This week we will try something we have never done on The Dojo Rat Blog; we will review Robert Wyrod's sociological thesis on the empowerment of Martial Arts training in the black community of Chicago's South Side.
All comments and conclusions drawn are those of author and film producer Robert Wyrod, and this thesis appeared in The Berkeley Journal of Sociology.
The thesis will be divided into three parts over the rest of this week.
Please view Robert Wyrod's video documentary "South Side Warriors" at this link.
Also see my review of the video "Gregory Jaco and the South Side Warriors" at this link
As published in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology
Volume 44 1999-2000: 126-148
Warriors of the South Side:
Race and the Body in the Martial Arts of Black Chicago
For four decades, the Asian martial arts have been a part of life on Chicago’s South Side. In the two South Side schools, or dojos, that are the focus of this ethnography, the rituals of the Asian martial arts have been given new meanings- meanings that resonate with people living in poor, black communities. Through the highly ritualized physical training that is unique to the martial arts, members of these dojos have forged an expressive cultural form that aims to counter the oppression experienced in everyday life. The training in these dojos is a means of recouping a sense of agency over a body that is burdened by racist depictions of being unruly and out of control.
These sites suggest that physical, bodily activity can be an important aspect of agency on both an individual and collective level. Bodily practices can empower individuals as well as contribute to the construction of a collective identity that intends to oppose oppression. There is a transformative aspect of bodily practices that links the body to resistance, suggesting that the coordinated, collective, physical action of individuals can shape their relationship to each other and to the larger social world.
A giant black fist clutching a lightening bolt dominates the storefront window of the Scorpion School of the Martial Arts. Located on the southwest side of Chicago's loop, this now defunct black martial arts school held classes in karate and kendo for nearly twenty years. A few miles due south, in one of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods, the dilapidated home of the Black Dragon Slayers is still standing. The drawings of young black men, replete with generous afros and karate uniforms, breaking boards and flying through the air, only hint at what must have gone on when the Black Dragon Slayers were in their prime.
But the history of the martial arts on Chicago's South Side is one that stretches into the present. Today, there are at least a dozen schools, or dojos, on the South Side offering classes several times a week. Students can be found training in storefronts, churches, mosques, schools, community centers, and even the YMCA.
So what accounts for the popularity of the martial arts in the South Side of Chicago, and many other black communities? Why have the Asian martial arts been so enthusiastically adopted and adapted by some blacks?
Part of the answer lies in what has made the martial arts popular all across America irrespective of race, namely, the appeal of pop culture heroes from Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan. But in the South Side dojos that are the focus of this paper, the rituals of the Asian martial arts have been given new meanings- meanings that resonate strongly with people living in poor, black communities. For the teachers, or senseis, who founded the two dojos in this study, martial arts instruction is not just about developing athletic prowess in their students. These senseis see their work as a way to rebuild selves destroyed by racism and life in the ghetto. Through the highly ritualized physical training that is unique to the martial arts, members of these dojos have forged an expressive cultural form that aims to counter the oppression experienced in everyday life.
What links the martial arts training, as it is practiced at these sites, and the forms of oppression it is designed to address is the body. Both dojos 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. The body is also central to racist discourse about blacks. Black men are represented as unruly and black women as promiscuous; bodies out of control. Such othering is material as well as representational, with the physical segregation and economic marginalization of blacks living in the South Side of Chicago a stark testament to attempts at isolating and containing black bodies.
My ethnographic evidence indicates that the physical, bodily activity of martial arts training provides a powerful means of contesting such forms of oppression. The students and teachers at these dojos have made the martial arts their own, tailoring them to address the issues of life in poor, black communities. But as this paper will make clear, the two dojos have slightly different missions. One is focused on individual empowerment, attempting to give young people the skills they need to survive in their dangerous environments. While the other school, the Typhoon School, has a more inward focus, using the martial arts to build a community within the dojo.1 What the Typhoon school illustrates is
1 All the of the names have been changed to protect the identity of the subjects of this ethnography.
that bodily practices, when performed collectively, open the door to the creation of a collective identity, one that intends to oppose domination from above. As this ethnography will demonstrate, there is a transformative aspect of bodily practices that links the body to resistance, suggesting that the coordinated, collective, physical action of individuals can shape their relationship to each other and to the larger social world. Even at society’s margins, where the effects of domination would seem most determined, the body emerges as a source of both individual and collective agency.
The fieldwork for this ethnography was conducted over a twelve month period. Twice a week I attended classes at two dojos on Chicago’s South Side, observing at one school and participating on the mats at the other. Such participant observation was a necessity to gain insight into the everyday life of the dojo and negotiate my status as an outsider. This approach was also crucial for analyzing bodily practices – practices that are significantly non-verbal and best studied as part of the life of the dojo. Through this fieldwork I was able to establish some lasting relationships and create what Burawoy refers to as a “dialogue” that allows us to “change our biases through interaction with others” (Burawoy 1991:4).
Race and the Body
As this ethnography will reveal, it is the work on the body that is most important to the members of these dojos. But a key question is why the body carries such meaning in the African-American community. Following Abu-Lughod (1990), we can use resistance as a diagnostic of domination to see how the activities in these dojo illuminate both the way power operates and how people respond to power. Resistance here is understood as a response to power dynamics, and it can be individual or collective, conscious or not. Labeling the activity in the dojos political resistance, however, is somewhat problematic. What is occurring at the dojos does not directly confront macro-structural forces that are bearing down on black communities. Members are not engaged in an active political struggle to redefine the social forces that define the communities in which they live.
But to dismiss the work at these schools as apolitical would be as problematic as interpreting it as a conscious, organized form of direct political resistance. Although not often stated in explicitly political terms, there are elements of resistance in these dojos. And as their own statements attest, the head teachers at both schools see their work as a way to address, and in some ways resist, the oppressive living conditions
endured by blacks on the South Side. Clearly, then, the activities at these dojos are connected to issues of resistance, and provide a way of exploring the structures of power and domination.
If racism is understood as an ideological code in which biological attributes are invested with social value and meaning (Miles 1989) then the body is central to the way racism functions.2 Facial features, skin color, and the texture of one’s hair have become imbued with meaning through racist discourse and used to justify racist sentiments. Thus the body is a focus of resistance in some black communities because racist discourse converges on the black body. The black, male body is represented as violent, unpredictable, hyper-sexual and in need of control; the black, female body as dangerous, sexual and unruly. However, racism is not simply a discursive practice; there are very material aspects to power as well. In the United States, institutionalized racist policies have concentrated many poor blacks in underclass ghettos. This physical isolation is coupled with the very real threat of police violence designed to contain and control black bodies. These material and representational effects of power are mutually reinforcing and together give the body its heightened significance in the dojos of Chicago’s South Side.
Although the connection between racism and the body may appear self-evident, there is little theorizing explicitly linking the body and race in the contemporary United States. One area where connections have been made between race and the body is the writing on colonialism.
Winthrop Jordan stresses how certain predispositions in the English problematized their first encounters with Black Africans. Jordan (1974) argues that certain biological characteristics had been given cultural values that led the English to racialize their contact with Africans. Although Jordan often discusses values as immutable and trans-historical, his analysis highlights how representations of the black body as impure and soiled played an important role in the origins of racism.
This theme of the black body as foreign and unhealthy is also central to the Comaroffs’ (1992) work on colonial South Africa. They connect the development of British colonialism in Africa to the
2 Miles’ insistence on racism as an ideological phenomenon is not without its problems. By banishing racism to the realm of ideology, Miles reduces the causal significance of race, making it secondary to more basic class and economic relationships. Although he does stress the need to contextualize the impact of racism within class relations, Miles remains reluctant to accord much power to race. I am more sympathetic to Paul Gilroy’s (1987) notion of racial identity, that sees race as part of an on-going process of social formation. Like Omi and Winant (1986), Gilroy argues for an understanding of race as a process that cannot be reduced to economic relations. However, when attempting to find connections to race and the body, Miles’ formulation is helpful.
development of Western medicine, drawing out the biological component of the civilizing mission. What is important here is their recognition that these “probes into the ailing heart of Africa” were premised on representations of the black body as “the very embodiment of dirt and disorder, his moral affliction all of a piece with his physical degeneracy” (Comaroff and Comaroff 1992:216). David Arnold (1993) draws similar connections in his work on nineteenth-century India, showing how Western science was used to justify racist otherings that depicted natives as diseased and morally degraded.
This work on colonial othering is important to contemporary theorizing on racism because it draws out the connection between race and the body. As Radhika Mohanram (1999) argues, different meanings of the black body at different times are metonymically linked. Eighteenth and nineteenth-century colonial categories of race were used to justify the massive social upheaval produced by the colonialists, while contemporary Western nations are the product of perceiving some citizens as “being out of the place to which they “naturally” belong” (Mohanram 1999:xiii). In both cases biological traits are used to rationalize a racist world view that places certain bodies in certain spaces, giving some bodies power while making other bodies subject to domination.
Roediger’s work on the white working class in nineteenth-century America indicates that the dynamics of racial othering in the colonies operated similarly in the metropole. Whiteness is shown to be a fragile consensus held together in part by “the idea that blackness could be made permanently to embody the pre-industrial past that they scorned and missed” (Roediger 1991:97). Roediger’s work highlights the dialectical nature of such otherings, with a disembodied whiteness created through an embodied blackness.
The anger elicited by such racist othering is illustrated in Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1967). His writing on racist objectification centers on how racism problematizes the relationship between black bodies and the social world. For Fanon, racism works by destabilizing the connections between blacks and their bodies, replacing a bodily schema with a “racial epidermal schema,” thereby turning subjects of history into objects of history (Fanon 1990:110). For Fanon racist representations of the black body sever his connection to his own corporeal body. So in an odd way, the close connection between race and the body precludes any connection between the two for Fanon. The physical body exists for Fanon, but his own connection to it is shattered by racist representations of the black body.
What connects all these writers is an emphasis on linking race, and racism, to the body. Whether it is in the colony or metropole, the eighteenth-century or the twentieth-century, racism is a process by which
certain biological traits are endowed with meaning in order to create the other. It is through this process that blacks become embodied and whites disembodied. This is not to say that racial categories do not have any positive valuation, but it indicates how central the body is in racist discourse.
Representations of blacks are integral to understanding the connection between racial oppression, resistance and the body. But it is important to recognize that these discursive factors are symbiotically linked to the very real, material conditions that impinge on poor, black bodies on Chicago’s South Side. As Massey and Denton argue in American Apartheid (1993), blacks in Chicago are physically segregated to a such a degree they are most accurately labeled hypersegregated. Through massive public housing projects, the city has been complicit in creating immense, homogenous, poor, black communities, and fueling racist notions that unruly black bodies need to be contained and controlled. One school in this study, the Mt. Olive School, is located across from some of the city’s most depressed projects. According to the Local Community Handbook (1990) some census tracts have a 99% black population and a median family income of only $4,999. The area immediately surrounding the second school, the Typhoon School, had a higher median family income in 1990 ($21,845) but was 100% black. Although these statistics seem to indicate some socioeconomic differences in these neighborhoods, I do not think these differences are reflected in the memberships of the two dojos. From my experiences in the field, I believe that the majority of members of both dojos come from some of the lowest socioeconomic brackets in Chicago.
Police brutality is another facet of the very real, bodily threats poor blacks experience everyday. In the summer of 1999, Chicago made national headlines with the police murder of two unarmed blacks in two consecutive days. Similar incidents throughout the country have increased awareness of the epidemic of police violence in America, prompting Amnesty International to begin a human rights campaign against police brutality in the United States. This ever-present threat of deadly force is perhaps the most graphic illustration of the convergence of racism and the black body.
The physical segregation of the black ghetto is also connected to economic isolation. Like most Midwestern cities, Chicago experienced massive de-industrialization in the 1970's and 80's. National economic shifts from a Fordist economy based on full employment, to a post-Fordist economy with institutionalized unemployment, radically changed the economic conditions in Chicago's South Side communities. Erosion of the labor market was felt severely in poor black neighborhoods, and struck black males especially hard. Chronic unemployment became more of a threat for black men, and these threats were naturalized by racist
discourses undermining the ability of black men to be competent employees and responsible fathers. Such an alleged crisis of black masculinity utilizes racist tropes about the black male body to rationalize the economic despair found in poor, black communities.
The combination of physical segregation and economic marginalization has some lead theorists and activists to claim that blacks in the South Side of Chicago have experienced a form of internal colonialism. Similar analyses emerged in Chicano, Native American and Puerto Rican communities in the 70's (Blauner 1972). Although such perspectives have been the subject of criticism (Burawoy 1974), their strength lies in their recognition of how socio-economic forces combine with forms of cultural domination to produce and reproduce marginalized and alienated communities. The material conditions in these communities are linked to forms of representation that exoticize and marginalize the other. Internal colonialism, then, remains an important way of conceptualizing connections between race and the body because it shows how both discursive and material forces impinge on the black body.
The black nationalist movement of the 60’s and 70’s drew heavily on theories of internal colonialism, and some activists in Chicago’s black community remain committed to this perspective. I would argue that the continuing pertinence of the internal colonialism thesis springs from its ability to capture the way racism and the body are intertwined, a point of some relevance in poor, black communities. It is also valuable on a more theoretical level because of the way it neatly connects both the representational and material effects of racism to the body.
The body, then, is what links the forms of oppression impinging on black communities to the type of martial arts training practiced at the Typhoon School and the Mt. Olive school. For teachers and students at both dojos, the martial arts is a response to the forms of domination that converge on the black body. Embracing the rigorous physical training and intense discipline of the martial arts challenges representations of the unruly black body and provides some mechanism to cope with the material conditions of the ghetto.
Part 2 tomorrow