Kwame Brathwaite, Photographer of ‘Black is Beautiful’, Dies at 85

Kwame Brathwaite
Kwame Brathwaite, “Untitled (Kwame Brathwaite Self Portrait at AJASS Studios),” 1964 c., printed 2016. Archival pigment print, mounted and framed

Kwame Brathwaite, the photographer and activist who famously proclaimed “black is beautiful,” has passed away. He was 85.

Brathwaite was best known not only for his phrase “Black is beautiful” but also for his photojournalism and activism centered mainly around the life and culture of Harlem and Africa. The news of his passing was shared by his son, Kwame Brathwaite, Jr., on Instagram this past weekend.

Brathwaite was born on January 1, 1938 in Brooklyn, New York and was raised in the city. As explained by ArtNews, Brathwaite’s work has only really seen mainstream recognition in the form of museum retrospectives but his photography has been seen in multiple publications and on album covers over the years. More importantly, Brathwaite has been credited with providing an impetus for arguing for the importance for racial identity among people of African descent worldwide.

“Black is beautiful” was first stated as part of a fashion show he put on in 1962 titled Naturally ’62. Brathwaite’s famous phrase was more than just a statement of belief as it grew into a cultural movement within the United States in the 1960s and eventually spread globally — well beyond being tied specifically to him.

Kwame Brathwaite
Kwame Brathwaite, “Untitled (Garvey Day, Deedee in Car),” 1965 c., printed 2018. Archival pigment print, mounted and framed

“The phrase ‘black is beautiful’ referred to a broad embrace of black culture and identity. It called for an appreciation of the black past as a worthy legacy, and it inspired cultural pride in contemporary black achievements,” The National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian explains.

Kwame Brathwaite
Kwame Brathwaite, “Untitled (Hands in the Shape of a Unity Symbol),” 1971 c. Archival pigment print, framed

“The movement affirmed natural hairstyles like the ‘Afro’ and the variety of skin colors, hair textures, and physical characteristics found in the African American community.”

Throughout the 1960s, Brathwaite produced reporting and pictorials for leading black publications such as The Amsterdam News, City Sun, and The Daily Challenge.

Kwame Brathwaite
Kwame Brathwaite, “Untitled (Photo shoot at a school for one of the many modeling groups who had begun to embrace natural hairstyles in the 1960s),” 1966 c. printed 2017. Archival pigment print, framed

While Brathwaite would travel to Africa and photograph the Jackson Five and even the “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Forman, his work related to the “Black is Beautiful” movement remains his most famous. His wife, Sikolo Brathwaite, continues to beat the drum of that movement even today.

Kwame Brathwaite
Kwame Brathwaite, “Untitled (Sikolo Brathwaite, Orange Portrait),” 1968 c., printed 2020. Archival pigment print, mounted and framed

“Our role is to be role models for our young people and to let them know we are fine as we are and don’t have to emulate other people,” Sikolo Brathwaite said in a panel earlier this year, ArtNews reports. “We have so much more work to do.”

Kwame Brathwaite
Kwame Brathwaite, Photo Credit: Cory Rice

Kwame Brathwaite photography — Kwame Brathwaite: Things Well Worth Waiting For — is currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through July 24.

Image credits: All images are Courtesy of The Kwame Brathwaite Archive.