How a photographer, a group of models, and a fashion show in Harlem kick-started a cultural and political movement that is still inspiring today.
On January 28, 1962, in front of the Purple Manor neighborhood, a large crowd gathered in the Harlem neighborhood of New York. There was a fashion show, an event that turned out to be so popular it was due to take place that night, starting a movement that would forever change the way blacks are presented.
The program called Naturally ’62. Organized by the African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS), a group of creatives that included photographer Kwame Brathwaite, now 82, and his brother Elombe Brath (deceased in 2014), it featured black women who decided to move away from Western beauty standards: the models who paraded that night proudly wore their afro hair; designs inspired clothes from Lagos, Accra, and Nairobi; and their skin was darker and their body thicker than the women pictured in fashion magazines, including black publications. “There were many controversies because we protested why you couldn’t find an Ebony girl in an Ebony magazine,” Brathwaite told Tanisha Ford, author of Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style and Global Politics of Soul in Aperture magazine.
These women were known as the Grandassa models (taken from the term “Grandassaland,” which in Africa was called the black nationalist Carlos Cooks, whose teachings Kwame and his group followed). However, the fashion show was more than just an appearance – it kicked off the Black is Beautiful movement that spanned the 1960s and 1970s. And now, it’s the title of a traveling exhibition of Brathwaite’s work, currently on display at the Columbia Art Museum in South Carolina.
The first models of the Grandassa were also followers of the ideology of Marcus Garvey.
At the time, Brathwaite was known as the “Keeper of the Images.” His many photographs show young black people growing up. “He always had his camera, he photographed everything that was going on,” Ford told BBC Culture. “If you take pictures all the time, think about the archival photos you gather at the end of a year, five years or even ten years.”
During the 50s, 60s, and 70s, Brathwaite photographed many famous black musicians, including Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley, as well as Grandassa models at numerous events. These photographs sparked the movement into the mainstream and now helped us understand what was going on then.
The bigger message
For Brathwaite and his friends, style was always used to convey a bigger message. People involved in the Black is Beautiful movement wanted black women and men to feel empowered both inside and out and listened to the teachings of Marcus Garvey. Garvey, whose idea has survived by Cook, was a 20th-century political activist who advocated for the liberation of blacks through economic self-confidence. The eight original models chosen to be the first Grandassa models are also followers of his ideology. “There were women in the community. They were part of the African Nationalist Pioneer Movement (ANPM). They were writers, stylists, educators who embraced the ideas of Garveyism from the start,” says the son of Brathwaite, Kwame Brathwaite Jr., who has been archiving photos of his father for six years.
“It was empowerment. It was about self-sufficiency and supporting your community,” he continues, noting that the money spent in the black community in the United States does not stay for long. “In the book, there are images where a sign saying ‘buy black’ is in the background. It was part of the lexicon of what they were teaching.” Black was also a progressive phenomenon at the time, as “colored” and “negro” were still widely used to refer to African Americans.
In 1956, at the age of 18 or 19, Kwame founded AJASS with his brother and other graduates of the Manhattan School of Industrial Art (now the high school of Art and Design), where they schooled. The band was a space for jazz fans to play, share and talk about music. They often show performances at the 845 Club in the Bronx. And it wasn’t until his band member’s photo collection inspired him that Kwame decided to start photographing the shows himself, using cameras he had borrowed from his uncle.
The New Black Vanguard is a global movement of young black photographers – Antwaun Sargent.
“Jazz was the African-American music that was being created at the time. It was what hip-hop was to my generation: the music of rebellion,” says Kwame Jr., “it was at the beginning of the civil rights movement. And that was the time when they started to find out who as an individual would they be. “
The World-wide Black Lives Matter protests after the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd in the United States inspired Kwame Jr. to create a multimedia experience in collaboration with musicians Marcus Gilmore, Nicholas Payton, and Marco Bamuthi Joseph using Brathwaite Photos. Together with executive producer Brandon Baker, they created the song “We’ll Breathe,” which was released some weeks back, changing the usual “I can’t breathe” mantra in an attempt to empower black people to take back control of the narratives that surround their lives.
For AJASS, it was Garvey’s teachings that made them focus on beauty standards as well. Every year on August 17, is named Marcus Garvey day, and in Harlem at that time will hold “Miss Natural Standard of Beauty Contest” in honor of this. While contestants were required to wear their hair naturally, AJASS members noticed that winners often came back straightening their hair after the competition ended, as they had to do it to return to work. As a group, they felt that they needed to do something to change the relationship between blacks and their hair, which is why Grandassa models were created who volunteered to keep their hair natural all year round.
And as more natural events unfolded, of course, and the more like-minded musicians like Nino Simone were seen, the more the Afros normalized. But it did not happen without a struggle. “Black women who decided to go natural in their late 50s, early 60s definitely suffered from all kinds of teasing and rejection,” says Ford, noting that black beauticians will refuse to style afro hair. “Many of these women had to go to hair salons for black men, or women like Black Rose, who was a member of Grandassa Models, [and] had to learn how to style their hair.” It wasn’t until the market grew dramatically that beauticians started learning how to style natural hair and creating related products to sell.
Today, black photographers continue to explore black beauty and style in-depth, as evidenced by the recent book The New Black Vanguard, which highlights 15 newly established contemporary black fashion photographers who strive to make the industry more inclusive. “The New Black Vanguard is a global movement of young black photographers working between the art and fashion space to create images they want to see in the world,” says book author Antwaun Sargent at BBC Culture. “One of the most important characteristics is that these photographers don’t necessarily have to deal with the sharp gender divisions that have dominated the history of photography, and clothing becomes an opportunity to create and express identity and positioning.
New York photographer Adrienne Raquel agrees, whose beautiful images appear in the book, adding that it is important that black photographers are the ones who take photos of black people. “I think black photographers photograph other black people with care and attention. We understand the stories of each other and how people would like to be portrayed. “
And black entrepreneurs are still inspired by the Black is Beautiful movement. Rihanna cited Kwame last year as the inspiration for the debut collection of her luxury brand Fenty. She marked the occasion by sharing on Instagram a photo of Brathwaite from Grandassa Models in the Renaissance Casino Ballroom in Harlem on Garvey Day, 1968, wherein the background you can see the sign “buy black.” “When I came up with the concept for this version, we researched and researched and came across these images, they made me feel like they were relevant to what we were doing now,” Rihanna told Vogue.
Brathwaite’s images made many people see and photograph themselves without Western expectations. And Kwame Jr believes his father’s work will continue to inspire people by joking that he is, of course, biased, but their encounters and the stories he told make it hard to think differently. “I was talking at a high school in Los Angeles three years ago, and a woman walked up to me and said, ‘I want you to tell your dad, thank you, because I was 12 when I heard of him, and until then I had never considered myself beautiful.’
Kwame Brathwaite: Black is Beautiful is at the Columbia Art Museum until September 6, and Aperture is releasing an exhibition book and The New Black Vanguard.