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This Exhibit Reveals The Photographer Who Transformed A Slogan Into A Movement


When Kwame Brathwaite was a growing up, he and his brother would watch an orator named Carlos Cooke preach from a ladder in Harlem. Speaking about the history of humankind from the African continent to 125th Street, Cooke provided the brothers with an invigorating Afrocentric education. But it was an offhand remark that may have made the most lasting impression. “Your hair has more intelligence than you,” Cooke called out to some fashionable women strolling through Harlem one afternoon. “In two weeks, your hair is willing to go back to Africa and you’ll still be jivin’ on the corner.”

Brathwaite became a photojournalist. Working for black-owned publications, he documented street life in New York. He also sought to empower his people by joining the African Nationalist Pioneer Movement and supporting the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia. However his most profound impact was in the realm of fashion. Through a series of groundbreaking fashion shows and photo shoots in the 1960s, Braithwaite popularized the expression Black is Beautiful.

A compelling new exhibition at the New-York Historical Society traces Brathwaite’s trajectory, and his impact on African American identity through close collaboration with a group of women known as the Grandassa Models. (Grandassaland was an ancestral name for Africa used by Carlos Cooke.) Supplemented with his superb black-and-white depictions of the streets and nightclubs of New York, the Grandassa photographs show Brathwaite’s underappreciated historical influence in terms that are visually timeless.

It all began when Brathwaite and his brother organized Naturally ‘62: The Original African Coiffure and Fashion Extravaganza Designed to Restore Our Racial Pride and Standards. Held at the Purple Manor in Harlem on the evening of January 28, 1962, the runway show was inspired in part by Cooke, emphasizing hair that was “willing to go back to Africa” in defiance of Eurocentric beauty standards inflicted on black women by American media. The clothing and accessories also had African roots. So many people showed up that the brothers had to run through the program twice.

However the triumph was brief. The next morning, the model who’d won the beauty pageant came to pick up her prize with her hair straightened, explaining that the natural hair she’d flaunted the night before would get her into trouble at work.

Brathwaite responded by making the extravaganza into a regular event. The models, all of whom were community activists, also posed in public settings such as political rallies and street fairs, which Brathwaite used as backdrops for fashion photography that broadcast the beauty of blackness. Natural hair and garments from Africa were normalized through the everyday settings while simultaneously being exalted through the aura of fashion. One of Brathwaite’s accomplishments was to unify these contrasting vernaculars: His photographs proclaimed that embracing racial pride was both desirable and inevitable.

Six decades after The Original African Coiffure and Fashion Extravaganza, Brathwaite’s vision may seem naïve. Natural hair will no longer jeopardize a woman’s job in Manhattan, but racism remains rampant throughout the United States. In many places, dark skin is still a target of white violence.

What is important to understand is that the bigotry of Caucasians was never Brathwaite’s focus. Like Cooke, Brathwaite was foremost concerned with the prejudice of blacks against their own heritage: their internalization of white peoples’ hatred. The ascent from shame to pride should not be measured in terms of acceptance by outsiders.

Brathwaite’s success can be recognized in the fate of Naturally. Semiannual in the 1960s and early ‘70s, the extravaganza became less frequent in the ‘80s. By the ‘90s, more or less obsolete, the series was discontinued.

However Brathwaite’s triumph is most clearly to be seen in his photographs. They no longer look radical; instead they have the appearance of classics.

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