Black Is Beautiful: How the Movement Started and Why We Still Need It
“The night is beautiful, so are the faces of my people.” –Langston Hughes
Early in her career, the late Cicely Tyson shattered stereotypes when she wore her hair in a short-cropped afro. It was a move that helped advance the natural hair movement of the 1960s and ’70s and the broader “Black is Beautiful” movement.
Black is Beautiful emerged in 1960s America as an expansive embrace of Black culture and identity. Its roots lie in the Négritude movement of the 1930s. But it really took off in the 1960s with the writings of South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko—and with a history-making fashion show in Harlem.
Titled “Naturally ’62,” the show featured darker-skinned Black models who refused to conform to Western beauty standards. They sported natural hairstyles and strutted down the catwalk in African-inspired clothing.
Naturally ’62 helped spark the Black is Beautiful movement, which in turn led to a revolution in the arts, academia, and entertainment.
Scholars started encouraging people to learn about their heritage and connection to the African continent. The Black Arts movement went national after Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) established Black theaters in Harlem and Newark, New Jersey.
Muhammad Ali inspired people with his athletic prowess and his political courage. And Soul Train brought African American dance moves into living rooms across the country.
Why we (still) need Black is Beautiful
Research shows how psychologically damaging colorism is for African Americans—especially women. It creates social stratification within communities of color, where people with “whiter” features are treated differently or afforded more privileges. And it inevitably leads to internalized racism.
Things are getting better today—demoralizing practices like using the “paper bag test” to determine privileges and membership in clubs and organizations have largely been disavowed. But Black children are still internalizing toxic messages about race, and white bias is still a huge problem.
Black people—especially Black women—have spent too many precious years trying to mold their features to meet white Western ideals. Avoiding the sun. Bleaching their skin. Straightening their hair.
Black is Beautiful celebrates Black features, culture, and identity for the blessings they are.
As writer Gloria Oladipo put it, “Blackness isn’t beautiful in spite of whiteness…Blackness is beautiful without being compared to any standards, without the reassurance of corporations or anyone else, for that matter.”
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