Black can be even more beautiful

To say “Black is beautiful” now, in certain areas of the country, is to state the obvious. Elsewhere it may sound like a deliberately provocative political statement. Both answers are part of the inheritance from “Black is beautiful” movement, which was founded in the early 1960s and still resonates deeply throughout American visual popular culture.

The event that sparked the movement was a fashion show titled “Of course ’62,” held at Harlem’s Purple Manor nightclub on Jan. 28 in that year. It was arranged by African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS)a group of artists and activists that had formed in 1956 and included Kwame Brathwaite, a photographer and his brother Elombe Brath, a graphic artist (who had changed his last name). The goal of the movement was to support and empower black people to recognize that our naturally inherited African characteristics—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 arts, are attractive, desirable and praiseworthy. AJASS essentially spurred a subtle revolution in promoting new, diverse templates of beauty that were not based on the European standards that were America’s predominant models of beauty at the time.

One of the first things that occurred to me while viewing the exhibition “Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite” by New-York Historical Society is that the legacy of the movement is complex. The Black is Beautiful movement was simultaneously formed in a defensive stance and a progressive one, using the language of popular culture imagery to argue that black people embody their own form of attractiveness. It has helped make African Americans generally more visible in mainstream culture: In 1968, one of the first interracial televised kisses (this one between a white man and a black woman) took place on “Star Trek,” between Captain Kirk and Lt. Uhura, although the actress of the stage, Nichelle Nichols, wore her hair in a slicked-back style typical of the time.

It also placed guardrails around the denigration of black women and other people of color for their genetically gifted physical characteristics. In 2007, the syndicated talk radio host was Don Imus fired for calling members of the Rutgers University women’s basketball team “diaper-heads.” Although he was back on the air nearly eight months later, his treatment demonstrated the profound consequences of using racial slurs.

Yet, despite this public justification, the acceptance of natural hair in the black community is still haphazard. Beyonce’s Super Bowl 2016 performance where she visually referenced the Black Panther Party, featured dancers with blown out Afros and a drummer with natural locks, while Beyoncé herself styled her hair in her signature wavy blonde locks – a look that can probably only be achieved by using hair extensions.

The exhibition opens with a famous self-portrait of Kwame Brathwaite, staring forward at his subject, lips slightly parted in wonder, one hand holding the release cable of his Rolleiflex camera. (A print of the same image opens a current study on University of Minnesota’s Katherine E. Nash Gallery: “A Picture Gallery of the Soul,” featuring works by 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, although he no longer photographs.

Organized by Aperture in collaboration with Kwame S. Brathwaite, Brathwaite’s son and director of the Kwame Brathwaite Archive, the show is arranged in three galleries along an enfilade. There is a mix of social history, material culture (with album covers placed as wall art), jewelery displayed in display cases, dress designs displayed on mannequins and Brathwaite’s black and white images are a mixture of fashion photography, advertising images, street scenes and documentary work. These aspects all coalesce to form a picture of what the then burgeoning sense of “natural” beauty meant.

Where it gets tricky is the difference in the way Brathwaite portrayed men and women. There are pictures of famous jazz musicians, among them Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln and Miles Davis. The men are mostly dressed in business attire: suits and ties, while Lincoln wears dresses. The men show in their behavior their expectation of being regarded as professionals.

These images are interspersed 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 got this information from the wall captions, but you wouldn’t know from the pictures that the women are full co-creators of the Black Is Beautiful movement. Mostly they are presented as examples of black glamor and allure, aided by choice of clothing, makeup, lighting and Brathwaite’s conscientious visual composition. They appear as passive participants in the viewer’s gaze.

Take the color photograph titled “Sikolo Brathwaite wearing a headdress designed by Carolee Prince, African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS), Harlem” (ca. 1968). It is a lovely profile of Kwame Brathwaite’s wife against a burnt-orange background, her bare shoulders and collarbone suggesting nudity beyond the limits of the image, her gaze lowered, passive and calm. Most of the images of the models likewise show the women in idealized poses, especially the beautifully colored portrait triptych at the end of the show.

I’m a little surprised when Brathwaite’s son told me that what the Grandassa models did “was more than the aesthetic; it was about activism.” He added: “They were educators and activists who created content to educate people in the African diaspora.” Just one image – “Wigs Parisian protest, Harlem” (1963), which shows women wearing Afros and carrying placards calling for black people not to shop at that Harlem store—this story suggests.These women are not glamorized by Brathwaite’s lens, and I wish the exhibit had made more explicit their roles as co-developers of the movement.

Another peculiar aspect of the show that isn’t a flaw at all, 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, dreadlocks or extensions. And their clothing tends to be either fairly traditional western attire, typically worn by men, or African clothing worn by women, which has more decorative and vibrant prints. Both streetwear and high fashion have recently found ways to combine these influences, but the show proves that our notions of “natural” appeal and expression are still evolving, and this exhibition is a useful reminder of how limited our palette once was.

It’s also a reminder that we primarily judge women along a continuum of attractiveness and men along a continuum of power. (There are a few exceptions here: a picture of Abbey Lincoln singing, head held high, her body projecting her will into the microphone.)

“Black is Beautiful” suggests how much the work of the Grandasssa models should be properly recognized or celebrated. For them, the movement was about much more than just being “beautiful”. It was about carving out a space where black culture in all its permutations is understood as among the country’s most remarkable achievements, and where this nation’s grand experiment continues to inventively thrive. Acknowledging their contributions may be the necessary next step in the movement’s development.

Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite

Up to and including Jan. 15, at the New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, Manhattan; (212) 873-3400; newhistory.org.

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