Kwame Samori Brathwaite is the son of legendary photographer Kwame Brathwaite, who, in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, was a pivotal figure in the Black is Beautiful movement. In May 2019, Kwame Samori published “Kwame Brathwaite: Black is Beautiful,” the first-ever book dedicated to his father’s remarkable career. Currently, Kwame Samori is Director of the Kwame Brathwaite Archive and has lectured at numerous institutions, including Cal State Fullerton and Harvard Art Museum. He curated Black is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite, a touring exhibition in partnership with the Aperture Foundation.
Manhattan-born Kwame Brathwaite always knew he wanted to help people. Brathwaite has delivered a strikingly beautiful book titled “Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful.” The 2019 book is an homage to the everyday beauty found within high fashion and behindthe-scenes moments. The photography with in the book was captured by Kwame’s father.
In fact, the book’s cultivation all began with Kwame’s father. His father was a part of a group called the African Jazz Arts Society. The group specialized in jazz concert promotion and would incorporate ancestral traditions, such as African dances.
The African Jazz Arts Society also began hosting their own fashion show in 1962 where women were encouraged to showcase their natural beauty. This beauty included naturally styled hairstyles, African attire and African inspired clothes and jewelry. Brathwaite’s father decided to capture images of these women to showcase their beauty. From then on, his work was all about highlighting the truth that Black is beautiful.
Through an interview by Marcellas Reynolds, dive deeper into the Brathwaite family story, through the perspective of two authors connecting on the publishing of their historic books highlighting African American Photography.
Marcellas Reynolds: We published beautiful books last year—your book, “Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful,” my book, “Supreme Models,” and Antwaun Sargent’s book, “The New Black Vanguard.” Three books that cover the same topic, Black successes in fashion and photography. They’re each different, yet beautifully complement each other. When I view the “Best Of” lists and press for my book, I always look for your book. I always look for Antwaun’s book.
Years later in 2019, Brathwaite took the images captured during all of those years and preserved them in a book that captured the attention of the nation. Through the book, “Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful,” Brathwaite wants people to know the positive and accurate version of Black history and the struggle that came with the Black is Beautiful movement.
Kwame Brathwaite: I get so excited and happy when I see us succeeding like this whole concept of Black excellence. That’s the difference that’s happening now. What I love about my experience in this journey has been our community. It is: “Let’s go together. Let’s help each other. Let’s bring the other person.” There’s a joy I get from seeing everybody’s success.
Marcellas Reynolds: Kwame, can explain who your father is, his work, and how it tied into the Black is Beautiful movement?
Kwame Brathwaite: Around 1956, my uncle, Elombe, my father, Kwame, and a couple of friends got together and decided to do these jazz concerts. They’d just graduated from high school and were all artists. They called themselves The African Jazz Arts Society. Back then, we were still calling ourselves Negro, but they were like, “No. We’re going to be the African Jazz Art Society.” They would put together jazz shows and concerts for Black people Uptown because we were not welcomed Downtown.
As part of the shows, they decided to do something different. Usually, there would be a burlesque show during the intermission, but they wanted to do something that tapped into our ancestry, like African dance. They were building that bridge back to Africa even back then. As they began to develop these shows, they started following Marcus Garvey and his Garveyism, and Carlos Cooks, the head of the African Nationalist Pioneer Movement at the time. They were adopting those theories; pro-Black, and buy Black, and thinking about Black people as an entity and as a power and strength.
As my father was beginning his photography career while doing these jazz shows, it morphed into recording and documenting the work that they were doing to support what essentially was the beginning of the natural hair and beauty movement. It was also the foundation of the Black is Beautiful movement. That was how this all came about. All the work that he did from 1956 on was about making sure that our people understood that Black is beautiful. It’s interesting because White people treated the Black is Beautiful movement then [as] how they treat Black Lives Matter now. “Why are you saying you guys are beautiful when…?” It has this silent phrasing that, despite what you may have heard, Black is beautiful despite what you think. It’s the precursor to and the foundation of the BLM movement. That’s the foundation of his work. He went on to do amazing things, but that was the foundation of his work.
Marcellas Reynolds: You enlisted some heavy hitters from the world of art to help create “Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful.”
Kwame Brathwaite: Yes! Tanisha C. Ford, a brilliant historian, who is well-versed in African American culture and history, Deborah Willis, the chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging at Tisch School of the Arts, and Hank Willis Thomas also contributed to “Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful.” The beauty of putting that book together was pulling those people together. While I was writing an article for the book, “Mod New York: Fashion Takes A Trip,” I found Tanisha. It was the first piece I wrote about my father. It was mostly hearsay, and I needed someone to back up what I said. I found Tanisha through a previous book she wrote where she did a chapter on the Grandassa Models, a part of the Black is Beautiful movement.
Marcellas Reynolds: What do you ultimately want to say about your father, the movement, and his body of work?
Kwame Brathwaite: I want people to know a positive and accurate version of our history because the Black is Beautiful movement wasn’t just about beauty, image, and body image positivity.
The Black is Beautiful movement was about building this bridge back to Africa and back to our ancestors. They were trying to create a level of support and tell our people to be proud of who you are. Don’t deny that ancestry, or be ashamed of it because that is where we come from, and we are kings and queens.
For me, it’s [about] accurately telling the story. People know my father is kind of a celebrity in fashion and concert photography, but they didn’t know the fine art side of his work or a lot of the social justice work that he was doing. I want to bring those things together so people fully understand the arc of his career and what he accomplished. It’s like having pictures of Michael Jackson at Studio 54, Nelson Mandela at his inauguration, and Muhammad Ali at the Rumble in The Jungle. Diana Ross. James Brown the first time he performed at the Apollo theater. Stevie Wonder when he was Little Stevie Wonder. He [my father] was a photographer at The Apollo for quite some time. The breadth of his work throughout his career is just incredible. I want people to experience and get a sense of his importance.
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