Legitimacy, authenticity, and the African martial arts

I suspect that the debates regarding authenticity & African martial arts stem from the maafa and its assault on African culture in the U.S. The idea that only traditional African combat arts are authentic suggests that African American cultural production is somehow less African. To suggest that Africans in the U.S. lack this form of cultural agency is a specious notion to say the least.

Tradition expresses itself in two forms. First, it is expressed in cultural traditions that are contiguous through time. For now we’ll call these “contiguous traditions”, that is, traditions whose intergenerational transferral have been seamless. However there are also traditions that are reconstituted in a different time and place from their initial formulation. These “reclaimed traditions” are often characterized by broken lines of transmission. Yet while they may appear to die off, “reclaimed traditions” are informed by contexts, collective wills, and various forms of cultural memory that enables their reformulation.

The whm msw in ancient kmt, the founding of the Ashanti Federation, and Palmares could all be argued as examples of “reclaimed traditions”. The whm msw sought to restore kmt to its magnificence from the Old Kingdom. The founding of Ashanti initiated a period of expansion that echoes the glories of the great Ghana Empire. Palmares represents an effort to reconstitute African state formations in the midst of the Maafa. In each of these contexts people looked to their past for some indicator of what their future should be. Having identified an instructive historical paradigm, they sought to institutionalize that model in their present.

Despite the passage of time and the pain of spatial dislocations, traditions can be reclaimed. Africans in the U.S. in the 1950s-1970s created martial systems which were, in effect, attempts to reclaim a martial tradition thought long-suppressed by the Maafa. Once these “reclaimed traditions” were juxtaposed with “contiguous traditions” these claims of inauthenticity gained expression. However I argue that to cede the question of legitimacy only to “contiguous traditions” is to deny the Africanness of Africans in the U.S. It is to deny our own cultural agency, and suggests that U.S. born Africans have been both dispossessed of authentic cultural knowledge, and further, have been dispossessed of the capacity to reconstruct and reclaim that knowledge. Much of the work of many U.S. born Africans, from the 1950s to the present has involved an on-going effort best expressed by the Akan concept SankOfa–that is an attempt to reclaim that which has been lost. This process has produced many emergent traditions, both contiguous and reclaimed that convey what the African-Centered psychologists have called the African personality, and what others have called the African Worldview. This suggests that these two parallel traditional forms are not oppositional, in fact they may be complimentary, for in any society, contiguous and reclaimed traditions can coexist and contribute to the forward flow history.

With regards to African martial arts, I suspect that there is room for both these notable traditions. To respect the “reclaimed traditions” is to affirm the legitimacy and dignity of our struggle for self-determination and those Africans who sought to craft dynamic solutions to this problem. Furthermore, to respect the “contiguous traditions” is to honor our esteemed ancestors and their struggle for self-determination, as they to sought to apply their martial knowledge in the service of African liberation. In both instances an African warrior tradition was invoked as a necessary element in our liberation struggle. The African maroons of Jamaica, the denizens of the dismal swamp, and the cultural nationalists of the Black Power Era were all drawn to a similar call, what the Akoto’s refer to as “an ancestral summons”, to recognize “the reality of war” and to steel their bodies and minds for struggle that lay ahead.

Abibifahodie!

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