Bengi Rwabuhemba

Black is beautiful: the photographs of Kwame Brathwaite | Financial Times

Kwame Brathwaite, Unititled (Garvey Day Deedee in Car), 1965 – Used with Artist Permission

The photograph is dynamic, colorful, alive — but still, pondering, calling our attention, softly, loudly. The dark bodies, kinked and hot-combed heads of the children lining the periphery of it encapsulate this movement, this dynamism. An unseen elbow in the bottom-left frame presses assertively into the hood of the smooth, coral-colored Ford convertible parked momentarily in the middle of the busy road while a nonchalant hand rests on the dark, plaited head of a young girl; her youthful, searching eyes peering into the windscreen of the car. The sheen of the hot-combed hair curled into a weightless braid is its own type of jazz. Its proprietor, dressed in a cream-white blouse and planted firmly by the driver’s door of the car in the right-hand frame, offers an inexplicable stare; an almost, “Who are you?” as she stares pointedly at the camera. All the while, a nimble, childish set of ungovernable limbs — arms, elbows, hands — are strewn about.

I was quarantined when I stumbled upon this photograph by Kwame Brathwaite. Jet-lagged, irritatingly exhausted, and unable to focus on the coursework I had to catch up on following the week I spent traveling home, the photo seemed to jolt me awake. I had never heard of Brathwaite before, but looking at this photograph I immediately knew that I had to find out more about him, his work, this photograph — and that I had to quickly send my eldest sister a message telling her about him as I could see similarities in their work. Art, I believe, is the lineage of humanity, connecting us all by invoking universal sentiments — pain, longing, joy — amid individual and discrete positionalities.

Kwame Brathwaite was a Harlem boy, in the same way that Roy Decarava was a Harlem boy, and James Van Der Zee, and Louis Draper, and Ming Smith, and Deborah Willis. I don’t mean this in terms of geographic specificity or even gender for all of these artists, some of whom were not born nor grew up in Harlem or are male-identifying, but simply by way of describing that they are/were acutely cognizant of and indefatigably dedicated to expressing Blackness in its absolute plurality in an effort to convey its essence. Harlem was the vessel through which this multiplicity could be explored. Working alongside his older brother, Elombe Brathwaite, and a vibrant group of young musicians, writers, designers, and models, Kwame Brathwaite formed the African Jazz-Art Society and Studios (AJASS) and went on to popularize the powerful phrase, “Black is Beautiful.” Heavily influenced by the Pan-Africanist ideology of Jamaican political activist, Marcus Garvey, a significant number of Brathwaite’s work appeals to an isolated “African” aesthetic of natural afro hair, textile prints, and affectations of royalty — his motivation behind this imbued with political significance when looking at the particularity of the experience of the Black Atlantic. In his work, there is the lineage of Kwame Ture and Angela Davis, Zora Neale Hurston, Audre Lorde and James Baldwin, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, as well as Alain Locke, Lois Mailou Jones, and a chorus of artists from the Harlem Renaissance. As such, his photographs are evocative of Black pride and dignity, but also Black living. His photographs are visual affirmations of Black existence. His art, therefore, is an affront to white supremacy that seeks to deny Black people this.

The week after I came across the photograph, it so happened that I was assigned an excerpt of Walter Rodney’s “Black Power, a Basic Understanding” (1969) in an Africana Philosophy class I was taking at the time. I recall being struck by Rodney and his Guyanese background as a political activist and academic, his nuanced understanding of the racialized structure of the world, and his views about the universal mobilization of all Black people against what he refers to as “White Power” domination. Like Brathwaite, I learned that Rodney was also influenced by Garvey. However, Rodney’s political ideology of “Black Power” was rooted less in racial essentialism, a prominent feature in Garvey’s writing, and more in social constructivism. His ideology called on oppressed people around the world to recognize the multifaceted ways in which abstract parts of their identity, such as race, have been constructed and concretized as a proxy through which power can be exerted, separating the haves from the have-nots, the righteous from the damned.

The abstraction is made real, the lie becomes the truth — not by any sort of verisimilitude, but through fabricated material disparities made possible through political chess moves that structurally disadvantage and therefore limit, for the benefit of White power. This power is not just political, social, and economic strength, my professor repeats, it is the ability to map and mold the world, to map and mold the world. In many ways, it is an aesthetic power; the kind of power that allows for the emergence and reproduction of stereotypes which beget racial prejudice, but also one that has a hegemonic, and therefore hermeneutic, claim over expressions of joy and pleasure, anger and trauma — expressions of existence.

From a materialist perspective, Rodney recognizes the constructed narrative of Black lack by saying,

“You can put together in your own mind a picture of the whole world with the white imperialist beast crouched over miserable blacks. And don’t forget to label us poor. There is nothing with which poverty coincides so absolutely than with the color black — small or large population, hot or cold climates, rich or poor in natural resources — poverty cuts across all of these factors in order to find black people.”

Speaking from the context of Soweto, South Africa, the late Santu Mofokeng echoed something similar when he said,

“If I say you’re poor and then I show photographs of you looking poor, [you] wouldn’t be happy, because this is not how they see themselves, how they see their own lives. If you look at journalism speaking of Soweto, [it] describes Soweto as gloomy, [it] describes it in language that focuses on what is lacking and [it doesn’t] recognize what is there.”

This past year, I have found myself thinking deeply about the hegemonic claim that White power has over Black existence — symbolic Black existence. An existence that seems to be strictly conveyed through Black suffering or Black excellence, a deliberate claim that does not reveal more about the in-between. I worry about what it means for Black people to be forever tethered to pain and trauma. I also worry about the premise of Black excellence as its sharp juxtaposition, who and what it stands to excuse, to omit from view. In short, I worry about the dichotomy of Black suffering or Black excellence being represented as wholly symbolic of Black existence; presented simultaneously as mutually exclusive and co-dependent, and yet they exist within and part of Black existence.

Chinua Achebe’s similar wariness is noticeable when speaking about the premise behind Black excellence. Whether or not the “great fictitious past” he speaks of is fictitious or not, it should be allowed to exist within the spectrum of Black existence as opposed to being determinative of it.

“I do not see that it is necessary for any people to prove to another that they [built] cathedrals or pyramids before they can be entitled to peace and safety. Flowing from that, I do not believe that Black people should invent a great fictitious past in order to justify their human existence and dignity today.”

The question of representation is a fundamental question of humanity. To view oneself as human and to be viewed as human, in both cases as worthy, is what is at stake. Throughout history, Black people have been denied their humanity, that is they have been denied the right to view themselves and to be viewed as human, as worthy. Treated and documented as exotic beings, the Black body has been made to ‘endure’ some of the most unimaginable atrocities. Even in writing this, I am aware of the double sens present in the language of endurance, how it plays into and solidifies the dichotomy of Black suffering and Black excellence as representative of Black existence without ever fully addressing the structures of systemic oppression that necessitate this endurance. Although it may be an admirable characteristic, a show of perseverance and strength, Black people have been robbed their right to exist, to live, and to see themselves existing and living. Black people should not have to endure, in suffering or despite it, in order for our humanity to be recognized.

This is something that a number of Black activists, philosophers, academics, and most pertinently artists, old and contemporary, within and outside of the United States, have been trying to address in their work, work that must be seen in conversation with each other. Kwame Brathwaite and AJASS, Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Collective, Seydou Keïta, Santu Mofokeng, Antwaun Sargent and The New Black Vanguard, Malick Sidibé, and Tyler Mitchell and his extraordinary work as can be seen in his recent monograph, “I Can Make You Feel Good.”

“Documented and real, or fictitious and staged, my images are characterized by an interest in purity and intimacy. In them, models recline, embrace each other closely, and peer into the lens, leaving evidence of a public display of affirmation in Blackness and a unifying visual text of hope.” — Tyler Mitchell (I Can Make You Feel Good)

In all of these works, and more, you see expressions of lonesome, longing, laughter, light, living.

After all, in the face of white supremacy and its manifestations in the form of racism and neocolonialism, Black existence in its pain and glory and everything in-between is a revolutionary act. An act of political warfare”.

When asked about the inspiration for this piece, Bengi said, “I would have to say that the inspiration behind ‘Black Suffering, Black Excellence – Black Existence’ came from Kwame Brathwaite’s photograph, ‘Untitled (Garvey Day Dee Dee in Car)’ (1965) that I stumbled upon sometime in May. I love this photograph for its dynamism and stillness, and I immediately knew that I wanted to write something centered around it. Identity and representation are prominent themes that I am always trying to explore in my writing, and I felt the need to write something that spoke to the limiting ways that Black people have been represented and made to see themselves through a dichotomy of suffering or excellence that deliberately omits from view the in-between, the plurality of Black existence. This manifested in the form of a photo essay that brought a number of exceptional Black photographers into conversation with each other and whose work conveys just that: the multiplicity of Black existence in ‘lonesome, longing, laughter, light, living.'”

You can see a version of this piece with more photos on Medium, linked here.