***It is my very great pleasure to present the following guest post by Maryam Aziz. A doctoral student at the University of Michigan, I first had the opportunity to meet her at the 2015 Martial Arts Studies conference at the University of Cardiff where she was presenting some of her research. Her topic is an important one that speaks to multiple conversations in history, cultural studies, sociology and anthropology. As I have stated in other places, the martial arts studies literature needs more focused studies tracing developments within single communities, arts or even geographic locations. These provide us with both the data necessary to assess our theories as well as the empirical puzzles that will drive the development and newer and better one. I look forward to hearing much more from her in the future.***
Our Fist is Black: Martial Arts, Black Arts, and Black Power in the 1960s and 1970s Urban North and West
During the five years that I have been researching the history of African American martial atrial arts, I have noticed a curious academic pattern that appears in the scant scholarship on the topic. Generally present in Afro-Asian studies texts produced between 2001 and 2008, megastar Bruce Lee’s popularity is repeatedly used as the focal point for exploring the rise of martial arts practice in black communities, resulting in claims that African Americans’ fascination with martial arts began with the 1970s kung fu film craze (Cha-Jua 199). I argue such claims are ahistorical because the rise of the practice of East Asian martial arts in black communities can actually be traced to the post-WWII and Black Power Eras. Focusing on the latter in this paper, I use martial arts instructors in the urban West and North cities of Los Angeles and Newark to contend that martial arts schools served as critical sites for Black artistic production, resistance, and empowerment. By institutionalizing martial art spaces in Black urban geographies, instructors like Shaha Mfundishi Maasi provided Black Arts teachings that directly transformed community members’ lives. The oral histories and primary documents utilized here indicate that these instructors taught students self-defense skills as well as Black cultural knowledge. Thus, rather than continuing to focus on Lee, I propose we view Black participation in the martial arts through the lens of the Black Arts and Black Power Movements, thereby productively rethinking what counts as cultural production and how said production functions in social movements. Because the movements were distinct yet inseparable reflections of one another, Black martial arts instructors moved fluidly between both, and as their radical consciousnesses grew, they matched their philosophies and teachings to Black Power and Black Arts’ goals and ideologies.
By the time Bruce Lee’s series Green Hornet hit television screens in 1966, martial arts were already being taught in black communities. In fact, if you drove a half-hour from the 20th Century Fox studios were the series was filmed in Los Angeles, you would have found yourself at a park near Manchester Avenue. There you would have spotted Grandmaster Steve Muhammad (then Steve Sanders), demonstrating a front kick for the youth who participated in his free karate classes. Also in the same year across the country in Newark, New Jersey, Shaha Mfundishi Maasi (born William Nichols), could be found teaching in his school the Hakeem Martial Arts Association. Both instructors cite that the period, a moment of “rising or broadening of consciousness,” strongly influenced their desires to teach and their pedagogies (Hinton 102). In the same year that Grandmaster Muhammad received his black belt and began his free classes, James Meredith was shot during his March on Fear from Memphis to Jackson. Kwame Touré and others continued the March on his behalf and at one of the rallies, Mukasa Dada, aka Willie Ricks, and Touré spoke vehemently of Black Power. Malcolm X’s death had already influenced many activists to shift their tactics. Many activists like Amiri Baraka were invested in both the arts and politics, unwilling to separate them as discrete forms of nationalism. A newly theorized Black Art emerged and burned as the coal that sparked the Black Arts Movement (BAM). In the poem “Black Art,” Baraka calls for art with power, art that produces change, and artists who are willing to write and affect that change it. Arguing that art arms people with the defenses necessary to combat an unjust system, Baraka believed that a true Black artist equipped his people to deal with individuals who were symbolic of a violent system. By figuratively bringing “fire…to whities ass” (Baraka 27-28), art could convince its audience that they could literally do so, being the offspring of warriors (Aziz 110). When Baraka speaks of warriorhood, he is making a tie between art and conflict and how a poet is both a groundworker and a warrior for Black Power, claiming that all activist-artists are inheritors of an Afro-centric warrior legacy. And though he never explicitly mentions martial arts, Baraka’s repeated usage of the term “warrior” suggests the intertwining of aesthetics, self-determination, and self-defense that martial arts practice creates. Martial artists are literally warrior-artists, aesthetically trained in combat arts meant to be defensive acts of defiance.
By 1969, a year after the publication of the crucial Black Fire anthology, Grandmaster Steve Muhammad had created a black martial arts community in Los Angeles along with seven other martial artists. They met to work out on Saturday mornings in South Central Los Angeles’ Van Ness Park and soon named themselves the Black Karate Federation (BKF). Muhammad and his cohort were influenced by older masters like William Short, who had begun training Los Angeles youth in the 1950s. Short owned the Kobayashi School of Karate on So. Western Ave in South Central. His own teachings paralleled those of his friend, Dr. Maulana Karenga, and in addition to martial arts, Short taught his students African American history (Muhammad 50).
Conscious Raising in Black Martial Artistry
The Black Karate Federation’s usage of martial arts allowed them to carve, with their closed fists and cocked limbs, both an unabashedly black identity and a black artistic consciousness. The Black Karate Federation derived many of their speedy kicks and hand strikes from Muhammad’s American Kenpo training, but they showed their identity through the logo that the founders conceived using cultural nationalist symbolism. The B.K.F logo blazed from the patch of students’ uniforms: a clenched, golden fist, its fingers facing away from the eye, covered by a red, black, and green banner, upon which a cobra calmly but dangerously hissed, all falling downward toward a scroll with the letters B.K.F written upon it (Muhammad 80-81). The patch went through other iterations, including one that wrote “Power to the People” over the cobra and another that was shaped like a globe with a black fist at the center. In all its usages, the fist’s meaning served two purposes. One, it represented the word “kenpo”‘s meaning, which is “Fist Law” according to Muhammad. Two, it stood as a symbol of “power and righteousness” (Muhammad 81). Inspired by the 1968 Olympic Games podium gesture by sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the BKF used the fist to demonstrate their desire “to fight injustice” and “to overcome racism” (Muhammad 82). The fist’s golden color signified its wealth and power (Muhammad 82). Its red, black, and green banner mirrored the Pan-African flag created by Marcus Garvey, serving as a “bold and powerful vision” for “all peoples of Africa, regardless of land and birth” (Muhammad 83). The cobra represented the swift movements of Muhammad and the BKF’s fighters but also carried a Pan-Africanist meaning for venomous snakes, i.e. cobras, are considered indigenous to many regions on the continent of Africa. The fist and Pan-African flag colors enjoyed increased usage among black radicals during the period that the BKF was started, placing their choices within a larger shift and conversation happening toward the middle and end of the 1960s. These symbols allowed the BKF to enter conversations about black cultural identity and empowerment through their artistic, stylistic choices. Hundreds of girls and boys would wear the insignia during the ensuing decade (Muhammad 64).
In addition to theorizing school representation and uniform, black martial arts instructors also explicitly tied their pedagogy to agendas being using by other contemporary activists. Shaha, or learned elder, Mfundishi Maasi was a cultural and martial theorist who would also teach hundreds of students during the 1960s and 1970s (Maasi 2013). Maasi taught them that life lies with the individual and stressed that “the art[s] can be utilized as an instrument for enlightenment” (Hinton 88). He imparted to his students the most valuable knowledge he gained through his own martial arts training, which was the knowledge of self (Hinton 87). It was clear to him early on that martial arts could take practitioners further than the “ability to beat somebody” (Hinton 91).
The particular style Maasi co-developed tied the search of the personal self to the search for the cultural self. Due to collaboration with Nganga Tolo-Naa, a Chicago martial artist who founded the All African Peoples Art and Cultural Center, the style became known as “kupigani ngumi,” a Kiswahili term signifying “the way of fighting with the fist” (Maasi 2013). The motive behind teaching kupigani ngumi was to provide an art that, though partly based in East Asian movements, integrated cultural reflections youth could identify with. Kupigani ngumi attempted to present art in a way that “our people who were in the midst of cultural struggle [at the time] could relate to” (Maasi 2013). He and Tolo-Naa chose Kiswahili principles, such as “kuzviata,” because they deeply engaged the young men and women in their classes (Maasi 2013). Kuzviata loosely translates to “reach out and touch yourself” and Maasi used it to teach students self-discipline (Maasi 2013). Using it in conjunction with kurimedza, which means “to enthrone with dignity,” Maasi created an educational atmosphere where students could see the cultural relevance of building both their fortitudes and characters (Maasi 2013). He found “these methods helped to bind the [students] in principle in a way that they would relate to each other not as…competitors but as [siblings] on the field of cultural battle” (Maasi 2013). Equipping the young artists with the tools to succeed on the front of cultural battle did not actually entail leading them into confrontation or physical conflict. It meant building up strong self and cultural images. Maasi’s students were his own guide toward self and cultural survival every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. They were his “young lions” or “Simba Wachanga” (Maasi 2013). They were his to lead past the contagious, quote “self-limiting thoughts, the sense of inferiority, and hopelessness, and the loss of heritage, dignity, and self-respect” (Maasi 2013).
Maasi’s teaching was a part of his role with Newark’s Black Community Defense and Development (BCD), a part of the coalition Committee for a Unified NewArk (CFUN) (Woodard 109-110). Maasi worked directly with Amiri Baraka, whose own transformation and shifting educational values influenced Maasi, as evident in his Pan-Africanist martial arts pedagogy. As Baraka motivated ground workers through his call-to-action poetry, Maasi’s self-defense lessons allowed them to fight off racist attackers who sought to prevent them from advertising for meetings.
Both the personal and philosophical links between the Black Arts and Black Power movements and Black martial arts instructors forces us to expand our understanding of both movements to include martial artistry. Besides CFUN, there is evidence that other organizations such as the US, the East, the Republic of New Africa, and the Black Panther Party practiced martial arts for similar yet varying purposes. To talk about these arts as cultural formations will challenge us to look in new places for the evidence of the Black Arts Movements’ impacts. Furthermore, it will push Black art scholars to reconceptualization what they view as artistic production. In taking this challenge seriously, we can critically assess the ways in which scholars have reified traditional views of what qualifies as art through their chosen objects of analysis. Lastly, we can push the theoretical boundaries of who was a Black artist and who created Black art.
To conclude, I want to turn briefly to the moment when Bruce Lee’s legend was solidified if only to do the work of looking past him. What would happen if we paused the Blu-ray of Enter the Dragon at 24:58? We would find that Lee is no longer the object of the frame. Instead, the figures of Grandmaster Steve Muhammad and film star Jim Kelly replace him. Muhammad and an early version of the BKF patch are prominently displayed on screen as Kelly and Muhammad speak in the BKF’s “103rd Street School” (Muhammad 54). What would happen then if we relocate this moment in history and resituate Steve Muhammad and the BKF in the history of growing Black fervor for martial arts? What if we talked about Jim Kelly as a form of anti-colonial, anti-racist masculinity as he flips and defeats two racist cops? Would we stop using Bruce Lee as a mirror to imagine the masculinities of Black men who were present in their own struggle? Could we go a step further and interrogate why the scene is devoid of Black women’s presence, an illusion that incorrectly typecasts the BKF as male-only? All of these questions lead to the ultimate question: What does it mean to center narratives of Black martial arts pioneers when reliving and reviewing moments in American martial arts and cinematic history?
About the Author
Maryam Aziz is a doctoral student in the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan. Her work constructs a social and cultural history of martial arts practice during 20th century social movements, specifically the Black Power Movement. She holds a 2nd degree Black Belt in Goju Ryu Karate from the New Jersey State Black Belt Association and conducts self-defense workshops for populations targeted for hate crimes. Readers interested in finding out more about her research may contact her at: maryamka “at” umich.edu.
Aziz, Maryam. “Finding the Warrior.” The Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Journal (2013): 109-12. Print.
Baraka, Amiri. “Black Art.” Black Fire: An Anthology of AfroAmerican Writing. Ed. Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal. Baltimore: Black Classic, 2007. 302-303. Print.
Cha-Jua, Sundiata. “Black Audiences, Blaxploitation and Kung Fu Films, and Challenges to White Celluloid Masculinity.” China Forever: The Shaw Brothers and Diasporic Cinema. Ed. Poshek Fu. Urbana: U of Illinois, 2008. 199-223. Print.
Enter the Dragon. Dir. Robert Clouse. Perf. Bruce Lee and Jim Kelly. Warner Bros, 1973. DVD
Hinton, William, and D’Arcy Rahming. Men of Steel Discipline: The Official Oral History of Black Pioneers in the Martial Arts. Chicago, IL: Modern Bu-jutsu, 1994. Print.
Maasi, Mfundishi. “Oral Historical Interview with Mfundishi Maasi.” Telephone interview. 28 Mar. 2013.
Muhammad, Steve, and Donnie Williams. BKF Kenpo: History and Advanced Strategic Principles. Burbank, CA: Unique Publications, 2002. Print.
Woodard, Komozi. A Nation within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina, 1999. Print.