Black History Month Heroes You Should Know: Kwame Brathwaite
Happy Black History Month! This is the 17th blog of a series of blogs called “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know”. Each blog focuses on the life and career of a Black American whose life has shaped American history.
The focus of today’s blog is Kwame Brathwaite. Known as the “Keeper of the Images”, Brathwaite is the photographer and activist who popularized the phrase “Black is beautiful” in the 1950s and 60s.
Inspiration from Carlos Cook and Marcus Garvey
Born in 1938, as the son of West Indian immigrants, Kwame Brathwaite grew up in the Bronx (Aperture). As a young teenager, he and his older brother Elombe Brath heard the ideas of Black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey spoken by Carlos Cooks. Messages of “Take back our land!” “Go back to Africa!” “Black is beautiful!” resonated with Kwame and his brother. Together, they joined Cook’s African Nationalist Pioneer Movement (Aperture).
“Black Is Beautiful”: The Movement
A few years later, the brothers became the founding members of the African Jazz-Art Society and Studios (AJASS) (Aperture). The group often promoted the jazz concerts going on at the infamous jazz venue Club 845 in the Bronx. In 1956, at one of these jazz concerts, Brathwaite discovered his love for photography. He began regularly photographing concerts and New York’s Marcus Garvey Day celebration (Aperture). The “Black Is Beautiful” movement really kicked off in 1962. This empowering movement was a celebration of natural Black bodies and Blackness as a whole. It began with a fashion show called Naturally ’62: The Original African Coiffure and Fashion Extravaganza Designed to Restore Our Racial Pride and Standards (Kwame Brathwaite’s website).
AJASS put on many more fashion shows and concerts as part of the movement. Involvement with these shows prompted Brathwaite to create Grandassa Models, a modeling agency focused on capturing natural Black beauty, especially among women (Aperture). Using “Black is beautiful” as a mantra, the agency made all of their own clothes and used their shows to showcase Black fashion. Many of their models were featured on the album covers of many artists from Blue Note Records like Lou Donaldson and Freddie Roach (Kwame Brathwaite’s website).
Since the 60s
Throughout the 1960s, Brathwaite continued his photography. He supplied photos for several Black publications including City Sun, The Amsterdam News, and The Daily Challenge (Kwame Brathwaite’s website). He also became a well-known concert photographer, having captured Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Bob Marley, and Muhammed Ali. Towards the end of that decade, he and his brother traveled all throughout the African continent, working alongside activists (Aperture).
In 2014, Elombe Barth passed away from complications due to stroke. Since his brother’s death, Kwame Brathwaite retired from photography in 2018. He now lives a peaceful life alongside his wife Sikolo in New York City (Kwame Brathwaite’s website).