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.
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.
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.
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?
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.