Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Author Guest Post: Thomas Green on Martial Arts

Looking for a Beating
There were no "Karate Kids” after-school programs in small towns in central Texas in the 1950s. No “Tiny Tigers”. No “Lil’ Dragons”.  I had to make do with Police Jujitsu as Taught to the Law Enforcement Bodies in the United States and Throughout the World … ordered from the back of a comic book.

Finally, I discovered a local elementary school principal with a brown belt in judo. A few weeks of stalking and pleading led to a judo club at the YMCA and delusions of invulnerability. I got my first real martial arts instruction in El Paso, Texas from Ahn, a Vietnamese student who had traded beer smuggled in to the night watchmen at his father’s warehouse in Saigon (now Hochiminh City) for a set of brutal tactics that were too scary for Shaolin.

A mutual friend let me in on Ahn’s secret. Once again, I stalked and nagged until he agreed to teach me. (Ahn, of course, assumed I would quit.) For the next year there was no structured curriculum. There were no belts. The only tuition was pain. Later, I spent two equally rigorous years learning Wing Chun from LeungYee-lap after convincing his grandmother, who was also his kung fu teacher, of my sincerity and character. As a rule, my favorite teachers have charged me the least, demanded from me the most, and hurt me the worst. When I settled on anthropology/folklore as my "day job," I suppose it was inevitable for me write about some of these experiences.

PHOTO: Earl White, chief instructor,
Ijo Ija Academy (left), and author (right), 

Capoeira Batuque, Los Angeles, CA, 2008.

Hidden in Plain Sight
While editing Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia (ABC-CLIO, 2001), I discovered how little I knew about the subject in its totality. Fortunately, I had an exceptional editorial board whose members did their best to keep my foot out of my mouth. One particularly good tip I got from Joe Svinth was to give long overdue credit to African martial arts. At that point, I had some exposure to capoeira, so Gene Tausk and I co-authored a preliminary overview. Nine years later, I am grateful for the opportunity to revisit the topic again in the substantially revised Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia of History and Innovation (ABC-CLIO, 2010).

In the interim, I have had the opportunity to fill in some of the substantial gaps in my knowledge. (Many still remain, naturally.)  Ironically, the information I needed was hidden in plain sight. Africans and their African-American descendants commonly developed combat arts in conjunction with percussive rhythms. As a result, these martial arts often have been written off as ethnic dance. Stick-fighting, wrestling, and pugilism continue to hold a place in festival and similar cultural performances throughout Africa and in the African-American Diaspora. Vernacular arts such as uprocking, break-dancing, and the urban street-fighting style called the 52 Hand Blocks embody the African aesthetic. Analogues also endure in the modern boxing ring: Muhammad Ali’s shuffle, Archie Moore’s armadillo cover, and Roy Jones, Jr.’s derisive dances. Thanks to my teachers, dancer-fighter-scholars Kilindi Iyi, Thomas Lomax, Daniel Marks, Mestre Preto Velho (Dennis Newsome), and Earl White, for opening the door.  

--Thomas Green

Thomas A. Green  is associate professor of anthropology at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. His published works include the award-winning Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music, and Art (ABC-CLIO, 1997), Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia (ABC-CLIO, 2001), and Martial Arts in the Modern World (Praeger, 2003). He has practiced martial arts since 1972.

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