Before “Black Lives Matter” was “Black Is Beautiful,” a cultural movement of the 1960s and ’70s. This nostalgic phrase sent a critical message at the time. Today, it has some advantages over “Black Lives Matter” in supporting the push for racial equity.
Black Is Beautiful was joined at the hip with the Civil Rights movement. It sprang from the African Jazz-Art Society & Studios, founded in 1956 by Elombe Brath, his brother, photographer Kwame Brathwaite, and others, with the aim to reclaim jazz as a music of contemporary African traditions that should be controlled by black artists. Brath, along with Brathwaite and others in the the AJASS, organized Naturally fashion shows to showcase the natural beauty of African women, unadulterated by Western standards. The shows featured the Grandassa Models, dark-skinned Black women who modeled afro hair and African-inspired clothing. The first show, “Naturally ’62,” was held in January 1962. Brathwaite’s photographs of the Grandassa Models live on, showcasing the women’s proud beauty.
In a May 1962 speech in Harlem, Malcolm X asked,
Who taught you to hate the color of your skin? Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose and the shape of your lips? Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet?
Inspired by Black Is Beautiful, African Americans began accepting their natural attributes, celebrating their physical manifestations, culture, and history. The movement, targeted to African American, affirmed them as human beings of worth.
‘Black Is Beautiful’ Today
In June, a San Antonio, Texas, brewery initiated a beer collaboration that garnered international participation. Weathered Souls Brewing and its Black cofounder and lead brewer, Marcus Baskerville, presented a base beer recipe to be brewed by other breweries (encouraging creative tweaks). The Black Is Beautiful beer is a stout — a rich, dark-hued beer. The label art, used by all participating breweries, includes the words “Brewed to support Justice and equality for People of Color.” Collaborating breweries are to donate 100 percent of their proceeds to a local organization that supports equality, inclusion, police brutality reform, or legal defense for victims.
Baskerville said, “As someone who has personally dealt with the abuse of power by the police, this recent turmoil the country is facing has hit home for me. … I contemplate how the country can move forward, how we as the people, can create change, and what it will take for everyone to move forward with a common respect for one another.”
As of mid-August, 1,113 breweries from all 50 states and D.C. and 21 countries had joined the cause. With only about 60 black-owned breweries across the U.S. and majority-white craft beer drinkers, the collaboration will reach a mostly white audience. (www.BlackIsBeautiful.beer lists participating breweries, searchable by name and location.)
In another use of the phrase, “Black Is Beautiful” has gotten attention recently in three Virginia cities. Visual artist Ricky Parker and his wife, Whitney Parker, erected Black Is Beautiful billboards in Richmond, Norfolk, and Charlottesville, using their professional background to contribute to the movement for racial equity. The Parkers are cofounders of a Richmond-based creative firm and adjunct professors at Virginia Union University, a historically Black university (HBCU) in Richmond.
“We wanted to accomplish two things,” said Ricky Parker. “The first is it serves as a message to empower Black people. … We wanted to create something that serves as a positive affirmation … The whole idea of beauty in our society, when we place a title of ‘beautiful’ on it, we treat it differently. We treat it with respect; we admire it, even defend it.
“The second piece is, we wanted to educate. And so with every location we picked, we wanted it to educate people on stories of Black people they may not be as knowledgeable about.”
The Richmond billboard was erected on Juneteenth at Jackson Ward. The thriving African American community was once known as the Black Wall Street of America and as the Harlem of the South.
The Norfolk billboard was erected near the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, to pay “honor and homage to the Black men and women who served as slaves during the 1800s in the shipyard,” said Parker.
Erection of the Charlottesville sign marked the third anniversary of the Unite the Right rally, when far-right extremists marched through Charlottesville chanting hate slogans and carrying symbols in opposition to Blacks, Jews, and Muslims. The rally turned violent when right-wing protestors clashed with counter-protestors: 19 people were injured and one woman killed when a self-professed white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors.
Why Not ‘Black Lives Matter’?
The phrase “Black Lives Matter” has raised the hackles of many white people and given fodder to conservatives who latch on to loaded words to influence their message.
From the beginning, some whites have taken issue with the statement. In response to the then-new slogan in 2015, I naïvely replied, “But all lives matter” (even before Hillary Clinton got reprimanded for saying it). “All lives matter” seems like a reasonable response — until you consider semantics and history.
Saying “Black lives matter” doesn’t mean white lives don’t matter any more than saying “I like puppies” means “I don’t like kittens.” More importantly, “all lives matter” is pointless because “white lives matter” is the default. America’s history since 1619 demonstrates that white lives have legally “mattered” more. After slavery came Jim Crow, segregation, more than 4,000 lynchings, redlining and other forms of housing discrimination, higher Black incarceration rates, increased brutality and death at the hands of police, the wealth gap, and so much more. “Black lives matter” must be named, worked for, and achieved.
Conservatives have also latched on to an accusation against the Black Lives Matter organization: “But its founders are Marxist!” Although it’s true that one of the co-founders said in 2015 that she and another co-founder are “trained Marxists,” the group’s mission is irrelevant to Marxist principles.
The Black Lives Matter website says that BLM commits “to struggling together and to imagining and creating a world free of anti-Blackness, where every Black person has the social, economic, and political power to thrive.” The mission of an NFL head coach who happens to be Christian is to win games, not convert souls. And the BLM organization’s mission, led by activists nationwide, is to achieve equity for Blacks.
Sure, for many whites, the accusations against Black Lives Matter are merely an excuse. On the other hand, there are still naïve but well-meaning whites who are open to positive change. The realities of the slogan and the organization aren’t truly troublesome to them — but only if they’re presented with the facts. In the context of 2020, Black Is Beautiful may be a better way to reach them.
Side by Side
Given their communications background, Ricky and Whitney Parker, the Black Is Beautiful billboard designers, understand the importance of message and tone. “Black Lives Matter is really a conversation where Black people are talking to white people to let them know our lives matter. Black Is Beautiful to us is talking to Black people and encouraging them and reaffirming who they are.” And, he adds, the statement becomes more inclusive: “It’s definitely brought a lot of different people together.”
Reachable whites can’t really take umbrage against “Black is beautiful” as a message for embracing heritage and honoring people.
“For Black Lives Matter, for some people, it’s hard to translate and understand,” said Parker. “Black Is Beautiful is not negating that; it’s an ongoing conversation. Yeah, we say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ but, you know, black is beautiful. I’ve had conversations with people in their 30s or 40s who are just now seeing … systemic racism. This is our way of doing our part. When it comes to the movement, there are a lot of other people doing some incredible things. We not taking away from that, just adding to the conversation.”
While the iron is hot, both phrases have potential to shape the future.