Looking at Mr. Brathwaite’s photographs today feels like thumbing through a scrapbook of ads from the “Mad Men” era — except that everyone in them is black. To some extent, black power’s effectiveness as a political slogan owes a debt to how Mr. Brathwaite showcased his subjects. In 1962, when AJASS organized its first fashion show, Naturally ’62, in the basement of a Harlem nightclub, “people showed up, en masse,” Ms. Ford, the historian and author, told me, “but largely because they were skeptical. Because they wanted to see how it was going to go: What are these women going to look like?”
Even some black nationalists among them didn’t wholeheartedly support AJASS’s efforts, particularly the Naturally fashion shows. “There were black men at the time, who could believe the teachings of Marcus Garvey, but still preferred blackness to show up in the form of straight hair on a black woman,” Mr. Ford said. “Then there would have been other men in that community who would have said, ‘These are the most beautiful women walking.’”
AJASS leveraged its relationships with jazz greats and black nationalists Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach to get more attention for the group’s work with the Grandassas. “It’s a big part of how the ‘Black is Beautiful’ message got out to the public,” Philip Martin, the gallery’s owner, said. “It became a household phrase before people even knew where it originated.”
The Naturally show became so popular it went on the road, traveling to the Midwest to affirm a “black is beautiful’ message that was barely evident there. The Grandassas appeared on jazz album covers and booked ad campaigns for African and Caribbean magazines.
In her book “The Global Beauty Industry: Colorism, Racism, and the National Body,” which examines beauty through the lens of gender and race, Meeta Rani Jha saw the Black Is Beautiful movement as a watershed moment. “If femininity is defined by the absence of blackness,” she wrote, “then the role the Black Is Beautiful movement played is one of the most significant anti-racist challenges to the dominant white beauty, destabilizing its cultural power.”
And Kwame Brathwaite helped start it. He and his brother understood back then, years before hair and beauty became strongly associated with black politics, that people, sometimes even black people themselves, were blind to how black is beautiful.