Recording Harlem’s Tribute to Freddie Hubbard in the Sanctuary of Abyssinia
Indefatigable Painter of Black Life…and Pan-African Cultural Warrior
A mighty tree has fallen in Harlem. Let every head bow, and every tongue confess it. Kwame Brathwaite was one of a kind! He was my Brother and comrade in struggle for over half a century. I could not have loved or respected him more if we were brothers from the womb. I have lived for nearly a century, met the best and brightest of many nations, but none have I held in higher regard. A more honorable man than Kwame has not been born…and his mother is dead! Hence it is a fair speculation that we will never see a better man in this earthly realm. Perhaps in the vast expanse of space, but not in this place,
He was the blood brother to the great Elombe Brath, another tireless Pan-African artist/soldier, for whom a square in Harlem is named. Together with the magnificent activist/musicians Max Roach and Abby Lincoln, they launched the Black Arts Movement that changed the consciousness of thoughtful people throughout the Pan-African world: The Neo-African Diaspora of the Atlantic, and the Motherland too. It all began with the founding of the African Jazz Art Society in the Bronx NYC during 1958. The movement flowered in the 1960’s and their powerful slogan “Black Is Beautiful!” was echoed throughout the world. Kwame, following the admonitions and practices of the great ancestors Frederick Douglass and James Vander Zee wielded his camera like a mighty sword in defense and celebration of black people. Illustrating his slogan with marvelous, magical, gorgeous, images. Especially of Black women, whose unique arresting beauty he captured with exquisite taste and judgement for all the world to behold. Making an indelible record of that halcyon era of struggle and spiritual regeneration, when we were happy and nappy, on a freedom high and ready to die, a time the great poet Larry Neal, a peerless tribune of the movement, called “Holy Days.”
It was Frederick Douglass who first recognized the art of photography as a powerful weapon of liberation, because he saw that it could be deployed as effective counterstatement to the grotesque imagery demeaning Afro-Americans drawn by racist white illustrators and cartoonist that proliferated in white owned newspapers. He urged Black and James Vander Zee, the brilliant early 20th Century art Photographer, dedicated himself to documenting the elegance of the rainbow people he saw all around him during the halcyon days of the Harlem Renaissance. The beautiful people that his great contemporary Maestro Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, who first came to New York as an art student at Pratt Institute, would immortalize in his sound portrait “Black, Brown and Beige Suite.” Like Maestro Ellington’s music, Vander Zee says he was called to his mission by the realization that: ”A picture will last forever.”
Embracing this ancestral imperative, Kwame documented the magnificence of his people as he saw them, creating a visual record whose witness cannot be disputed and can only grow more valuable with time. Kwame photographed the historic political and cultural events that swept the black world in the great awakening of the second half of the 20th century, in the Americas and Africa. A son of the Caribbean whose parents migrated to the US, and like legions of others enriched black life in the US with their brilliant progeny, Kwame followed in the tradition of the great Pan-Africanist who viewed the entire black world as their field of struggle.
Their role models were the Trinidadians H Sylvester Williams and Dr. Alcindor, who along with the Massachusetts born Dr. WEB DuBois founded the Pan-African Movement in London in 1900, followed by the great intellectual theorist and activist organizers George Padmore, and CLR James, along with Marcus Garvey, the great Jamaican mass leader who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association here in Harlem over a century ago. the largest movement for the unification of Africans peoples in the Atlantic diaspora with our brothers and sisters in Africa for the Redemption of the Motherland. The direction of Kwame and Elombe’s lives were greatly influenced by these pioneering Pan-African patriots, especially Marcus Garvey. In essence they were artists who answered the call to revolution.
Hence Kwame’s oeuvre is a priceless treasure, a benefaction to all our generations born and unborn, to behold and be inspired. It is what the legendary Harlem bibliophile and longtime book store owner James Lawson called “Proper Propaganda.” As Chairman Mao Tse Tung, the revolutionary poet and philosopher who led the triumphant Chinese Revolution, the greatest mass transformative movement in world history, observed in his now famous Lectures at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art: “All Art is Propaganda, but not all propaganda is art. In order for art to succeed as propaganda, it must first succeed as art.” Hence Kwame’s art was such powerful propaganda but he was a great artist!
Those fortunate enough to have seen the recent exhibition of Kwame’s works. “Black Is Beautiful,” which were on display at the New York Historical Society from August 19, 2022 – January 15, 2023, will readily recognize why he was affectionately called: “Keeper of the Images.” Kwame’s Oeuvre is a kaleidoscopic panorama of the Icons and Signal events of a triumphant era in the Pan-African world. If you missed the exhibition, you can learn much about it by Googling the exhibition by name.
While recognizing that even the language of Shakespeare, James Baldwin and Tony Morrison is impoverished of suitable superlatives to capture the essence of this mighty black giant, I am nevertheless compelled to offer this Remembrance in the hope that it will convey some sense of this brilliant artist, Pan-African Soldier, and tireless servant of our people who has lately danced….and now takes his place among the Great Ancestors. Hail and Farewell Beloved Comrade, the struggle continues. ACHE!
Kwame and the Brilliant Photographer Lisa DuBois
At a Harlem Exhibition of Kwame’s Works
Kwame and Me at His Exhibition
Displaying his Iconic Portraits of Great Black Musicians
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
*** Photo of Kwame behind Camera and with Lisa Dubois by Playthell
Photo of Kwame and Playthell by Makeda Voletta