Images: “Somebody Told A Lie One Day”

Kwame Braithwaite was a Black photographer and community activist and in the 1960s, in his small darkroom in Harlem, he developed an imaging technique that made black skin stand out in photographs, showing off its inherent life and energy. He spent thousands of hours in his darkroom to ensure that his images could demonstrate the beauty of Black people. His fashion show “Naturally ‘62” on January 28th, 1962, was the genesis of the “Black is Beautiful” movement. The show featured Black women who had chosen to move away from Western beauty standards which were accepted all over the world.  The models who walked down the catwalk that night wore their afro hair with pride; their clothes were inspired by designs from Lagos, Accra and Nairobi; and their skin was darker, and their bodies fuller figured than the women pictured in fashion magazines.

Images are important because they contribute to how we see ourselves and how we see others. This is especially relevant to Black people where reflections of ourselves in our countries of originhave been corrupted by the demands of Western culture. ..and those of us in the West are heavilyinfluenced by their concepts of what constitutes beauty and sometimes, we as Black people, are less than conscious of the triggers that inform our preferences.

As a Black boy growing up in the West, I was influenced by my parent’s vision of how they saw themselves, but this was shaped by how they were influenced by their colonial up bringing in West Africa which in turn was shaped by an education system that extolled the virtues of the British Empire. The consequence of all of this is that the images that we were exposed to were images that portrayed us as relatively primitive and uneducated as opposed to our White conquerors as “fully clothed” and sophisticated and these images still linger in our conscious and sub-conscious like sleeper agents waiting to fulfil their mission.

I will always remember when in my early teens my father leaving on a table a colourful National Geographic type magazine with images of the Harare civilisation, the older name of a territory that included present day Zimbabwe, and I was blown away by the sophistication of the architecture and how grand it all looked and it looked like it came from a galaxy far far away… certainly challenged the images of Africa that I had been exposed to.

My father was an amateur photographer, and he had his own dark room, which was basically a cupboard under the stairs, and i sometimes used to help him and I remember the red light in the dark room, the negatives hanging on a string across the length of the small space, and the smell of the chemicals used to develop the pictures. I specially recall that my father was able to darken or lighten the black and white images to properly reflect the complexions of the family and I truly believe that his capacity to manage the look of these photoimages contributed to my sense of how Black people can be represented and at that time very few Black people took photographs of themselves and we, as Black people, were very often at the mercy of White photographers who were very good at producing images where we were always smiling with the whites of our eyes and  white teeth appropriately accentuated.

Religion ,of course, played its part in presenting images that were not only inaccurate but blatantly untrue and the long held traditional image of Jesus Christ who looked uncannily like Robert Powell was the one that endured, and many Black families placed this image in their homes alongside the Queen and Di & Charles. The irony of this is that no one questioned this or wondered how this White man wandered around the Middle East with no one noticing that he was a little bit different…..but more seriously most other ethnic groups cast their deities in their own image , so I ask myself why are we one of the few ethnic groups who worship deities that  are not in our own image.

When bringing up our children we made conscious decisions to ensure that they were surrounded by images that looked like them and the house was adorned with pictures of family members and role models/heroes that reflected positivity. We calculated that we needed to counteract many of the negative images that were perpetrated by the education system and society at large, and this was by not only the negative characterisations of the Black presence but also by absence of positive Black images.

Let us not forget that the history of the United Kingdom relies heavily on the myths of the Empire and the lyrics of Rule Britannia sums “Britons never, never, shall be slaves” gives us a glimpse of how this country saw the rest of the world and in particular the relationship with those enslaved who were mostly Black and this thinking contributed to a brand of science called “Scientific Racism” sometimes termed biological racism, a pseudoscientific belief that empirical evidence exists to support or justify racism, racial inferiority, or racial superiority……an underlying philosophy of right wing white supremacist organisations. The thing is once Black people are seen as less than human it contributes to a justification of how they are treated, and images can contribute to that whole perception.

But let us go back to where we started…Black is Beautiful, and ask ourselves the question does this still apply in the same way. Do we still under value representations of Blackness as we did when Kwame Braithwaite did his thing in 1962. It is common knowledge that dark skinned models face challenges in the fashion industry and despite some individuals breaking through such as Naomi Campbell back in the day and Lupita Nyong’o today, there is still a long way to go. However, it is curious how Dark-skinned male models do not seem to have the same issues as their sisters and one wonders how far racial stereotyping plays it part in all of this and how the Black male stereotype feeds into the western fantasy and becomes more permissible.

However, as Black people let us not beat ourselves up too much, as this thinking is still a major feature in the Indian Sub-continent and Bollywood is well known for its misrepresentation particularly in the casting of light skinned Indians in starring roles and Brazil, the last country in the western hemisphere to abolish slavery has serious problems with this issue and racism amongst darker skinned Brazilians is a feature of life in that country

I made a film over 25 years ago called “Shadism: The Politics of Complexion” and this film examined how we as Black people valued other Black people according to their complexion. “Shadism” is now called “Colourism” which, in my view, blurs what the issue is all about. Nonetheless, what seems clear to me is that so many years later some of these values are still present in our thinking and the notion that darker skin is generally perceived to be less attractive than White Skin still continues and this leftover from slavery days contributes to Black people’s collaboration with that position. A report recently stated that 77 % of Nigerian women still use skin-lightening products and sales of skin-lightening products are projected to reach $8.9 billion by 2024.  Clearly, we need to love ourselves a little more than we do before we expect others to do the same.

I will leave you with the words of Martin Luther King:

“ Be proud of our heritage…we don’t have anything to be ashamed of….somebody told a lie one day…they couched it in language…they made everything Black ugly & evil…look in your dictionary and see the synonyms of the word Black…its always something degrading and low and sinister…look at the word White its always something pure…well I wanna get the language so right tonight that everybody will cry out….Yes I’m Black and proud of it…I’m Black & Beautiful”.

Don John