“Black is Beautiful” 50-year Anniversary: A Movement that went Viral Before Digital Technology

AJASS with Grandessa Models, 1968

As we end Black History Month, I want to pay homage to the Black is Beautiful movement that began 50 years ago this year. The belief in many world cultures that black people’s contributions are insignificant and their physical features inherently unattractive, was challenged over a half century ago by South African author/activist Steven Biko in his Black Consciousness testament. A groundbreaking event  that reinforced this consciousness soon became the catalyst for change in the Black Power Movement Black is Beautiful steadily built momentum until it became the proud cry of blacks throughout the diaspora, especially in the United States. And it was achieved decades before Facebook or Twitter.

Challenging European Aesthetics

In 1962, a group of designers, musicians, artists and writers called The African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS) collaborated on an unprecedented fashion event that fueled change in the perception of black imagery around the world, The Grandessa Models Naturally ’62 debuted January 28 at Harlem’s Purple Manor.  The theme:  Black is Beautiful, a provocative statement of its time, with the subtitle,  “The Original African Coiffure and Fashion Extravaganza Designed to Restore Our Racial Pride & Standards. Among those responsible for this event was Kwami Braithwaite, President of the National Council of Artists (NCA) New York Chapter;  Carlos A. Cooks of the African Nationalist Pioneer Movement, models Jimmy Abu Williams and Black Rose Nelms.

Black Rose and Jimmie Abu

Singer/actress Abbey Lincoln and musician Max Roach, were charter members who performed at the events. The Grandessa models challenged European aesthetics by showing off their natural textured hair, full features and no makeup as they graced the runway in vibrant African designs created by local fashion designers. They took Harlem by storm. It was the birth of what would be an international phenomenon.

Abby Lincoln

Black is Beautiful Reaches Tipping Point

By 1966, the Civil Rights Movement rose to a feverish pitch, which propelled the Black is Beautiful  movement.  Given the swell of Black unrest, this was the year the Black is Beautiful event reached a tipping point.  Negroes and coloreds throughout America were proclaiming their blackness without shame or apology.  It’s interesting to note how it trended without digital technology. AJASS designed books, magazines, and pamphlets touting the Black is Beautiful experience. It spread quickly by automobile, train, airplane and ship via travelers determined to shift paradigms. The Naturally extravaganzas toured such cities as Chicago and Detroit. The Black is Beautiful movement soon became part of the radical mainstream. Brothers and sisters of a darker hue were now in demand for TV and advertising.

Nadinola Skin cream abandoned fairer skinned models for natural sisters.

African inspired clothing and jewelry were the rage. Blacks  abandoned hair chemicals and conks for naturals and afros.  Black people not only said they were beautiful, they believed it.

New Movement Reclaiming the Beauty of Blackness

The Black is Beautiful movement lasted nearly two decades but faded in the  80’s. Why did it go out of style?  Did the natural hair backlash in corporate America have anything to do with it, or the Jheri curl  and designer labels?  Did integration, assimilation, or emerging multiculturalism contribute to its demise?

P&G's My Black is Beautiful campaign

Black pride and standards have regressed since the 60’s. Though the current generation have held on to the “Black”,  not all see it as beautiful;  hence the upsurge in weaves and bleaching creams. But despite the backsliding, there is a black light at the end of the tunnel. The spirit of Black is Beautiful is making a comeback through the growing number of  black women who are forsaking chemically treated hair for natural styles.  Black is Beautiful today speaks to women of many hues and hair textures as evidenced in P & G’s  My Black is Beautiful campaign. I have the feeling that this quiet resurgence will have a more lasting impact.

Resources:

http://www.demarketplace.com/blog/2010/01/sankofa-grandassa-and-calabar-magazine/

http://yeyeolade.wordpress.com/2006/12/15/black-is-beautiful-2/

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/SmaiTawi/message/21000

17 comments

  1. pennylibertygbow

    I really enjoyed your article, kindly Penny

    Please feel fee to follow me, I have just created an African American history page that I’ll think you’ll like. I would love to follow you on twitter if you don’t mind, but that’s up to you.

    kindly, penny

  2. Edwina@FASHION+ART

    When I hear young people in 2012 still talking in terms of good hair vs. bad hair and light skin being more valued and appreciated than darker skin, I have to wonder if the whole Black is Beautiful movement was anything more than just another fad, no different than bell-bottoms and lovebeads. Because the parents of adults today were supposed to be the enlightened young people of the 70’s. Yet, our kids and their kids are still talking and thinking in this archaic and divisive way. Somebody seriously dropped the ball somewhere.

    • Ronnell

      As Black people its integral that we foster Black pride by being more connected and inclusive as a whole. A catalyst of the movement was the unity among brothers and sisters of all hues and hair textures and AGES. I think the division among our people and our future generations is the product of neglect, disrespect, general ignorance of those who followed. I agree someone dropped the ball so let’s pick it back up.

      • eldhughes

        We are very divisive today – in all aspects, especially age. I’m glad you emphasized that. Thank you Ronnell for your eloquent comment. This post is one way I’m picking up the ball.

    • eldhughes

      Edwina, it drives me absolutely MAD to hear that kind of talk. But they got it from their family. I remember moving to Chicago from racist Virginia in the 70s and kids my age were still saying “colored”. I had already been indoctrinated in the Black is Beautiful/Black Power ideology. I was mortified to hear inner-city black kids talking like that and generally not feeling the pride of being black. Some parents dropped the ball. But some parents never had the ball to begin with.

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  4. skip bennett

    Dearest Edye, U R always on the cutting edge & are a fine example of the magnificence & timelessness of Black beauty. Thanks for enabling me to return vicariously to the good times my friends & I enjoyed at Carver Hi in marvelous Bombingham (aka Birmingham) 🙂 AL. At the time we didn’t realize how history making our decade would be. Hi to your guys. May your blessings overflow in each area of your lives.

    • eldhughes

      Hi Skip. Thank you for the compliment. I try to find the relevance of things, past and present. As I look back, the 60’s was very much a history making decade. Though I was just a kid, I felt its impact profoundly. Those times shaped my perspective of how I see things today. Have a Godtastic day!

  5. Sulay

    I enjoyed reading this. It seems we have regressed from the togetherness of earlier times. We were united before, now it seems we are split between light and dark skin…short hair or long hair. Wish there was a way to bring back that togetherness.

    • eldhughes

      Yes, that’s true. That’s why I want to bring Black is Beautiful back. What could we do to bring pride and togetherness back to our people?

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  11. Bonnie Sandy

    Today is the 52nd anniversay of that .. . and so many who take the right to wear their hair natural still have no idea of this. Thanks for picking up this … The original link from DeMarketplace no longer exist You can find info and links to other research http://www.bonniesandy.com/blackisbeautiful2013/ , or at http://www.bkfff.com/article-category/black-is-beautiful-50th/ copy of my original 1997 post on the Wayback Machine .http://goo.gl/sWbMJ

    The conversation with Kwame On the 50th anniversary has stuck with me – as has my committment to finding long term solutions. DeMarketplace has now Launched Shopping guide to help those in the Black fashion Niche and an online database with plans to use technology to achive some of those goals …
    http://catalog.DeMarketplace.com and we will be working with artist and designers on all areas – Sourcing | Designing | Production/Manufacturing | Marketing | Retail- {Sales -Fulfillment} | Sport/Entertainment | Innovation | Education | Archiving | Communication and media development.

    Bonnie Sandy
    @BadasseBS
    http://www.BonnieSandy.com/blog

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