Brathwaite Archive, however is correcting the historical record by exposing his father’s legacy to a much wider audience. He was instrumental in the 2019 publication of “Black Is Beautiful” by Tanisha C. Ford (Aperture), the first monograph of Kwame Brathwaite’s work. Additionally, there have been long overdue exhibits of Kwame Brathwaite’s photographs in museums around the country.
One of my favorite Brathwaite photos is of a Grandassa model taken in 1968 that has been titled “Pat (on a car).” I was initially awed by how regal Pat looks posed on the hood of the vehicle. I thought about how many times I had tried (unsuccessfully) to strike a similar pose in my Brooklyn neighborhood. The image is casual yet her elegantly crossed legs are beguiling. Too often photographers portray Black women as either scowling or bedraggled reiterating the “Strong Black Woman” trope. Pat however is sitting pretty and unbothered in her ‘hood.
Pat also isn’t cooing for the camera or begging for attention. Brathwaite skillfully reveals Pat’s self-possessed power through her piercing gaze. Additionally, the photo is disconcerting because it looks so contemporary. It could have been taken yesterday—the natural hair, bare face, and Afrocentric frock. The visual time warp is a testament that Black Americans’ desire to express an Afrocentric identity hasn’t gone out of style.
In 2019, Barbados born singer Rihanna became the first Black woman to run a major fashion house through her partnership with luxury brand, LVMH. The international style icon found inspiration for the look of her Fenty fashion line from Kwame Brathwaite’s photographs of the Grandassa models. Rihanna told Vogue Australia, “We want people to see the parallels between what was then and what this is now, in a modern way.”
The Grandassa models epitomized the “Black Is Beautiful” movement. In an era of rail thin, White models such as Twiggy, the Grandassa models were curvy with dark complexions. These Black models also designed their own African-inspired clothing and jewelry, which they would later sell to the public. In different eras, the Grandassa models and Rihanna were disruptors in the worlds of fashion and beauty.
“Black is Beautiful” wasn’t a catchy slogan.
The phrase was a rejection not only of the term Negro but also all of the mental programming that asserted White dominance was the natural order. At its core, “Black is Beautiful” was a movement based on a political ideology about the inherent value of Blackness.
Brathwaite was known as the “Keeper of the Images” and his photos definitely captured the zeitgeist of the 1960s. However, in a broader sense, his images were pushing past the status quo by envisioning how fully liberated people of African descent would operate and organize their families, communities, and local economies. This political transformation would require Black Americans to see themselves outside of a White supremacist lens. They’d have to abandon the thinking that they were inherently inferior; this included their natural features and hair.
Brathwaite says that he became politicized in the aftermath of the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. The 14-year-old boy was accused of whistling at a White woman. Brathwaite’s art was connected to the Pan-Africanist beliefs that he adopted from family members, neighborhood artists, and Harlem activists. The son of Barbadian immigrants, he was born in Brooklyn, raised in The Bronx, and he organized and worked in Harlem. His New York City upbringing is relevant because Harlem was the home of Marcus Garvey. A park bearing Garvey’s name is located on 124th Street and Mount Morris in central Harlem.
Garvey was a Jamaican immigrant, who in 1917 formed the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Harlem. In the United States, he is considered the forefather of Black Nationalism. By the 1920s there were 700 UNIA branches in 38 states. Garvey is remembered for his “Back to Africa” campaign. However, the larger mission of the UNIA was to instill pride and autonomy in people throughout the African diaspora who for centuries had been subjected to White oppression.
We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind. Mind is your only ruler, sovereign. The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind.—Marcus Garvey
After Garvey’s death in 1940, his heir apparent Carlos Cooks, born in the Dominican Republic to parents from St. Martin, kept his principles alive. In 1941 Cook formed the African National Pioneer Movement. Years before the ascension of Malcolm X, Cooks was considered the most important Black Nationalist in Harlem and in the United States. A young Kwame Brathwaite was influenced by the fiery rhetoric Cooks delivered on Harlem street corners.
Cooks preached “Thinking Black”, which meant rejecting White supremacist indoctrination particularly its portrayal of Africa as a land of ignorant savages. He also promoted “Buying Black” as a way to support Black businesses and make local communities self-sufficient. Cooks was disdainful of integration and believed that Black people would only find peace on the African continent. The publicity averse Cooks died in 1966.
Brathwaite’s photographs and his political engagement present writers, historians, and cultural critics with an important opportunity to interrogate Black self-determination in the United States and our understanding of Black identity in the 21st century. “Blackness” on these shores is a gumbo made of American-born Blacks descended from the enslaved combined with first and second generation African and Caribbean immigrants. We then have a mix of regional differences and the influences and lineages of Native Americans, Europeans, and Latinos.
Brathwaite and wife Sikolo represent Black intercultural marriage since Sikolo was from the South. Marriages between Caribbean Blacks and Southern Blacks were common in New York City. My parents’ respective backgrounds mirror those of the Brathwaites.
It’s also important to note that over the years, “Black is Beautiful” has been appropriated to the extent that the phase is largely divorced from its original intent. In 2021, a Black woman wearing a long blonde, Brazillian weave is just as likely to utter “Black is Beautiful” as a Black woman with her hair in dreadlocks. Natural hair, African clothing or an African name are simply not modern barometers of a Black person’s commitment to Black liberation.
This determination now lies in whether the Black person has beliefs and practices that promote all Black people flourishing culturally, politically, and economically or whether that person seeks individual success and validation through their proximity to Whiteness at the expense of other Black people. (Remember the Black beauticians who were anti-natural hair because it was bad for their businesses).
Kwame Brathwaite, “The Keeper of the Images,” through his photographs has chronicled an important chapter of our history as people of African descent in the United States. His body of work provides a political and cultural framework for a new generation of artist-activists.
To sum up my own Black identity, I’ll quote Cicely Tyson: “Being true to yourself is key. Knowing your roots and where you come from. Keep that with you always.”
Schuyler Price is an art lover, writer and curator for @shelovesblackart
Images published with the permission of the Kwame Brathwaite Archive:
Grandassa model on car, 1968 (Marcus Garvey Day celebration in Harlem)
Grandassa Models, Merton Simpson Gallery, New York, 1967
Sikolo Brathwaite wearing headpiece designed by Carolee Prince, AJASS, Harlem (ca. 1968).
Grandassa model, AJASS, 1970
Kwame Brathwaite self-portrait AJASS, ca. 1964