Like so many others, I currently find it difficult to focus on the task at hand. Unlike most other people, the “happy place” I keep retreating to is the martial arts history of China’s Republic period (1912-1949). That would normally be fine except that this summer I am working on two project that are A) more contemporary and B) political, rather than purely historical, in nature. So far it has been slow going.
Nevertheless, sometimes the universe (or the malicious intelligence that animates library electronic search algorithms) steps in. This was the case earlier this week when I found myself trawling yet again for articles about martial arts (more specifically fencing) in Chinese newspapers during the 1920s. For reasons that I do not understand one of the very top search results was a 1972 piece from the Chicago Daily Defender (perhaps the largest black owned newspapers in the US at the time) titled “Black Women Study Karate: An Old Art with New Meaning.” This piece met none of my search criteria, but it is exactly the sort of thing that I should be spending the summer trying to dig up.
I had stumbled across an intriguing discussion that underlined how martial arts might function in a political context outside of well documented excesses of the 1930s-1940s. Indeed, the very nature of martial communities make them potentially (necessarily?) political in most times and places. What could be more political than the creation, maintenance and training of groups capable of articulating their social demands while also physically “defending themselves” from other actors or outside pressures? That right there is a pretty decent model of “realist politics.”
It is easy to fixate on the more alarming aspects of the early 20th century, where we see martial communities directly entwined with authoritarian and fascist governments, and forget the full range of how political activities may manifest. In most areas of the world things looked quite different during the post-WWII period. And yet the global spread of the Asian fighting systems always seems to have been linked with a desire to articulate demands for change, either on the personal or community level. As I have noted before, very few new students walk into a martial arts school because everything in their lives is going wonderfully.
The Black Karate movement, which rose to social prominence in the 1960s-1970s, forcefully articulates this political potential. Even better, by generating their own set of creation mythologies seeking to localize these fighting systems, it provides us with an important point of comparative study. Finally, It reminds us that the globalization of Asia’s fighting systems was not a singular event. This was a process that unfolded many times, and in many different ways, in a variety of communities.
Russell Meek is a fascinating figure in this respect. Today he is most often remembered as a media personality who appeared on both TV and radio, a lecturer at Malcom X College and as a civil rights advocate who gained some prominence in the Chicago area. A quick YouTube search turns up a number of hits including some scorching exchanges from the late 1960s, exactly the period that we are interested in. Upon viewing this material its difficult not to draw comparisons between the sorts of discontent and racial debates that were happening in 1968 and today.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s Meek was also identified as a teacher and advocate of the Black Karate movement. Interestingly that role was explicitly noted when he was quoted in Jet magazine or other media outlets discussing political or social topics that had nothing to do with self-defense. He seems to have taught his own brand of Dravidian Karate which combined traditional self-defense training with other subjects that he believed were necessary to support racial pride and success in the increasingly difficult environment of the Chicago ghetto. These subjects included foreign language study (Spanish and Swahili were chosen rather than the Japanese that one might hear in other dojos), mathematics, and even music. Meek publicly identified as a revolutionary and while the African American reporters who visited his school did not note that same level of political content in the actual instruction, it does seem clear that he was using the martial arts to instill both a general ethos in his students as well as some more detailed ideological points. His Dravidian Karate classes are a classic example of community building through martial arts instruction.
As we have seen in other places (including Germany during the early 20th century), it is not uncommon for new students in other parts of the world to generate narratives that seek to explain how material that appears exotic or foreign is actually the natural property of the community that has adopted it. I have often wondered whether there is something about the very structure of lineage mythology that lends itself to this sort of rhetorical appropriation. In any case, it seems to be a rather common strategy for making the new community more social attractive to potential joiners and lowering barriers to entry. Of course it also serves to add layers of personal and philosophical meaning to one’s practice.
In this case Meek (and a number of other martial artists both at the time and since) promoted the theory that the Dravidian linguistic and ethnic groups of Southern India were in fact descended from African immigrants who had brought their own forms of self-defense training with them to Asia in the distant past. Bodhidharma, the Indian missionary saint who would later become (spuriously) associated with the Shaolin temple and its martial arts, was further identified as being descended from this group. Consequentially pretty much all modern Asian martial arts could be recast as originally of African descent. In learning what at first appeared to be Japanese/Okinawan fighting arts, the African-American community was in fact reclaiming skills and a source of pride that rightfully belonged to them. These practices could then be modified to meet the specific demands of life in the Chicago ghetto during the late 1960s and early 1970.
These are neighborhoods that will already seem familiar to most students of Martial Arts Studies. Loic Wacquant’s ethnography of boxing in this area a few decades later proved to be a foundational element in the creation of our field. While we lack the same sort of carefully documented study of Meek’s schools, it is interesting to note certain obvious differences between his Dravidian Karate and the region’s rich boxing tradition as documented by Wacquant.
Even in these short accounts gender stands out as important factor. Wacquant went into some detail as he described the ways in which women were systematically excluded, not just from the practice of boxing but the physical space of the training area itself. The martial culture that he apprenticed in was an almost monastic bastion of masculinity.
It is thus important to note that women appear to have played a key role in the organization of Meek’s Dravidian school. A close reading of the article seems to suggest that both gender segregated and mixed classes were offered. But more importantly, female students frequently served as assistant instructors and led classes. They demonstrated their skills for the press and were held up as successful competitors in local tournaments. The articles that follow even give us some clues as to the sorts of motivations and goals that may have attracted African-American women to martial arts training during the late 1960s and early 1970. One wonders whether the explicitly nationalist ethos of certain martial movements actually necessitates a more inclusive construction of the fighting community?
The timing of these pieces is also interesting given our recent discussion of the cultural impact of Bruce Lee. Cultural historians typically date the start of North America’s “Kung Fu Fever” to late 1973, following the release of Lee’s block buster, Enter the Dragon. Given the themes of colonialism, economic exploitation and racial injustice that he battled in his films, it is not surprising that Lee would become an inspiration for many African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American martial artists during the following decade. This phenomenon has already generated much discussion throughout the field.
Still, it is important not to confuse temporal correlation with causation. Throughout the late 1960s there had been a groundswell of interest in Chinese fighting systems led in large part by Karate students searching out the mythological origins of their art. Among the minority of Americans who subscribed to Black Belt magazine, or who kept up on the Karate vs. Judo debate, this helped to open a space where Lee’s message could find an initial receptive audience.
Likewise, the Black Karate movement was very much a force, and something that was gaining steam, prior to Lee’s eruption as the first Asian American superstar. According to the interviews below, Meek opened his school in the late 1960s, and all three articles date to the early 1970s, prior to the explosion of interest in the martial arts that would finally grab the attention of the public at large.
I have always wondered if one of the things that contributed to the wide cross-over success of Enter the Dragon was its ensemble cast including both John Saxon and Jim Kelly. It has been argued that these co-stars were forced on Lee by a Hollywood establishment that doubted the ability of an Asian leading man to sell tickets and fill seats in the United States. Whatever misgivings they may have had about Lee’s star power were quickly laid to rest when his films began to find eager audiences across the United State and Western Europe.
Still, in a symbolic sense the racial composition of this trio may have been critical to the development of the Martial arts in the West. Lee’s undeniable charisma served to legitimatize the different social spheres of martial arts training that were portrayed in the film and embodied in the back stories of this trio. Yet this same visual structure allowed Lee to rhetorically place himself in a position of leadership over the already well established global community of martial arts practitioners. As such, it would fruitful to ask how the brief appearance of the Black Karate movement at the start of this film legitimized Lee in the eyes of many of his African American fans, rather than always assuming that he was the sole magnetic force attracting minorities to the Asian martial arts. The currents of cross-cultural desire that powered the success of this film are complex and recursive.
Black Women Study Karate: An Old Art with New Meaning
Chicago Daily Defender (Big Weekend Edition), April 15 1972
Cultivating Karate as a black nationalist art and form of self improvement is the function of the Dravidian School of Self Defense.
According to Russ Meek who, in addition to hosting television and radio shows, operates the self-defense school, claims that Karate originated in Africa. He says that a group of people known as the Dravidians took the art of “empty-handed” fighting with them when they left Africa and settled in Southern India around 3,000 B.C.
Later, a Buddhist priest named Bodhidharma took knowledge of the art with him from India to the orient, with which Karate is now popularly associated.
Meek, who has ascended to the rank of Black Belt, started the school seven years ago and claims to have had more than 2,500 students. There are classes for both men and women, meeting on both the Southside and the Westside. The class for advanced women, pictured here, meets at 3040 W. Madison St.
“We don’t emphasize competition,” Meek said, “but we do have several champions. One of our students, 10-year-old Brenda Hill, was a Midwest National Tournament Woman’s Kata Champion at the age of eight.
“What we do stress are the principles of yin and yang—inner softness and outer hardness—and of wu-wei—doing things not only spontaneously but also naturally.
“We stress the reflective and meditative aspects of Buddhism and the work towards creating a contemplative union between the mind and the body, stressing all things black and harmonious and using a scientific approach based upon the origins of the marshal [sic] arts in our motherland, Africa. The program does have a nationalistic slant.”
Besides the Personal development that comes with such training, the women are also equipped with a skill that permits them to move more freely in a society that contains so many threatening elements. The ability to break a board bare-handed obviously brings with it an ability to cope with aggressors in a rather resolute manner.
“The women in our class are soft and gentle but are capable of taking care of whatever situation arise,” Meek said. “They are in tune spiritually and physically and are capable of seemingly impossible mental and physical feats.
“All of our female students have multiple talents, are above average in scholarship and dedicated to the struggle for black life, black land and black liberty.”
“Anyone interested in getting more information of the self defense classes may call 638-9569.”
June, 1970. Pages 104-110.
Black Karate — New Concept of Ancient Art
Ghetto dwellers build pride and dignity among youth and adults in Chicago school
When it rains, the roof leaks at the Dravidian School of Karate on Chicago’s West Side, but the serious-faced youngsters who pay $2 a week to sit barefoot on cold concrete floors in drafty rooms never complain. To do so would be to breach the code of pride and dignity instilled –along with the ability to defend oneself—so carefully by the tall, slightly paunchy man who is teacher to all, hero to some, Russell Meek.
Five afternoons a week they come to the former greenhouse and florist’s shop on West Madison, seven-year-olds, teen-agers, men and women. Past the once elegant, now dry marble fountains which flank the main door they walk quietly to tiny rooms, which one kept orchids cool, to change into the pajama-like gis worn by all students of the Eastern martial arts. Pervading the atmosphere is an air of respect for themselves, each other, their instructors. As they enter the square, high-ceiling former storage room where they learn how, as Meek puts it, “the hand that kills can also heal,” they bow to those who have preceded them. It is an Oriental bow from the waist, modified with a downward thrust of clenched fists.
After warm-up calisthenics led by a green belt student (at Dravidian they are ranked white, yellow, green blue, red and black), the goateed, black-belted Meek or Matilda Haywood, who holds a red belt, steps in to take charge. Another day has begun and each student is that much closer to fitting Meek’s ideal, “an omnipotent foe of all evil and an assiduous and ardent proponent of all that is productive and good” who “lives by the warrior’s code.”
Dravidian Students Develop an ‘Outer Hardness, Inner Peace’
Russell Meek’s varied background includes TV and radio production, college lecturing stints and some civil rights activism. He considers himself to be a revolutionary and his students, while not schooled in revolution, learn that there are subtle but important differences between karate and black karate. To adapt the martial art to the ghetto, Meek has blended instruction in kumite, training in specific chops, kicks, etc., and kata, acrobatic forms of punching, kicking, and blocking, with extra emphasis on the mental discipline, an intrinsic part of karate.
The self-pride so necessary for survival in the ghetto can be greatly enhanced through the proper study of karate, Meek believes. Of his perfect student, Meek says, “He couldn’t be manipulated or bought. He would not be imitative, and he would have his mind and his behind on the same planet.” In addition to karate, his students learn conversational Spanish (“because it is so widely spoken throughout the third world”), some elementary Swahili and are drilled in “Community mathematics.” Properly taught, Meek says, his routines, techniques and disciplines will instill “outer hardness and inner peace” in students.
While the intangible and sometimes vague principles of which their instructor speaks are of interest to many of the older, more serious students, most are attracted primarily by the prospect of becoming invulnerable to attack. Still, they know that they will never be permitted to advance in Meek’s school without mastering the various stages of mental and physical discipline.
Some new students enter the school with straightforward ideas about the pursuit of physical fitness. Miss Theresa Wallance, one of the adults in Meek’s “hard core of about 100” students, wanted “to learn discipline and self-control as well as being able to defend myself.” She soon found herself doing push-ups as penance for not being able to identify a note sung by and instructor, something she hadn’t bargained for but was willing to adapt to.
As in most cases of institutions founded and supported by black people, the Dravidian school has constant financial troubles. The building which houses the school is being bought with monthly payments of $600, according te Meeks. The fees paid by students cover only a fraction of that amount. The balance is covered by voluntary—and usually small—donations and what Meek can pay from his own pocket. “We make it,” says Meek, who earns money as a once a week lecturer at Chicago’s Malcom X College and with occasional lectures at other schools.
Troubled though it is, the school has grown remarkably since it was founded two years ago in a basement recreation room the building in which Meek resides. In that time, the “new” building has been acquired and the Dravidian School of Karate has become a charter member of the black Hwa Rang Do Martial Arts Federation. It is on the federation, of which he is a director, that Meek pins his hopes of black Karate’s growth.
Ghetto Karate School:
Black Karate Concept Focuses on Character Building, Defense
Jet, February 19 1970. Pages 22-27.
There is a quiet revolution taking root in an old converted greenhouse on Chicago’s West Side, where small, bare feet stand firm on grey concrete floors. The room is perhaps as larger as a medium-sized basement, and the walls are dingy, half-painted brick; from the ceiling hangs a long cord with glaring double light bulbs at the end, illuminating in one corner a picture of Illinois Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton, wo was slain in the bedroom of his apartment at 2337 Wester Monroe, near the school’s West Madison St. Location.
“Repeat after me,” instructs Russ Meek. Founder-director of the Dravidian Dojo, in a reflective, low-key monotone. His youthful, black karate trainees rest on their knees with heads down. The lights were dimmed. “Peace and power. Power and peace.” The young voices echo his words. The class has come to the end of another vigorous and eager session with meditation which, Meek explains, comes with confidence gained through mind and body meeting in some sort of contemplative Union.”
Black Karate Geared to Dealing with Problems of Blacks
Meek has taken the sport karate and attempted to mold the physical and mental assets of the art into a comprehensive, character-building program. Its purpose is to undo the damage of ghetto suffocation and shape a more confident and rounded individual, he says. In his words, “The hand that kills can also heal.”
Explains Meek: “In order to correctly ascertain the best method of achieving true spiritual and physical unity, coupled with comprehensive, meaningful, intellectual enhancement, the West Side Art and Cultural Center was born.” Among the center’s activities is the two-and-a-half-year-old Dravidian Dojo. “We devised out of our experience a program that encompassed conversational Spanish, comprehensive meditation, Swahili and community mathematics. Thus as attempt was made to inspire the mind to take over the tasks that the body was unable to perform and gradually bring the two into some sort of contemplative union, with the idea in mind of gradually cementing this juncture as progress was made in their direction,” Meek explains.
“Black karate gears its teachings to problems blacks have, but they have to overcome many things before they can do a simple push up,” said instructor Matilda Haywood, who devotes her free time from the vigorous demands of work to serve in the black community. Holding a brown belt of the first Q order [?], the petite but might Miss Haywood is an IBM systems operator, stenographer, office manager, accountant, sports enthusiast, sharpshooter, pianist and organist, vocalist and former host of the Chicago TV show, Russ Meek Up In Here. Described by Meek as being to “handle extraordinary situations and having tremendous body conditioning, poise, grace and confidence,” Miss Haywood knows her job, and “she frightens me in a positive sense,” he added. Meek related a story on how she attached and overpowered a 235-pound 6-foor, 2-inch man. “Women are the superiors of the species,” he said, and Miss Haywood demonstrates this concept as she takes her class through rigorous exercises to condition their bodies and minds. Meek smiled, “Black females have quicker responses, greater pain resistance, rhythmic adaptions and greater receptivity to discipline, yet they also suffer.”
Hope to Expand the School Idea into National Movement
The participants response to the more scholastic oriented part of the training is usually intense. For a half hour or more, the youths, some in their early teens and younger, others in college, are quizzed in math, learn to speak Spanish words and phrases, figure out how fast light travels in a given space time, or are challenged by Meek to “name your subject.” The idea of the karate school is not to train for sport, but to prepare for survival amidst the stifling conditions so much publicized, but so little remedied, in the black ghetto: physical danger derived out of frustrated, impoverished and overcrowded areas; threats by figures in authority (among those students mentioned are schoolteachers and police.) Meek said a 12 years old girl enrolled in the school got a chance to use her training as a means of warding off ominous forces in the community when “gangbangers” harassed her and she dealt with one six-footer and thus frightened the others away. No less important, black karate teaches the pursuit of Yin—“stillness, inner peace, confidence.”
If you enjoyed this piece you might also want to read: Our Fist is Black: Martial Arts, Black Arts, and Black Power in the 1960s and 1970s.
July 10, 2020 at 10:45 am
Really important piece. Thanks!
February 13, 2021 at 11:20 am
Thank you for this article. Dr. Russ Meek is my father. I do Google searches about him every so often and was very happy to have found this piece. I was born shortly after the time this article is written about, so it’s wonderful to read.
February 13, 2021 at 11:46 am
I am so happy you enjoyed this article. It was wonderful to run across that first newspaper article and it great to learn more about your father’s contributions in more detail.