Kwame Brathwaite, Self-portrait, African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS), Harlem, ca. 1964; from Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful (Aperture, 2019)

A massive turnout of activists, artists, and Pan-Africanists assembled at the Abyssinian Baptist Church last Monday morning, April 24, to pay their respects to Kwame Brathwaite, who joined the ancestors on April 1. He was 85. Most notable among the attendees was a large contingent of photographers, and that was perhaps in keeping with a man whose camera was as ubiquitous as it was calibrated to document the art and politics of the Black world. 

One of the first tributes was from Dr. Rosalind Jeffries, who touched on his artistic brilliance and his formidable connection to several formations of cultural artists, including the National Conference of Artists (NCA), of which he was a longtime active member.  

Dr. Leonard Jeffries, Rosalind’s husband, balanced her comments by noting Brathwaite’s political associations. “I stand with Dr. John Henrik Clarke and Dr. Yosef Ben-Jochannan,” Dr. Jeffries said, citing Brathwaite as part of this “family” of distinguished cultural mavens dedicated to the fight for “Black power.” 

Ambassador Neville Gertze, permanent representative of Namibia, repeated some of his profound and deepest sympathies contained in the funeral program. Brathwaite was an icon, and “through the lens of his camera and through his lifelong dedication to the Pan-African movement, Kwame leaves a rich legacy of a man who was uncompromised in spirit and his support to the Civil Rights movement, the struggles against apartheid colonialism, inequality, and injustice.”

Vocalist Dawn Joyner contributed three moving and beautifully rendered spirituals, her voice reaching a powerful crescendo on “Stand.” Several in the audience obeyed that invocation and rose from their seats with applause.

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There were thoughtful testimonials from women who were members of the Grandassa Models, each noting Brathwaite’s imaginative vision and promotion of the “Black is Beautiful” concept.  Much more needs to be said about the impact of the idea and how it spread from Harlem to the world—as one of the models declared, “We are not done!” That ongoing resolve echoed in Copper Cunningham’s brief but deeply felt remarks.

Professor Tanisha C. Ford, a fashion maven who teaches at the Graduate Center at CUNY and provided the text for Brathwaite’s collection of photos in the Aperture publication, recalled when she first met Brathwaite: “He was my dream come true.” 

In the book, she expanded on Brathwaite’s style and technique—that he let a “subject breathe…trusting his instinct to know when a moment had unfolded into full blossom was an acquired skill.”

Bernardo Mauricio Ruby praised Brathwaite and his photography for “enhancing the beauty of our race,” as well as educating a countless number of Americans on the merits of Carlos Cooks, the Black Nationalist from the Dominican Republic. 

Mrs. Jacqueline Brathwaite, Brathwaite’s sister-in-law, offered warm regards. Her reflections included a prelude to Derrick Alston’s melodious “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

Veteran activist Omowale Clay of the December 12th Movement emphasized Brathwaite’s unbreakable connection to his brother and their dedication to not only Black is Beautiful but “the struggle for self-determination.” 

Clay’s admiration for Brathwaite anticipated media stalwart Bob Law’s vivid memories from their school days when they first met and joined forces. In a subsequent conversation, Law was particularly satisfied with Dr. Raschaad Hoggard’s eulogy, which he deemed both personable and eloquent. 

Taking his inspiration from the Book of Exodus, Hoggard placed Brathwaite in both a biblical and revolutionary context for his “opposition to racism and his fight for liberation. And all of this took a lot of courage.” 

Ademola Olugebefola affirmed Hoggard’s passionate words in his reading of the obituary. He too could speak with authority about Brathwaite since they spent many years as colleagues in the NCA.

When all was said and done inside the church, the celebration of Brathwaite’s life continued outside, where a large contingent of his comrades, armed with their cameras, made sure the majesty of his days was properly documented, framed lovingly in their apertures and sealed forever on negatives, proofsheets, and hard drives.

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