Today we continue with part 2 of Robert Wyrod's sociology thesis "Warriors of the South Side: Race and the Body in the Martial Arts of Black Chicago". All comments and conclusions drawn are those of author and film producer Robert Wyrod.
This thesis was first published in The Berkeley Journal of Sociology, volume 44 1999-2000
See Part 1 here
Please see Robert Wyrod's video documentary "South Side Warriors" here
See my review of the video, "Gregory Jaco and the South Side Warriors" here
The Community of the Dojo
Although it was the middle of a Chicago winter, I was sweating profusely, wiping my eyes with my brand new karate uniform. It was the beginning of my weekly jaunts to a lonely stretch of East 75th Street on Chicago's South Side for karate lessons at the Typhoon School of the Martial Arts. Martial arts training was something new to me, and I was
self conscious of not only my awkward gestures, but of my white skin in this all black martial arts school.
The Typhoon School has been in existence for over twenty years, always located in poor, black, South Side neighborhoods. Its current location is a commercial block in South Shore, a mixed-income neighborhood that has been nearly 100 percent black since the 1970s. Although there are more prosperous middle class families in the area, most of the streets are marked by the vacant lots, shuttered storefronts and gang graffiti that scar black, South Side neighborhoods. As the exterior of this school attests, it has a rich and colorful history. In its most recent incarnation, it is housed in a dilapidated old storefront, with hand painted drawings of tigers, yin-yangs, and mysterious Japanese characters covering the exterior. To ensure that even the least observant passerby notices the establishment, KARATE SCHOOL is scrawled across the top of the building in bold, black letters.
The interior of the school is equally unique and enigmatic. Pushing through the cracked and broken wooden front door, you find yourself in a dark and cluttered office space. The walls are covered with photos of students, and the shelves are filled with a dizzying assortment of knickknacks, including a golden Buddha, a porcelain tiger, and most intriguing, what appears to be a white, bloated, human hand floating in large mason jar.
Deeper into the space, along a pitch black, narrow hallway, there is an odd little tea room. Sliding back the half broken wood and paper door reveals a small, square space with a raised wooden floor and plain wooden walls. The floor is covered with tatami mats, and there are a couple of bean bag chairs filling up the corners. A few large metal incense urns hang from rusted chains, and some fake flowers sit covered in dust in the ice tea bottle that serves as their makeshift vase.
Beyond the tea room is the main training area, where I found myself sweating and panting on many Tuesday nights. The cluttered room is lit with very dim, sickly green, fluorescent lights, and heated by two large propane heaters. These heaters fill the dojo with a strong scent, and are the only source of heat for the entire building. The floor of this large room is covered with torn and faded mats, and as students and teachers fill the space it quickly becomes warm and stuffy. Littered along the edges of the mats are a wide assortment of odd training materials, including piles of broken cinder blocks, huge logs, tattered gloves and pads, long bamboo poles, and even an arsenal of fake AK-47 automatic rifles.
That winter night when I started my training was fairly typical for the Typhoon School. With my pale hands and feet sticking out of my ill fitting new uniform, I certainly felt uncomfortable stepping on to the cold and damp mat. But much to my surprise, no one seemed too taken
aback by the presence of a white student in the dojo. Marc, an older teacher around forty, was in the front of the class, granting each student permission to enter the class, making sure they bowed and then somersaulted on to the mat. I followed the strict protocol carefully, and took my place in line with the other beginner students.
Like most nights, the dojo slowly filled up with students of varying ages and abilities. Marc was in charge of the younger, and less advanced students, while another teacher worked with a group of older male students in their twenties and thirties. Both groups focused on refining techniques for punching and kicking, throwing our fists and legs in the air, striking imaginary opponents. As I quickly learned, it was assumed that everyone would try to move in synch, punctuating our kicks and punches by yelling "ki-ah" in unison. Everyone was following the teachers' leads carefully, focusing very seriously on executing the moves properly. At times, there was little verbal instruction, and the only noises that could be heard over the heaters were feet gliding over the mat, the snap of a gi, and the occasional "ki-ah."
Although the training was strenuous, I was finding the repetitive movement meditative, and almost hypnotic. But this rather pleasant state was interrupted as a young boy ran into the dojo to make an announcement. "Sensei Tanaka wants everyone up front right away. Right now," he yelled across the dojo. Everyone immediately stopped what they were doing and quickly made their way to the front. In Japanese, "sensei" is teacher and "tanaka" is mother, and at this point even I was aware that it was James, the founder and head instructor of the Typhoon School, that wanted everyone's attention.
As all twenty of us rushed up front, we found James in his usual spot behind his extremely cluttered desk. Now in his late fifties, James is a very large man, and the white plastic desk curved around his rotund body like a gigantic life preserver. Everyone stood perfectly still and waited for James to speak. "I have called all of you up here to tell you that we are moving into a more intense phase of training now," he said to his completely quiet, captive audience. James continued, "We will begin to train with weapons, and start the final era of this school. We are moving into the last era now, and it will be the most intense era yet. I may not be here much longer, so we have to move fast and begin our final, most intense phase." After this brief address he reached into a cardboard box, and pulled out a six inch plastic knife. Each student was handed, or more accurately bequeathed, a knife. I seemed to be the only person who found this theatrical presentation odd, with all the other students seriously accepting the "weapon." Once we were all armed, we were told to return to the mats and resume our training. As we reassembled into our groups, both teachers picked up where they left off, but integrated the knives into the exercises.
Forty blocks north of the Typhoon School is another dojo that holds classes at exactly the same time. This school is located at the northern end of the notorious four mile long corridor of public housing that stretches up through Chicago's South Side. Unlike the mixture of stores and residential bungalows found in South Shore, this neighborhood is dominated by looming high rise housing projects. Only the occasional convenience store breaks up the oppressive monotony of block after block of six to twenty story utilitarian brick buildings. Although there are more middle income families to the east of this school, most of the residents of these projects are the working poor. And like the South Shore neighborhood, nearly everyone is black.
Twice a week, dozens of African-American children from the surrounding projects descend on Mt. Olive Church for two hours of martial arts training. In stark contrast to the Typhoon School, classes are held in a bright, clean, and sparsely decorated room in the church's community center. Yet there is the same emphasis on protocol, with the senseis treating the space like a dojo. Students are required to ask permission to enter the space, and they must bow before finding a spot on the imaginary mat.
This school was founded by Nate, an energetic, middle aged man who has been practicing the martial arts for most of his life. Like James at the Typhoon School, Nate is recognized as the head of the dojo, and he determines how the martial arts are taught at the school. Unlike James, however, Nate places a good deal of emphasis on training for the many tournaments that are offered throughout the year.
At about the time I began my visits to the Mt. Olive School, Nate was working to prepare some students for tournament competition. When I stopped by the dojo one evening, I found Jimmy, Nate's assistant teacher, going through the usual training exercises. The majority of the students are under twelve, and a good deal of Jimmy's attention is devoted to a very strict form of crowd control. If the students talk, laugh, or deviate from the training, they face Jimmy's wrath. Stalking around the dojo with a leather paddle in his hand, he watches the class closely, yelling furiously at any student who gets out of line. For the more difficult cases, Jimmy resorts to mild corporal punishment, smacking kids on the behind with the paddle.
Jimmy's routine usually lasts forty five minutes, and then the students move on to one on one sparring. But on this particular night, Nate wanted to try something a bit different. Nate had the entire class sit in a large circle, and he called one young boy, around 8 years old, into the ring. This boy was going to compete in the tournament, and Nate wanted him to practice his techniques in front of the entire class. Unfazed, the boy confidently stepped into the circle, and announced his name, martial art style, and the technique he was going to perform.
Striding back into the center of the ring, he paused to gather himself, and then went through a long, choreographed series of punches and kicks. The class of sixty children was completely still, and the boy was extremely serious and focused. Every punch and kick was accompanied by a loud grunt, as he moved methodically and confidently from one move to the next. At the end of his routine, he bowed to Nate, stepped out of the ring, and was greeted with a loud round of applause from his fellow students. After this brief performance, the class moved on to its regular format, and the sparring began.
These martial arts schools are just two of many all black dojos found in the African-American communities of Chicago's South Side. Although James' and Nate's classes are unique in many ways, they are indicative of the general popularity of the martial arts in black communities throughout Chicago, and the United States as a whole. With the success of hip-hop groups such as the Wu-Tang Clan, who make vivid use of martial arts imagery and terminology, the connection between black culture and the martial arts has reached the mass media. But the emergence of martial arts in the black communities of Chicago stretches back decades before the Sugarhill Gang jump-started rap with "Rapper's Delight" in 1979.
Both James and Nate received their martial arts training from the first generation of black martial artists in the United States. Many of these early senseis were first exposed to the martial arts during post-World War II military service in Japan. When they returned to the States they brought with them their knowledge of these Asian art forms and began exposing a younger generation to the martial arts. In the 1950's, Chicago legends such as Jimmy Jones and Preston Baker were some of the first blacks to seriously pursue martial arts training. Known as the "Father of Karate in the Midwest," Jones was instrumental in exposing poor blacks to the martial arts, and it was through Preston Baker's programs that James and Nate received their training. So by the 80's and 90's, the once foreign martial arts practices had become part of the cultural fabric of Chicago's South Side, and both the Mt. Olive School and the Typhoon School are important parts of this rich history.
Both Nate and James have cultivated a devoted cadre of students. On a given night as many as sixty students will make the trek from their housing projects across contested gang territory to participate in classes at Mt. Olive. Many of these students have trained with Nate for over a year, and a few of the older teenage students have worked with him for many years. Several adults also participate on a regular basis, training side by side with their children. But it is not just attendance figures that indicate how compelling this space is for the participants. A surprisingly large number of Nate's students, both young and old, appear to take the training quite seriously. These students follow Nate's instructions very
closely, working diligently to refine their skills, and showing a good deal of frustration when they perform poorly.
Although only approximately twenty people would currently call the Typhoon School their dojo, the students and teachers identify very closely with the space. Some come from the immediate community to train, while others come from neighboring poor, black communities on the South Side. For many of the members the dojo is very much a home and fellow participants their extended family. When on the mats, there is a religious adherence to protocol, and any deviation from the highly ritualized practices is not tolerated. Students show all the instructors a great deal of respect, both on and off the mats, and everyone defers to James' authority as the elder statesman of the dojo. Several members of the dojo volunteer many hours a week to facilitate classes, and in times of financial need some donate what little extra money they have saved. During a recent financial crisis when the school nearly lost their space, a former student who had just returned from years of service overseas in the military offered his entire relocation allowance to cover the thousands of dollars in unpaid property taxes.
So both James and Nate have built on their personal interest in the martial arts to create successful dojos on Chicago's South Side. But James and Nate are connected in a more subtle way as well because both see their work as a way to resist racial oppression and discrimination. According to both senseis, martial arts is not simply athletic training, or a form of recreation, but also a means of coping with, and confronting, the forces that make life in poor, black communities so precarious. When asked why he volunteers eight hours a week to teach children martial arts, Nate replied, "I see the need for the martial arts in the black community as a vehicle for organizing the youth in the black community. Also a means for giving self esteem and discipline for those children that have low self esteem and come from broken families, or drug afflicted families." A similar question posed to James gets a similar response, "Learning the martial arts provides a discipline. Living in the housing projects if you were going to be anything other than what the housing project turned people into it took a strong will and a lot of discipline."
Both James and Nate have adopted and adapted the discipline of the Asian martial arts to address the needs of blacks living in poor, South Side communities. While their specific goals are different, and the atmospheres within their dojos distinct, both James and Nate are attempting to mold martial arts training into their own particular form of community activism. Although they are not engaged in an active political struggle to redefine the social forces impinging on their communities, they are focused on altering the lives of individuals within the community of the dojo. As their own statements attest, both James and Nate see their work as a way to address, and in some ways resist, the
oppressive living conditions endured by blacks on the South Side. They are working to rebuild the selves destroyed by racism and the oppressive conditions found in the underclass communities of Chicago's South Side.
There are many possible approaches to this work of rebuilding selves, but these senseis believe the physical training of the martial arts offers something unique and powerful. The two schools do have their differences. Most significantly, Mt. Olive has a much larger, and much younger, student body. Yet despite these differences, both are spaces where bodily activity takes center stage, and the work that is being done to instill self-esteem and discipline is primarily work on the body. Although teachers at both dojos incorporate some form of verbal instruction, most of the teaching occurs through non-verbal bodily gestures. Training manuals and written materials are ignored, with all of the instruction occurring on the mats. Teachers demonstrate techniques and students mimic their movements again and again. Week after week, students practice the same techniques, making once awkward gestures seem natural. So it would appear that the changes that have occurred in individuals at these dojos are attributable to prolonged, physical training on the mats. The body is central to how the senseis accomplish their task of rebuilding selves, and it is the bodily rituals of the martial arts that make these spaces so compelling for both students and teachers.
In addition to a focus of the body, these two schools also share a complex set of gender dynamics. From my first encounters at these sites, I was struck by what seemed like an emphasis on masculinity. The large number of male students, the sometimes violent physicality of the training and the fact that the head teachers at both schools were men made these sites seem male dominated. This seemed connected to the way racist discourse creates different representations of black male and female bodies. As bell hooks argues, the body imagery that animates the discourse around black oppression is gendered as well as racialized:
Historically the language used to describe the way black men are victimized within racist society has been sexualized. When words like castration, emasculation, impotency are the commonly used terms to describe the nature of black male suffering, a discursive practice is established that links black male liberation with gaining the right to participate fully within patriarchy. (hooks 1990:76)
Because sexism mediates racial domination, some black men, like white men, have come to equate manhood, and the domination of women, with freedom (hooks 1990:59). Contemporary constructions of the black body, then, should be understood as arising out of a discourse that is simultaneously racist and sexist. This perspective is valuable when analyzing these male dominated dojos and attempting to understand how responses to oppression can resist racism while, at times, reaffirming
Yet women do participate at these dojos, and some of the most serious students at both schools are young women. I found this rather surprising, and it seems to challenge my conception of the dojos as male oriented spaces. For example, one of the highest ranking students at the Mt. Olive School is a women who has been training for several years. When asked why she likes the martial arts, she says, "I like the feeling of self-control," and "it is fun to scare the boys." Even though she is leaving for college, she intends to continue her training, and she, "hopes to be able to open my own dojo some day."
At the Typhoon School the most intense and dedicated student is a very quiet young woman around seventeen. Off the mat she is soft-spoken and easily slips into the background of this occasionally chaotic space. Yet when she is training she is totally focused, often reprimanding me for not closely following instructions. She also appears completely comfortable with all types of training, including the often brutal and violent sparring that occurs at the Typhoon School. So some women have found a place for themselves in these male dominated spaces where masculine bodily practices are the norm. Although these are gendered spaces that would seem to discourage female participation, women are centrally involved in the community of the dojo.