The activists and artists who started the Black is Beautiful movement, a mid-century call for the celebration of Black features and culture, did so out of necessity. “We said, ‘We’ve got to do something to make the women feel proud of their hair, proud of their Blackness,” said artist and activist Kwame Brathwaite. Though Black fashion and artistic expression have long influenced American visual culture, the fashion and beauty industries have often scorned Black people and promoted Eurocentric beauty standards. When the Black is Beautiful movement began in New York City, many Black models were unable to find high-end work, and the fashion industry’s focus on Eurocentric aesthetics implicitly—and often explicitly, too—told Black women they were either unattractive or undesirable.
So in 1962, Brathwaite helped create Grandassa Models. A Harlem-based cultural group and modeling agency, Grandassa celebrated Black art, poetry, and beauty with annual natural pageants shows.
On January 28, 1962, the Grandassa Models held their first Naturally ’62 show at the Purple Manor Club in East Harlem. At first, the show’s producers were unsure how the show would be received, but, Producer Bob Gumbs remembers, when they saw people lined up to see the show, they decided to put two productions on in one evening. Later, the Grandassa Models put on multiple shows in the New York City area, and the next year they were invited to perform in Chicago and Detroit.
By the mid 1960s, the Black is Beautiful movement had reached across the country, and symbols and aesthetics associated with it helped make natural hair more popular. At the time, many Black women were told they had to undergo damaging hot comb treatments in order to receive acceptance in predominantly white spaces. Both the afro and the afro pick became popular symbols of the movement, helping pave the way for future natural hair movements (though there is still progress to be made in terms of truly accepting and celebrating hair of all textures and types).
The initial origins of the phrase “Black is beautiful” remain unclear. Urban legend has long held that John Rock, a Black abolitionist, doctor, and teacher, coined the term in a 1858 speech, but historical records cannot confirm the story. The phrase itself also gained mass popularity in mid-century advertising. “By embracing traditionally African traits such as the Afro, and promoting African American culture and history, the advertising industry participated in redefining accepted beauty standards and engaged in campaigns of racial and consumer empowerment,” wrote Elizabeth Butcher in a statement for Duke University Libraries digital Race and Ethnicity in Advertising Exhibit.
Though the advertising industry was predominantly run by white men, Black employees created many of the most influential campaigns of the ‘60s. Caroline Jones, one of the first Black female employees at J. Walter Thomas, developed a hair campaign based on freedom and the idea that Black women shouldn’t have to imitate white beauty standards.
Beyond the physical aspects of beauty, there was deeper meaning to the movement. “There was a political aspect to Grandassas,” said Sikolo Brathwaite, a former Grandassa model and Kwame’s wife. “The way you dressed and wore your hair was political. The Grandassas affirmed us.” The models were a key part of the Black is Beautiful movement’s popular celebration of beauty. Through this acceptance of self, as Sikolo explained, Black women and girls found empowerment. Beauty was not vain, but instead a deliberate form of expressive communication.
The Black is Beautiful movement was also tied to the Black Power and Black Arts Movements. Artist Elizabeth Cartlett’s piece “Negro Es Bella” (1969) blends notions of beauty with Black Panther imagery, and in June 1971, Grandassa hosted “The Resurrection of Garveyism Today” show in honor of activist Marcus Garvey and Carlos Cook. Elombe Brath, Brathwaite’s brother, explained how the agency used cultural art to empower models and audience members. “We have a sartorial Shango where our models model to rhythm—in choreographed patterns away from the European thing,” he said. “With Grandassa models, we move away from an individual competitive thing to a group thing. A unity thing.”
Traditional dance and music used in association with the Black is Beautiful movement was then translated in the Black Arts movement. The latter compromised the clear creation of unique theatre and dance styles that still heavily influence performers today. Solange Knowles, for example, paid homage to the 1968-founded African Commune of Bad and Relevant Artists in her stunning piece “An Ode To.”
While the work of the Grandassa Models was revolutionary during the civil rights movement, it continues to be impactful. Despite the wider acceptance of natural hair today, Eurocentric perceptions of “good” hair have largely excluded Black women, a Perception Institute study found. Currently, modern activists are working on the CROWN Act, a legal measure that prohibits race-based hair discrimination in employment, education, and housing. Currently, the act has been written into law in seven states, most recently being enacted in Virginia this July.
Though the Black is Beautiful tagline may not be as popular as it was in the ‘60s, artists today are still empowering young girls and women through creative visual media. In the Oscar-winning 2019 short “Hair Love,” a young girl and her father style her hair together before they go to see her mother, who is in chemotherapy treatment. The emotional film reminded viewers how self-care rituals can constitute acts of love, and how celebrating beauty also helps us celebrate family members and others around us.
The same message of Black empowerment and community was expressed in the fashion world by Rihanna, who pulled images from Kwame Brathwaite’s archive as points of inspiration for her debut Fenty collection last year. As the first Black-owned luxury label under LVMH, referencing the Black is Beautiful movement made a fitting accompaniment to her pioneering brand. The specific image of Grandassa models that she shared on Instagram to time with Fenty’s launch also displayed an important message that is perhaps even more relevant now: “Buy Black.”
Even though Brathwaite’s Grandassa models ceased having shows, their influence on Harlem and pushing fashion to consider the natural beauty of non-European bodies and features remain incredibly important today. The Black is Beautiful movement was a powerful force, and much is owed to the artists, activists, and models who encouraged Americans to reconsider Eurocentric standards in beauty and fashion, even though there is still much work to be done.END
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createdAt:Mon, 13 Jul 2020 15:31:42 +0000