Reimagining Africa: How Black Women Invented the Language of Soul in the 1950s

The following is an excerpt from Tanisha C. Ford’s Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul.

From the civil rights and Black Power era of the 1960s through antiapartheid activism in the 1980s and beyond, black women have used their clothing, hair, and style not simply as a fashion statement but as a powerful tool of resistance. Whether using stiletto heels as weapons to protect against police attacks or incorporating African-themed designs into everyday wear, these fashion-forward women celebrated their identities and pushed for equality.

In this thought-provoking book, Tanisha C. Ford explores how and why black women in places as far-flung as New York City, Atlanta, London, and Johannesburg incorporated style and beauty culture into their activism. Focusing on the emergence of the “soul style” movement—represented in clothing, jewelry, hairstyles, and more—Liberated Threads shows that black women’s fashion choices became galvanizing symbols of gender and political liberation. 

Ford’s Liberated Threads was recently featured on our Black History Month 2022 Reading List: Black Resistance.

In the early years of Miriam Makeba’s U.S. career, RCA Records aimed to efface the singer’s South African roots by marketing her as a sultry lounge singer in the bourgeois styling of African American singer-actress Diahann Carroll. After the commercial failure of Makeba’s self-titled first album in 1960, RCA dropped the Xhosa songstress from its record label. But by 1964, label executives recognized that there was a growing audience with an interest in the African independence movements and African culture more broadly, prompting RCA to re-sign the singer. This time around, the label decided to make Makeba’s Africanness a hypervisible element of her branding. The cover of Makeba’s 1964 album, The Voice of Africa, is evidence of this shift, with the title touting Makeba as a spokeswoman for the continent. The cover art features a drawing of an ornate African-style mask in the colors of the Universal Negro Improvement Association’s pan-African unity flag, red, black, and green, with a small picture of Makeba imposed on its center (figure 1.1). The image was a symbol of African nationalism, though none of the album’s track titles explicitly address the political movements in Africa. As Makeba remembered, her outspoken opposition to apartheid transformed her public image from “just an African singer” to “a symbol of my repressed people.” Her “people” included not only Africans but black people around the globe, as Makeba became an icon of diasporic black militancy and African-inspired fashion that could be packaged and distributed to the masses.

Between 1958 and 1964, Miriam Makeba, a host of African diplomats and students, and a group of African American soul singers reshaped the style of New York City. Makeba, Nina Simone, Odetta, and Abbey Lincoln helped create a politically charged language of soul that established soul style as a fashionable expression of blackness. Not only did they lend their voices to local, national, and international civil rights movements through the simple act of appearing in public in styles that subverted expectations of what a respectable black woman’s body should look like, they also gave a generation a new set of terms and tools for asserting themselves. In a world where black women’s bodies were often objectified and used as placeholders in a variety of competing ideologies—whether as symbols of “primitive” black sexuality or as keepers of black respectability—women’s choices to adorn themselves differently became political. These singers were fashion icons and arbiters of black aesthetics whose international platform helped soul style reach a broad, diverse audience.

Figure 1.1. Miriam Makeba, The Voice of Africa, RCA Records, 1964.

International black publications such as Ebony and South Africa’s Drum magazine used their pages to discuss African independence and the role of African culture in the creation of a modern African diaspora. For African Americans and Afro-Europeans, establishing a tie to Africa that was not solely about slavery allowed for a reimagining of blackness built upon new aesthetic interpretations of style and beauty. What emerged was a soul style that was considered more African in form, origin, and inspiration than previous incarnations of black style. Performing this type of African-inflected soul—through music as well as clothing—made a person a modern citizen of the world. As members of this soul generation adopted, adapted, and innovated with the vocabulary that soul gave them, their everyday choices created a rich cultural-political discourse. Exploring the connection between activist-entertainers of the 1950s and the broader struggle for black human and civil rights offers a new way of analyzing the often-overlooked history of soul style.

Miriam Makeba and Style Politics in Africa

Miriam Makeba began building her reputation as a style icon in the mid-1950s, during her years singing in the nightclubs of Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Alexandra Townships. Townships were suburbs of the predominantly white urban centers of South Africa’s major cities, including Cape Town and Durban as well as Johannesburg. Sophiatown and Alexandra were among the only townships in which blacks could own property. After the “white flight” of the 1920s, these spaces were largely inhabited by people of color: blacks, coloureds (the label the government assigned to people of mixed race), and South Asians. Sophiatown in particular was known for being a multiracial cultural hub. It was a nexus of black writers, jazz musicians, and other entertainers, as well as political figures. Sophiatown’s and Alexandra’s nightclubs continued to flourish even in the early years of apartheid, a system that barred nonwhites from leaving the township at night, working outside of the township without an employment pass, drinking alcohol, or having intimate relationships with people of a different race. Under these conditions, nightlife was an important social outlet for people of color. Miriam Makeba and the men in her jazz group, the Manhattan Brothers, performed in these nightspots before audiences that ranged from gangsters to journalists and socialites. Dressing stylishly was a critical aspect of moving through the nightclub scene. The gangsters who frequented Makeba’s shows had nicknames that spoke to their sartorial flair. Makeba remembered a man called “Styles” attending several shows in Alexandra dressed in “a hat, a belted jacket, and those Florsheim shoes.” The Manhattan Brothers’ fashion was just as important as their sound, which blended U.S. jazz styles with traditional Xhosa and Zulu music. Their “debonair” style projected the air of sophistication that they associated with the U.S. borough of Manhattan in New York City. They wore tailored suits with matching ties and kerchiefs and expensive imported Florsheim dress shoes. As the sole woman in the group, Makeba had to look the part in order to win over the opinionated crowd. Makeba’s stylist (and cousin), actress-singer Peggy Phango, helped her develop her signature stage look that consisted of “Western style outfits: the stiff petticoats that flare out” or “tight, strapless evening dresses.” Makeba’s style could be described as sexy urban street wear meets youthful feminine elegance. Her blend of edgy and respectable destabilized notions of feminine propriety that black South African women were expected to adhere to, making Makeba a model of the modern girl. Her look was also significant because it did not fit what African Americans imagined as African.

Tanisha C. Ford is associate professor of Black American studies and history at the University of Delaware.