***I am happy to announce that our first substantive essay for 2018 will be a guest post by Lauren Miller Griffith. While this is Prof. Griffith’s first appearance on Kung Fu Tea she is already leaving her mark on the wider Martial Arts Studies community. Her recent book, In Search of Legitimacy: How Outsiders Become Part of the Afro-Brazilian Capoeira Tradition (Berghahn Books, 2016) will be of great interest to anyone who employs ethnography, or participant observation, as a research method. It is also a wonderful addition to the growing literature on capoeira. Her current post tackles a critical question, namely, to what degree might participation in a martial arts community influence someone’s social and political views? How does this process typically unfold? As a political scientist I have always found these questions to be very interesting, and I think that after reading her thought provoking essay you will as well. Enjoy!***
Capoeira as Graceful Resistance
By Lauren Miller Griffith, Ph.D.
Texas Tech University
“There aren’t many ‘all lives matter folks’ in capoeira.” I was told this by one of my consultants, an African American man I will call Idris. This was in response to a question I asked him about the demographics of his capoeira group. I thought I was in the early stages of a research project on the role of ethnic identity within American (U.S.) capoeira groups, but fate had other plans it seemed. In this moment, I realized that to ask American practitioners of this Afro-Brazilian art questions about racial and ethnic identity was an inherently political project, particularly in the present social and political climate. In the year and a half since interviewing Idris, my feelings about this have only grown stronger. While it is true that some capoeira groups are apolitical, even these cannot help but embody the strategies of resistance that have persisted in capoeira’s moves since the days of Brazilian slavery. Some of the stories of resistance that get passed down in capoeira may be ‘myth’ – for what is a martial art without a good origin story – but even so, a myth’s constant repetition in word and action makes it real to the people who base their lives upon it. In what follows, I am going to share with you the stories of several people who don’t just see a connection between capoeira and social justice, they concretize it through their everyday actions.
Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian art that combines music and dance with the improvisational trade of attacks and defenses. There is an emphasis on kicks, executed from either a moving base called the ginga or from the ground. Players often assume an inverted position, using cartwheels and handstands to move about the space while onlookers sing in Portuguese and sometimes clap along. The songs themselves are one of the primary means through which the weight and history of the past is brought to bear on the present, which means that even people with no personal experience of the African Diaspora often find themselves singing of their time in captivity. Since the 1970s, this art has grown in popularity outside of Brazil and can be found in many large and small cities throughout the United States, where this project is focused.
What, if anything, does capoeira have to do with social justice? In the section that follows, I present a typology explaining the different kinds of connections I have encountered in my research. First, however, it bears explaining what I mean when I use the term social justice. There are a multitude of writers using this term today to mean a wide variety of things – and its use in everyday conversation and in the media makes defining it even more difficult. Drawing from Theoharis’s work in educational leadership, I associate social justice with any number of caring and compassionate efforts to disrupt and subvert social structures that perpetuate inequality, working for the equitable distribution of wealth, opportunities, and wellbeing across all segments of society. In short, it means correcting for the ways in which society has – intentionally or unintentionally – marginalized certain groups of people. This definition is intentionally broad and, as I will show, allows for many different kinds of actions to be undertaken in the name of social justice. More overt social justice acts might include community organizing, public protests, or even civil disobedience. More subtle ones might appear, on the surface, to have a good deal in common with charity. For example, both social justice organizations and charities might raise money for social causes. But social justice activists acknowledge the role of power in perpetuating inequality and recognize that society itself is at least partially at fault for creating the conditions that deprive certain groups of opportunities for advancement.
A Typology of Graceful Resistance
Ever since my initial interview with Idris, I have wondered whether or not there is a link between social justice and capoeira and, if so, how pervasive this is. It is certainly something I saw with the Brazilian group that I trained with – our teacher even quoted Marx when explaining why we, especially the visitors that had come from abroad, needed to give back to the local community. As I began interviewing U.S.-based capoeiristas about their experiences with social justice and came to appreciate just how diverse these experiences are, I developed a typology to categorize them. The typology consists of two axes, one that describes the directionality of the social justice work (whether it is geared towards society in general or to other capoeiristas), and another that describes the degree of connection an action has with capoeira, whether the connection is implicit or explicit. This results in four categories or quadrants: (1) outward directed social justice acts with an explicit link to capoeira; (2) outward directed social justice acts with an implicit link to capoeira; (3) implicit messages about capoeira’s role in social justice within capoeira groups; and (4) explicit messages about capoeira’s role in social justice within capoeira groups.
First, an example of an externally directed social justice act that has an explicit link to capoeira. In October of 2017, the 11-year old nephew of the capoeira mestre (master) in Salt Lake City, Utah was harassed by some white teenagers who yelled racial slurs at him from the windows of their moving car. The boy feared for his life. One of my research contacts, whose professional life revolves around social justice, is a member of this group. According to him, the group helped organize an event to walk the boy home from school. Not only did this make the boy feel safe, but it raised awareness of what had happened to him and signaled that the community would not allow bullying of any sort, much less hate-driven bigotry, persist in their town. Although official media reports do not specifically list the capoeira group as a sponsor, the group turned out in force, wearing their uniforms and carrying their instruments. This, based on my research so far, is a common way that individuals make the link between capoeira and social justice visible to the community at large.
The next example is one that shows how an externally directed social justice act may be implicitly linked to capoeira. On the surface, there may not appear to be a link at all…but closer inspection reveals how one’s experiences in capoeira can contribute to an individual’s compulsion to become an activist. Although the man I am preparing to discuss told me very clearly that his alleged actions were in no way connected with capoeira and he hadn’t discussed these plans with any of the members of his capoeira group, the motivations behind his alleged act are in keeping with the particular aspects of capoeira’s history that many U.S. groups celebrate. In American capoeira groups, it is common for people to hear that capoeira originated when African slaves, who were forbidden from fighting, put their moves to music and disguised subversive training as dance. Given the lack of reliable records, it is difficult to either confirm or dispel this myth. Following the work of Thomas Green, I maintain that the veracity of the story is not of primary importance. Rather, it is why people believe what they do, how they behave because of that belief, and how they socialize novices into that same worldview.
Given the seriousness of the charges pending against this man, I am resisting the urge to even give him a pseudonym. Nor do I wish to identify his location, even in the vaguest terms, as he has been receiving threats from right wing extremists. I hope it suffices to say that he is a white man in his early 30s who, shortly after the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, committed an act of civil disobedience for which he was arrested, jailed overnight, and is now awaiting his court date. This man describes his white skin as a form of camouflage that allows him to do things that would be far riskier for people of color. He was raised in a family that was committed to social justice, though his radical anti-racism has become much stronger in recent years. He has played capoeira for about a decade and while being a capoeirista didn’t necessarily awaken his consciousness, he does connect some of this urgency he feels to act with the stories he has heard from his Afro-Brazilian capoeira mestre. For example, he told me one story that he had heard about Mestre Bimba, the master credited with developing the capoeira regional style and cleaning up its reputation so that it became reputable enough to eventually become known as Brazil’s national sport. According to the story, Mestre Bimba once witnessed a black boy being abused by the Brazilian police. The mestre physically intervened on the boy’s behalf. My friend said that this was just “Mestre Bimba being Mestre Bimba” and was not intended as a political statement about profiling or police brutality. My friend was making a political statement. He didn’t commit this alleged act because he is a capoeirista; rather, his engagement with an art that celebrates its creators’ resistance to oppression has sharpened his sense of obligation to act on behalf of people who are experiencing oppression today.
Internally directed actions that implicitly link social justice and capoeira may be the most difficult to come across in interviews because they often happen without anyone taking conscious note of them. Yet this is probably the most common form of engagement the typical capoeirista has with social justice. It most often takes the form of teachers enculturating their students into the discourse of resistance as they teach specific movements. The benção, for example, was presented to me in this way. Although most of the kicks in capoeira trace a graceful arc through the air, the benção (blessing) follows a straight line. The torso bends back slightly as the foot is drawn up towards the midpoint of the body and then pushed forward towards your opponent’s torso. It is often used when your opponent has his or her guard down and has seemingly forgot that you are engaged in a fight, sometimes when you are about to shake hands. One of the mestres I have studied with told me that it was like the way the slave masters used to ‘bless’ their slaves (conversion to Catholicism was required of all slaves and the master was expected to be their paternalistic benefactor). The façade of caring masks the ugliness of the institution of slavery, which is like a kick in the stomach. Note that the story itself is not really about capoeira – it is about the conditions experienced by slaves in colonial Brazil – but has become implicitly linked to capoeira through its association with this particular movement. Personally, I am wary of overly symbolic ‘readings’ of form; however, the explication of symbolism in discourse is an entirely different matter. This rather off-handed comment about the benção wasn’t used as a springboard for a lecture on inequality or our obligation to serve the underprivileged – though these were certainly themes that came up in other contexts – but repeated exposure to stories like these will affect how students think about issues like power and resistance. The lesson is brought to life every time the student executes that move in the roda (performance space).
See this link for a picture of the benção; note this capoeira group is in no way affiliated with the data presented here.
The final quadrant of this model is dedicated to internally directed social justice actions with an explicit link to capoeira. These actions are often characterized by people talking about the role of capoeira in modern life and/or how capoeiristas should deal with current political events or social trends. For example, I recently had the opportunity to interview Fabricio, a Brazilian capoeirista who now lives and teaches capoeira in a major U.S. city. The primary focus of our conversation was his group’s involvement in public protests of things like the Dakota Access Pipeline and various officer-involved shootings. Their participation in these protests, dressed in their uniforms and carrying instruments, is something that would fit in quadrant one: externally directed social justice acts that have an explicit link to capoeira. But in the course of our discussion, he casually mentioned his frustration with capoeiristas who participate in a city-wide ‘Halloween roda’ (pronounced hoe-dah).
The Halloween roda is open to all capoeiristas, but is held in a private setting and thus is not a public demonstration. It is more-or-less a normal roda, albeit with the participants dressed in costume. This kind of event is not unique to his location, and a quick search on google or Youtube will yield many examples of people playing capoeira in Halloween costumes. Fabricio has no issue with these people as individuals, but he objects to the event. He doesn’t have a problem with people using capoeira to celebrate holidays that are well-aligned with the capoeira value system – like Martin Luther King’s birthday or Indigenous Peoples’ Day – but feels that using capoeira to celebrate a consumerist holiday like Halloween is inappropriate. Fabricio said that people are using Halloween as an excuse to have fun “without really thinking [about] where capoeira’s coming from and the privilege we have of having capoeira here today.” In the days following our conversation, Fabricio shared his ideas about the Halloween roda on Facebook. He explained that protecting capoeira and its political history from foreign influences, particularly those associated with whites, has become increasingly important to him as his own racial consciousness has grown. By calling out his fellow capoeiristas for a use of capoeira that he felt was symptomatic of global/white privilege, Fabricio explicitly linked capoeira and social justice.
See this link for a video from a Halloween roda; note this capoeira group is in no way affiliated with the data presented here.
Capoeira and Concientização
Recently I spoke with an African-American man nicknamed Saçi, a trickster figure in Brazilian folklore. Saçi serves others through his job, rescuing stranded motorists on the often-treacherous roads that weave through the Arizona mountains, though he is less explicitly involved in social justice work than are some of the other people about whom I have written here. Yet something he said in our conversation sparked my thinking about how this process of concientização, or consciousness raising happens. It is his belief that when you practice any kind of art, you are stepping outside of your comfort zone and becoming vulnerable. Opening yourself up in this way sets the stage for becoming more empathetic and aware of the common humanity we share with others. I don’t disagree, but what really stuck with me was when he said that through capoeira he became friends with people he wouldn’t have known to become friends with otherwise. People often choose to be friends with others that are like themselves – either accidentally based on circumstance or intentionally by self-segregating. Because capoeira, like other martial arts or indeed any elective affinity group, draws together people from such different walks of life, they have the opportunity to learn about the circumstances each other have experienced in life.
Speaking from my own personal experience, it was through capoeira that I came to truly understand the pervasiveness of racial profiling. Despite all the courses I have taken (and now taught) on social structure and reproduction of power in society, what made this real to me was when one of my training partners and friends told me how many times he had been pulled over for being in neighborhoods where the cops thought he shouldn’t have been. And it wasn’t until I had been practicing with my group for several years that I came to understand how uncomfortable it was for our black teacher to commute between the two locations where he taught (the original group in a Midwestern college town and a second group about an hour away in a larger metropolitan area) because the commute took him directly past a town known for Klan membership. Members of our group would joke uncomfortably about what would happen if we broke down there, but behind the joking façade were real concerns.
The expansion of my awareness of racial inequality happened in a domestic context, but there is an international dimension to this as well. Francis is an African American man who lives in Detroit. His experiences do an excellent job of illustrating the ideas I put forth in my first book on the challenges non-Brazilians often face in claiming legitimacy within the art (Griffith 2016). The capoeiristas I focused on in that book traveled to Brazil and trained with local masters in order to augment their legitimacy in the art, a phenomenon I call apprenticeship pilgrimage (later elaborated in Griffith & Marion 2018). In fact, this is why I wanted to interview him. It had not occurred to me until after the interview was over that this too suggested a link between capoeira and social justice. Unlike the examples above that are clear examples of intentional activism, this example suggests the possibility that just being a capoeirista can create the context in which the sharing of stories about racial discrimination or profiling can raise awareness of the ongoing need for social justice work.
Francis had not intended to become a capoeira teacher, but when his group found itself without a teacher, he stepped into that role. Knowing that he would not likely master the acrobatic embellishments that many people in the capoeira regional style use to set themselves apart, he decided to focus on learning the history, culture, and language of Brazil. His hard work allowed him to communicate directly with visiting mestres whereas many non-Brazilians have to use translators when attending classes offered by these individuals. Ever the capoeirista-trickster, he tended to keep this skill to himself so any Brazilians who doubted him would continue talking about him in Portuguese, thinking he wouldn’t understand. From this covert eavesdropping, his suspicions that some of the Brazilians lacked respect for non-Brazilian capoeiristas was confirmed. But of course, this is not the end of his story. Although it took many years before circumstances would allow it, Francis recently had the opportunity to undertake an apprenticeship pilgrimage. Francis describes it as a homecoming, and his visit allowed him to experience the places and settings he had heard about in capoeira songs and stories. He cherishes the moments he spent one-on-one with his mestre at his academy in Bahia, something made possible in large part by his dedication to learning Portuguese. Although he did not go out as much as some of the other, younger, visitors, he did tell me about one evening that he went out for beer with some local Afro-Brazilian capoeirista.
In the course of their conversation that evening, it was revealed that each party had held mistaken assumptions about the experience of African descendants in the other country. Francis had unwittingly bought into the myth of racial democracy that was popularized by Gilberto Freyre and kept alive by subsequent generations of social scientists and lay people alike, so he was surprised to find that his Brazilian counterparts had both experienced persecution at the hands of the police. The Brazilians, on the other hand, had been convinced that life was so easy in the United States that police discrimination was a non-issue. Elsewhere I have written about troca de informação – information exchange – as the most important non-monetary benefit of call apprenticeship pilgrimage. What Francis experienced seems to be a special case of troca de informação in which the information being exchanged was about the experience of black people in different parts of the Diaspora. Although Francis was coming from a relatively privileged position, as he had the time and money necessary to make an international journey, both parties came to the realization through their conversation of their shared position of marginality vis-à-vis the white-dominated societies in which they live.
U.S. based capoeira groups are not the only ones that promote social justice, and not all American capoeira groups have an activist bent, yet based on the preliminary work I have done on this topic, there seems to be something unique about the American capoeira experience that sets the stage for concientização. The creation of a typology such as the one I have outlined here is not a goal in and of itself, but a tool that can be useful in answering more nuanced questions about what kinds of activism are most common and in what kinds of capoeira groups each type of activism is manifest. In my future work, I hope to do just that. Because a conclusion would be too preliminary at this point, I will end my musings with first, a plea for any capoeiristas who engage in social justice work to reach out to me at Lauren.Griffith@ttu.edu, and second, a question similar to that posed to me by Fabricio. What are you – in your capacity as a martial artist and/or scholar – doing for the communities that have created and preserved the arts you hold dear?
About the Author: Lauren Miller Griffith is an assistant professor of anthropology at Texas Tech University who teaches courses in cultural anthropology, anthropological theory and method, Latin America, performance, and tourism. Her first book, In Search of Legitimacy: How Outsiders Become Part of the Afro-Brazilian Capoeira Tradition (Berghahn Books, 2016), examines the Afro-Brazilian martial art capoeira and its international practitioners. She coined the term “apprenticeship pilgrimage” to describe the journeys non-Brazilian capoeiristas make to Brazil as a way of alleviating anxieties about their ability to embody a foreign cultural tradition. Apprenticeship Pilgrimage is also the focus of a second book being written with co-author Jonathan Marion.
If you liked this guest post you might also want to read: Our Fist is Black: Martial Arts, Black Arts, and Black Power in the 1960s and 1970s.