Black communities have looked to martial arts as both a recreational practice and a means of self defense for decades. Martial arts refers to all of the various systems of training for combat, with origins in East Asia, Africa, and South America, and it’s estimated that 9% of martial arts instructors in the U.S. are Black. While many think of karate, kung fu, judo, or jiu-jitsu, theres’ a long lineage of African-descended martial art forms like dambe, moraingy, capoeira, and others.
To gain more insight, we called Dr. Maryam Aziz (they/them) who is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Richards Center and the Africana Research Center at Pennsylvania State University. Aziz received a Ph.D. in American Culture from the University of Michigan in 2020. Aziz also holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in African American Studies from Columbia University. Aziz’s first book asks how folks who practiced unarmed self-defense contributed to Black Power organizing and shifting ideas about liberation, abolition, and gender norms.
In this WIRE edition, Dr. Aziz unpacks the legacy of martial arts as a means of self-determination within Black communities, and it’s cultural impact around the world.
Paige Curtis: Can you start by outlining for people where the relationship between Black communities in the U.S. and martial arts really began?
Dr. Maryam Aziz: There were a lot of different avenues where folks started practicing martial arts, particularly East Asia descended martial arts in the 20th century. There’s always going to be a history of African-descended martial arts in the Americas. If you think about the Gullah Geechee people in South Carolina, they were practicing traditions of martial arts that might be similar or that maybe have arrived or inspired by Western Central African martial arts. You can think of these traditions as similar to how Brazil has capoeira, which is often thought of as a dance, but is really a martial arts-based practice.
A lot of East Asian inspired martial arts happened through U.S. military activity, particularly around World War Two and the Vietnam War. It’s also going to depend on where you live. So, if you live in an urban center out west, in Chicago, or New York, you might actually have access to martial arts at a YMCA or something like that. But a lot of it came from military veterans and Asian and Black connections in different neighborhoods.
Paige: There’s always been this cultural relationship between Black viewers and kung fu movies, especially in the 1970s. Any thoughts on how martial arts movies developed an audience among Black viewers?
Dr. Aziz: So there’s two things happening there. One is that kung fu films became a global phenomenon. You can watch them from Sydney, Australia to New Delhi to London and New York, right. So folks who might have thought of themselves as “Third World” or Black and Brown youth during the 1970’s, who were contending with white supremacy and post colonialism, many of them gravitated toward kung fu films. I think it’s because there’s something really empowering about people just being able to go into a mode of self defense. Viewers might imagine the movie characters fighting someone who represents capitalism to them.
Black Americans, particularly teenagers and people in their twenties, went to see these movies in droves. In a place like New York, before Times Square became what it is today, you could go and watch cheap martial arts movies for less than a dollar. On a Saturday, some people would stay all day, and just watch them back to back and feel amazed.
There are also figures like Bruce Lee who were really trying to open up Hollywood, and trying to deconstruct some of these racial barriers that existed. By the time we get to the 1970’s, martial arts had been happening in the U.S. outside of Asian and Asian American communities for decades. The kung fu film movement is super important to how we think about Black cultural production like hip hop in the next several decades.
Paige: Can you talk about how martial arts supported Black and Asian American alliances through the years?
Dr. Aziz: Coming out of the 1990s, the ways in which events like the L.A. riots got characterized is very much a racial polarization story. But if you go back to the 1970s, I mean, you can see that there are points of contact and solidarity between the Asian and Black American movements. I’m thinking of what was called “Yellow power” and “Black Power” — these movements were reinforcing and influencing one another. So even some of the rhetoric used by the “Yellow Power” movement resembled platforms put together by groups like the Nation of Islam, or the Black Panther Party for self defense.
You’ll also see that a lot of folks had a dynamic relationship to their martial arts instructors. So not everyone who practices martial arts had an Asian or Asian American instructor. This is a really important part — because of the military history, lots of people could study karate or judo from someone who’s not actually Japanese. But for some people that really becomes really important. A lot of the African American Muslims who were organizers in New York, for example, in the 60s and 70s, learned from the famed Filipino instructor named Florendo Visitacion, who was crucial to their martial arts practice.
Paige Curtis: You also teach self defense classes. Can you share what has surprised you about that teaching experience? Especially as it relates to how Black participants react to learning martial arts?
Dr. Aziz: In my own practice, one of the joys of teaching martial arts and unarmed self defense is allowing Black folks or folks of multiple marginalized identities to inhabit their bodies in classrooms that are safe and accessible. I learned from studying the martial artists coming out of the Black Power movement how to make a movement and safety practice relevant to the people that are in front of you. How do you make it look like something that’ll really cleave to students and their soul?
People are often surprised that unarmed self defense can actually look like them. For example, the young Black girls that have taken classes with me, or folks that are injured in very particular ways, are always surprised to see that strength is an asset that they have naturally. By the 1970’s, Black martial artists led the way for being gender inclusive in competition and practice spaces. In taking these practices up, there’s an enriching confidence that it adds, even if you never have to use it.
There’s also a healing and Black joy component, and something about being able to just kick the air that sometimes we undermine. So many researchers talk about how important Black armed self defense is. But I want to stress that unarmed self defense is just as important.