Love and Brilliance Shining Bright: Kwame Brathwaite January 1, 1938 – April 1, 2023
By Maitefa Angaza
He was born on January 1, 1938 and became an ancestor on April 1, 2023. The tributes are pouring in — through news media and arts program broadcasts, through word of mouth, and on social media, where many people knew and loved Kwame Brathwaite and his brilliant photography. The people called him The Keeper of the Images, and they are talking about his never-ending devotion to the upliftment of Black people here, in Africa, and in other places. He tirelessly provided us with images of our greatness and grandeur, our beauty, courage, triumphs, and legacies. On days when we doubted our value, we could look at one of Kwame’s photographs and feel loved, although we were not in the photo.
Kwame Brathwaite’s life purpose was clarified when he saw the photo of young Emmett Till lying in his coffin. Right then, he knew he’d found a calling that would never leave him – that of informing and strengthening his people and of baring truth that others feared. He shared this path with the other AJASS members and got to work on it himself.
“There’s so much history that must be made known, so much to share,” said Kwame. “As the Keeper of the Images, my goal has always been to pass that legacy on and make sure that for generations to come, everyone who sees my work knows the greatness of our people.”
Born in Brooklyn and raised in the South Bronx, Harlem, Kwame and his brother Elombe Brath spent most of their time in Harlem and were exposed early to creating art. He credited his parents for instilling creativity and entrepreneurship in their children. Growing up, he began to think of himself as an artist-activist and, along with Elombe founded the Jazz-Art Society and Studios (AJASS), which brought live jazz shows to Harlem. It also provided an opportunity for talented new performing artists to be introduced to an audience.
Inspired by Marcus Garvey and Carlos Cooks, he and Elombe were committed to working for unity and self-reliance, and they are credited with being co-creators of the Black Is Beautiful movement. Kwame is also credited with creating lighting and film-developing techniques that made photographic Black people’s skin more successful.
Later the brothers worked along with other AJASS members, including the not-long-deceased Robert Gumbs, to create the Grandassa Models. They invited resourceful young Black women, several of whom were making their own clothes, to take part in natural beauty fashion shows. Soon the women were all wearing afros and African-print garments. All were asked to share another talent, dancing, singing or reading poetry, to help keep people engaged. The shows became so popular that Max Roach and his then-wife Abbey Lincoln joined in to travel and perform with Grandassa as the fashion shows went on tours by bus.
Eunice Townsend,a former Grandassa model, admired Kwame’s love for and commitment to his people.
“Kwame was a unique photographer,” said Townsend, “not only in his ability to depict Black women as they’d never been seen, but he displayed Black women who were bold, self-confident, and naturally beautiful. Black women could now look in the mirror and see strength in their noses, walk with a confident strut, and run their hands through hair that varied in texture.”
Townsend experienced the difference that could make.
“He instilled pride and confidence in women of color,” Townsend believes. “His photos shouted, ‘Black is beautiful, especially when it’s natural!’ And so the Grandassa models were born, and we continue to honor the concepts that he inspired in us.”
Kwame also made great progress in his career as a photographer, focusing as James Vanderzee and Gordon Parks had, on the people he saw each day and their brothers and sisters across the world. He traveled across the world doing photography, sometimes at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration, with Bob Marley at his home, and doing photo work on Stevie Wonder, Muhammad Ali, James Brown, Michael Jackson, many jazz artists, theater performers, and Black and African political figures. Kwame was a member of the National Conference of Artists and rose to be its director. He also photographed several album covers and has work at the Smithsonian and in other museums. A recent show at The New York Historical Society Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful was a greatly appreciated hit, as is the book that was published around the same time.
Kwame S. Brathwaite, the famed photographer’s son, is the director of the Kwame Brathwaite Archives. They were very close.
“I am honored to protect and preserve the gift that is my father’s work,” says Brathwaite. “His dedication to equity, empowerment, and self-love through visual arts was both awe-inspiring and humbling. His work teaches us who we are, but also challenges us to become who we want to be. We will continue to honor him through his work in ways that engage and inspire generations to come.
“I was born into an environment that affirmed that Black is beautiful,” said Brathwaite. “I was reared in spaces seeing Black women celebrated for their natural beauty, intelligence and creativity. Baba and Mommy nurtured me with these ideas… it’s inherent in my being.”
Revered photographer Mel Wright had known Kwame Brathwaite for most of his life.
“I met Kwame and his brother Elombe back in the late ‘50s when they used to hang with Miles and Max Roach,” said Wright. “We’d run into them at Snookie’s Sugar Bowl. Then the Brathwaite brothers became Afrocentric and wore African suits and sunglasses at night. I thought that was so cool!”
Wright was appreciative of Kwame and Elombe for affirming natural Black beauty and pride. “Kwame also photographed a lot of African countries when they gained their independence,” Wright points out. “Elombe had connections with the leaders of some of those countries and was invited to their independence ceremonies.”
Marilyn is an accomplished photographer devoted to the history and impact of Black people.
“I started wearing my hair in an Afro in 1968,” said Nance. “Though I didn’t know Kwame Braithwaite then, I am sure that I was affected by the Black Is Beautiful movement which he heralded.”
Nance, like virtually everyone who knew Kwame, remembers him as a person of great calm and grace. And she was always pleased to encounter him as a fellow photographer at events and rallies.”
“He had a serious commitment to the uplift of Black people and culture,” Nance said. “While we all recognized his presence, his book and exhibition serve as evidence that his greatness was seen by the larger arts world.”
Kwame Brathwaite is survived by his wife Sikolo Brathwaite, son Kwame S. Brathwaite and daughter Ndola Brathwaite Carlest.