Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Grandassa Models & The Birth Of The Black Is Beautiful Movement

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part 1 of a 3 part pancocojams series about the Grandassa models. This series is largely composed of excerpts from online articles. I have compiled these excerpts in this post as a means of increasing access to the historical, sociological, and educational information provided in those articles. I have credited all the authors or publications of these hyperlinked excerpts and thank those authors/publications for providing such information about the Grandassa models.

Click for Part 2 of this series.

Click for Part 3 of this series.

The Grandassa models were a group of African American female models whose afro-centric fashion shows were the first to promote the slogan "Black is Beautiful". Based in New York City, the Grandassa models' fashion shows were held in various cities in the United States from 1962 to 1979.

The original eight Grandassa models were: Clara Lewis, Black Rose (Rose Nelmes), Priscilla Bardonille, Wanda Sims, Mari Toussaint, Esther Davenport, Beatrice Cramston, and Namsa Brath. (various sources).

Here's a link to a large colorised photograph of the Grandassa models and some men who were members of their sponsor cultural organization, the African Jazz-Arts Society & Studios, (AJASS)

"Tribute To A Legend: Elombe Brath
By Kwame Brathwaite, 11-16-09
"Elombe was one of the founders, and the lifetime president of the African Jazz-Arts Society & Studios, (AJASS) a cultural group which had been founded during the summer of 1956 in the South Bronx but moved to Harlem in 1961. The group was a collective of Black artists, photographers, performers, and students (including Kwame Brathwaite, Robert Gumbs, Chris Acemendeces Hall, Frank Adu, Jimmy Abu and others) who gathered to promote Black Arts and Culture. This was the beginning of what became “The Black Arts Movement” which many believe started in 1965, nine years later.

Influenced by the ANPMs Garvey Day celebration and their “Miss Natural Standard of Beauty” contests formed to install pride and confidence in Black women, who at the time were looked upon as less than beautiful by the mass media, the fashion world and by Black people themselves. After the 1961 contest, AJASS formed the nucleus of a group of models to explicitly promote the African standard of beauty, The Grandassa Models under the direction of Elombe. The image of darker women had been long overlooked by such magazines as Ebony, Jet, Tan, contradicting their very names.

Thus the “Naturally” series of “cultural extravaganzas designed to restore our racial pride and standards” was born, beginning with the production of “Naturally ‘62” on January, of that year."
*ANPM =African Nationalist Pioneer Movement

Editor's note: Elombe Brath and Kwame Brathwaite are brother (siblings).

From Chapter 16: The Grandassa Models
"The Braths [Elombe and Kwame Brath] had been putting on the "Naturally" shows for years -- focusing on hair and dress fashions -- without many people noticing. Still they kept going. But this was 1966 and the times were changing. "Naturally 1966" caused a sensation. The shows featured women who were called the Grandassa models (after Grandassaland, the name that African nationalist leader Carlos Cooks applied to Africa)."


by Yeye Akilimali Funua Olade
"AJASS not only changed the model of club shows, but the graphic design of the advertising posters that announced the events. Prior to their artistic posters, events usually utilized block type, linotyped letterpress posters that left a lot to be desired. Designers, Elombe, Gumbs and then Milton Tuitt began to do layouts and designs for offset printing of the flyers and posters. They began politicizing the jazz artists, who were, although the great jazz stars of the day, were being underpaid and further disrespected in their accommodations and dressing room facilities, compared to the less capable and lesser known white musicians. AJAS used that formula until on August 17, 1961, at the Marcus Garvey Birthday Celebration, when during one of the featured events, “The Miss Natural Standard of Beauty Contest”, (a contest that was held every Garvey Day since 1942, one year after the founding of the ANPM, and two years after Garvey’s death), a young lady, named Clara Lewis – extremely Black and beautiful, won the title. The contest, in which the girls competed without make up and were required to washout any chemicals so that there hair was in its natural state, also asked the contestants questions on racial history, racial pride and tested how they thought about their people.

The AJAS members had observed this contest year after year, and saw that by the time that the winner came to receive her $100 prize at the next Sunday night meeting, their hair was straightened again, since they didn’t feel that they could go to school or work without straightening it. Elombe decided that we would put together a fashion show that would promote the natural beauty of our women. AJAS approached fellow promoter, Jimmy Abu, who was a male model, drummer and top-notch trainer of models, and AJAS began to recruit young ladies to train as for the group. AJAS moved its meetings from the Brathwaite basement in the Bronx, to a space they rented next to the Apollo Theatre, on October 1, 1961, and amended their name to the African Jazz-Art Society & Studios, adding art production, photo studio and rehearsal space and became AJASS. They devised a show which they called “Naturally ’62: The Original African Coiffure and Fashion Extravaganza Designed to Restore Our Racial Pride and Standards ”, with the first show held at Harlem’s Purple Manor on January 28, 1962. The goal of the show was to prove to the world that “Black Is Beautiful.”

The first show starred Abbey Lincoln as guest singer and commentator for the show, and famed jazz drummer, Max Roach as Abbey’s accompanist on piano, Oluoju and Her Souls of the Earth African Dancers and Pucho and His Latin Soul Brothers band (who was the house band that offered us the space) and Jomo Logan providing some additional commentary on the African fashions.
While promoting the show, the comments were mixed...

The day of the show, the house was packed and people that couldn’t get in lingered outside. The show featured Clara Lewis, Black Rose, Nomsa White (now Brath), Priscilla Bardonille, Wanda Sims, Marie Toussaint, Esther Davenport and Beatrice Cranston, and male models Jimmy Abu, and Frank Adu, and actor Gus Williams opening the show with the models as he recited Marcus Garvey’s poem “Black Woman”. The show drew a standing applause and when the show was over and we looked outside, the crowd that couldn’t get in, was still there. We cleaned up the space and gave a second show that same day. The show was such a success, it inspired all of us and we planned for a follow-up show at a larger venue.

By now the word had gotten out, and people in the community were taking sides, pro and con. Some of the Harlem beauticians were up in arms, saying that the trend, if allowed to take hold, would take away a lot of their business."
This complete article is historically significant and also makes interesting reading.

"AJASS [African Jazz-Arts Society & Studios], with the aid of Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, began producing a series of “Naturally” shows, beginning with “Naturally ’62″ that projected racial pride, African culture, poetry and art. The show, subtitled “the original African coiffure and fashion extravaganza designed to restore or racial pride and standards” traveled to colleges and universities in the US and self-produced many shows in Black communities for more than thirty years. The AJASS productions, starting in Harlem, was the beginning of what is known as “The Black Arts Movement” that later saw Leroi Jones, Larry Neal, Ed Bullins and others create some powerful theatre in Harlem. They found a Black arts movement in Harlem that had started nine years before they arrived."

Two of the oldest Black arts organizations came together to present, Naturally 2002, the show that taught Black women and the world that “Black is Beautiful”forty years ago. Billed as “The Original African Coiffure and Fashion Extravaganza Designed to Restore Our Racial Pride and Standards”, it inspired what became known as the “Black Consciousness Movement.” The show, which ran regularly from January 1962 until 1979, is the production of the African Jazz-Art Society & Studios, (AJASS), formed in 1956 in New York. This 40th anniversary show was co-presented by the National Conference of Artists (NCA), formed in 1959 by many of the nation’s leading visual artists and art educators at Atlanta University, including Margaret Burroughs, James D. Parks, Eugenia V. Dunn, Jewel W. Simon, Allan G. Junier, Virginia Kiah, Jack Jordan, and Bernard Goss.

Naturally 2002 was held at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 515 Malcolm X Boulevard @ 135th street. This special production featured this year’s version of the Grandassa Models, the symbol of black pride. AJASS and The Grandassas took on a world that didn’t even, for the most part, mention “Black” and “Beautiful” in the same sentence. A leading “Black” magazine which did a cover story on singer Joyce Bryant, one of the most beautiful of her day, referred to her as “a handsome colored woman”. The “Naturally” show, as it was called, performed mostly in New York, but toured Detroit, Chicago, Lincoln University, Cornell University and Babylon, Long Island, among others places. Their aggressive press material was printed worldwide, including in Africa. In Salisbury, the capital of then Southern Rhodesia, under colonialism, (today, Harare, Zimbabwe), young African progressives copied the show. According to African Parade Magazine of June 1963, “in Zimbabwe a club is organizing a show on June 2 on traditional way of dress and is putting on a display of African art and culture as it was in days gone by.” Featured on the cover was Grandassa Model Helene White a/k/a Nomsa Brath followed by two successive issues one with an inside cover on Abbey Lincoln and a cover with Black Rose featured.

The show caused such a sensation that young militant Zimbabweans waged a campaign against the encroaching blonde wigs and hot pants that the saw in some of the Black magazines from the states. Some went so far as to snatch wigs off of the heads of African women walking the city streets and rubbing the thick lipstick off of their lips with sandpaper."

Kuame Brathwait 08 19 10 Original air date

Uploaded by haroldchanner on Aug 12, 2010

Kwame Brathwaite, photographer

Kwame has been considered the ever-present "photo-documentarian" of the Black Cultural movement, the "keeper of the images." While earning a living as a fashion and entertainment photographer, his primary interest has been the recording of the history of the African Cultural Revolution and the African liberation struggle. Co-founded the African Jazz-Art Society, 1956); The Grandassa Models (Black is Beautiful) 1961 and wearable art shows, AFRIMODA, FashionArt and FashioNations (1986).

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