The “Asian-ness” of the martial arts

A year or so ago I journeyed to Madison, Wisconsin to purchase a book from Dr. Edward Powe. The book was entitled, “Combat Games of Northern Nigeria“. My interest was to learn more about the combat traditions of the Hausa people. The Hausa have one of the most rich martial cultures that I know of on the continent with traditions of boxing, wrestling, blade-fighting and stick-fighting.

In truth, I only recently learned of their stick-fighting through a friend, Da’Mon Stith. This was very enlightening and increased my interest in the combat traditions of the Hausa. Interestingly, while I did locate videos of this art online, they were curiously labled as “Karate”. This is what I mean by the “Asian-ness” of the martial arts. Not that there are no African martial arts, but that the concept of “martial arts” as a kind of social activity is generally dominated by Asian representations. This can be attributed to the film industry (beginning in the 1970s), the formalization of the arts (beginning perhaps with Jigoro Kano in the early 20th Century), and their commercialization (primarily in 20th Century) in places like Hong Kong, the US, and Europe. As a consequence of these developments, for many of our people, “martial arts” inherently refer to Asian combat traditions, so much so that many Black fighting traditions are sometimes not perceived as such. This is true throughout the African world.

Ancestral guidance on speaking truth

Throughout my life I have seen many people hide behind ideals and beliefs of “truth” as a way to justify abusive behavior. In fact, they may use their supposedly superior claims to truth as a way of explain away their actions as something other than abuse.

I think that we should all be concerned with truth. We find that truth was held as one of the highest concerns of our ancestors. However, I also know that our ancestors gave us a great deal of guidance pertaining to our speech. They told us to use 𓌃𓄤 (mdw nfr) “good speech”, to practice ìwà pẹ̀lẹ́ (gentle character) with our loved ones. There was a reason for this. Harsh words can create enmity where love once dwelled. Intemperate speech erodes respect where esteem once stood. Our ancestors knew this from observing reality. They did not say speak falsely. They said “𓆓𓂧𓁦”, (Djed Maat), “Speak truth”. They also said that speech should be “measured”. I think that they knew what they were talking about.

So one should and must “Speak truth”. But one must also be mindful of how one’s character is formed and expressed by one’s speech. “Truth” cannot be used to justify suban bɔne (bad character).

The game, the fight: Thoughts on the teaching and practice of Capoeira

I have been thinking about the dichotomization of Capoeira into the luta (fight) and the jogo (game) and the implications of this to the teaching of Capoeira. While this dichotomy is does capture broad contours of the art, there are nuances, dimensions within these that I fear are not fully explicated therein.

As stated, the jogo is the game of Capoeira, however there are different types of games. I am reminded of games that I saw in my early days in Capoeira with groups that played at high speeds, employed many acrobatic floreiros, but also played so far apart that neither person’s attack necessarily required a defensive response from the other player, that is they were too far from each other for their strikes to connect, thus reducing the game to a very animated but inert visual spectacle.

This was quite different from other games that I saw where everything was close and low to the ground. Strategy was valued over floreiro, and one had to maintain awareness over one’s position in time and space relative to one’s adversary. I also saw and participated in games that defied these supposed binaries.

These encounters taught me that the game is not one-dimensional and can be played with different types of intentionality, such as dazzling onlookers, cultivating a mindfulness of the body, employing strategy, et cetera.

The luta or the fight is another matter, one that I argue is closely related to the game depending on how one enters into it. In my first 12 years in Capoeira I was constantly searching for the martial approaches to the art. What attracted me to it was that it was African in origin, but I was continually frustrated by what I felt was an inattention to how one would apply it in self-defense, such as how one would defend against a knife attack, how one would fend off a grappler, how one would beat back a horde of flesh-eating Zombies in a post-apocalyptic urban wasteland, et cetera (of course that last one is offered in jest). At any rate, I felt that there was a chasm in the lore of Capoeira’s potency as a combat art (which is attested to in the historical record) and how it is taught today. In fact, my conversations with Dr. Edward Powe, who studied in Bahia under Mestre Pastinha in the 1960s, have affirmed that even in the mid-20th Century, the art was still taught as a martial discipline, rather than strictly as a cunning game. This is not to suggest that such deficits are universal in the present context. My first teacher, Tebogo Schultz, gave me a solid foundation in the art reflective of his confidence in Capoeira as a comprehensive tool. Nor is this to suggest that the game itself is fundamentally divorced from the self-defense aspect of the art, rather that explicit discussion of the latter is often absent.

One of the things that I have gained from my studies with Mestre Preto Velho, is an understanding that such knowledge has not been abandoned, as he has been keen to note the importance of the Capoeira of Rio de Janeiro (including his teacher Mestre Touro) in preserving such combative traditions. He has also emphasized something that I have seen eschewed by many exponents of Capoeira as a combat art. Whereas their “combat” Capoeira has taken the form of a kickboxing-grappling art—something that resembles Capoeira perhaps only nominally, Mestre Preto Velho has proposed an approach that reflects Mestre Pastinha’s assertion from decades before that “Capoeira is perfect in itself and has no need for additions or modifications.” Suggesting that what has been missing has been an understanding of the art’s fundamentals and their applications. And while some selective adaptation of the art may be necessary as one applies the art to various combative situations, its underlying principles remain constant. In fact, Mestre Preto Velho has stated,“The tradition has been adaptability.”

It is in this vein that the jogo and luta converge, as the game becomes a means to refine certain technical and philosophical principles, principles that are indelible to the fight.

Critical theories

One of the implicit points that emerges from Dr. Jacob H. Carruthers’ work The Irritated Genie regarding the Haitian Revolution and the resistance which preceded it, is that Africans were not sitting on their hands waiting for the light of Marxism to show them the way to freedom. They were seizing their freedom and in the process developing modalities of resistance and formulating conceptual frameworks to explain the predation of their adversary. It is a sad commentary on our present state of consciousness that lately arrived critical theories are more resonant with many a Black intellectual, while those forged in the fires of an audacious and truly African liberation struggle lie neglected.
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Good morning everyone. Rapacious capitalism’s endgame is still mass extinction. Racism has invigorated America’s latent authoritarian tendencies eroding the vaunted strength of democracy.

I am reminded of the Yorùbá wisdom that tells us to “struggle to increase good in the world and not to let any good be lost.” Such an audacity to struggle is a key part of what it means to be Enìyàn (human) in the Yorùbá worldview. It is by confronting such challenges that our humanity gains its full expression. As Segun Gbadegesin writes, “This is the normative dimension of the concept of Enìyàn. The crown of personal life is to be useful to one’s community. The meaning of one’s life is therefore measured by one’s commitment to social ideals and communal existence.”

Welcome to a new day and a new opportunity to be one’s best self.