It's About More Than Belts and Uniforms, Part 2
Thomas "LaPuppet" Carroll, a student of African-American karate pioneer George Cofield and a noted tournament fighter on the East Coast, initially gained national prominence in 1968 when he became the first Black martial artist to make the cover of Black Belt (August issue)."It was a very big deal to us at the time," said Chaka Zulu, a fellow New York martial artist and friend of LaPuppet's. "The only time you ever saw an African-American in Black Belt back then, he was being beaten up by a white guy. The only position we could have in the martial arts world was as an uke."
Ron Van Clief, who would appear on the cover of Black Belt in August 1999, agreed that African-American representation in the magazine, then the only significant media outlet covering martial arts in the United States, was often lacking.
"I think I was only the third Black they ever put on the cover, and that's terrible," he said. (Van Clief was actually the seventh Black person to play a featured role on the cover, but his point is well taken.)
Even more of a sore point for Van Clief and other African-American tournament veterans of the 1960s was how unfair they perceived the judging to be.Victor Moore, a leading Black fighter in the 1960s, recalled a match he had with Chuck Norris at Ed Parker's Long Beach International Karate Championships in California, where he said he knocked down Norris with a body punch and all four corner judges called a point. But the center referee, isshin-ryu pioneer Steve Armstrong, signaled for them to go to another room and discuss it, then decided the point wouldn't count and the match should continue.
"Norris threw a little kick and hit my arm, and Armstrong right away called 'Point!'" Moore said. "I'd stayed at Chuck's house with my wife when I went out there, and he said after the match, 'You know, I didn't have anything to do with that, right? You beat me fair and square.' I said, 'I've been going through this for years. It's nothing new.'
"Moore then recalled how, on the way out of the arena, Norris took a program and wrote on it "To the guy who beat me fair and square" — and Norris' wife did the same thing.
"I was just about in tears," Moore said. "To this day, I give Chuck Norris credit for being one of most honest and best karate people in the land. But I've got nothing good to say about Steve Armstrong."
Moore's experience in competition, particularly at the International Karate Championships, is a typical recollection among Black karateka of that era.
Steve Muhammad, then known as Steve Sanders, was widely regarded as the best fighter in Ed Parker's entire kenpo system. Yet once Parker's tournament instituted an overall grand-championship title, neither Sanders nor any of the other top African-American fighters of the time, like Moore or Norris' student Howard Jackson, was able to win it.
"The last fight I had in my career was at the Internationals against Joe Lewis for the championship," Muhammad said. "I scored two clear points at the beginning, but they never called them. No matter what I did, they wouldn't allow me to score a point. But the minute he scored on me in overtime, they gave him a point, and he was the winner.
"After I walked off, I was really hurt from the way they treated me. I saw Mr. Parker and said, 'They cheated me,' and he said, 'Yes, I know. They're not ready for a Black champion yet.'"
I said, 'But it's my time. I trained hard for this.'
"He just told me, 'They're not ready for a Black champion — that's all I can say. They're not going to let you win.'
"But it was his tournament. He had to go along with it, or it wouldn't have happened."
Parker, the father of American kenpo, remains one of the most respected figures in U.S. martial arts history. Yet listening to Muhammad recall his early days as a student of kenpo raises unsettling questions about the Hall of Fame instructor.
Muhammad's introduction to the disquieting side of the martial arts in the 1960s is not unusual. After being stationed in Okinawa with the Marines, he returned to the Los Angeles area with an interest in learning karate. He found Parker's school on Santa Monica Boulevard and began training there as the only African-American student. Although he said there was no open racism directed toward him, he felt targeted by the senior students in sparring and sometimes was battered worse than any of his classmates. And while Parker was officially his instructor, most of his training came from two of Parker's black belts: Dan Inosanto and Chuck Sullivan.
"When it came time for promotion to brown belt, Mr. Parker promoted everyone else but forgot about me — until Dan reminded him," Muhammad recalled. "[Parker] had me stand in a horse stance and kicked me so I slammed into the wall, then chopped me on the neck so I fell. He didn't do that to any of the other students, only to me.
"Later, as a brown belt, I was already the best fighter in the school, and when it came time for me to become a black belt, Chuck [Sullivan] went to Mr. Parker and asked him to promote me, but he said no. So Chuck had to promote me himself."
Although he said Parker never showed open hostility toward him and did take him around the country to compete, Muhammad also noted how, on those trips, all the white students were assigned roommates in the hotel while he was always left by himself.
But the perception of unfair treatment in tournaments was too much for some African-American karate practitioners to abide, and several of them — including Ron Chapel, Cliff Stewart and Jerry Smith — came to Muhammad to propose the formation of an organization to address their concerns. They already had drawn up bylaws when Muhammad ran into Los Angeles karate pioneer Willie Short and noticed the letters "BKF" on his uniform. When asked what the letters stood for, Short said, "Black Karate Federation." It was an organization that existed only in Short's mind, but he hoped that one day, it would bring all Black martial artists together. Muhammad was given permission to use the name, and the Black Karate Federation was born.
Although perceived by some as a radical, even an anti-white, group, the BKF had a significant number of Caucasian members and was never political outside of trying to improve the treatment of African-Americans in karate tournaments. Nonetheless, it was the first time Black martial artists would come together as a united, and influential, voice in martial arts circles. (To read more about the BKF, see the April 1989 issue of Black Belt.)
To be sure, not all African-American martial artists in this period were interested in influencing the politics of the martial arts. Some just wished to distance themselves from mainstream Asian martial arts.
Although access to legitimate African fighting arts was almost nonexistent for most people during the 1960s, several African-American martial artists like Mfundishi Maasi and Nganga Tolo-Naa blended karate with African symbolism in an effort to revive a sense of the African martial arts.
"They were trying to give it an African flavor," said Thomas Green, Ph.D., an anthropology professor who's been called the father of academic martial arts studies. "Though it might not have had the form of African martial arts, they had the substance of it. The aesthetics were African or African-American."
By the 1970s, there was a growing interest in authentic arts that could be traced back to Africa. Dennis Newsome, one of the first Americans to become a teacher of capoeira and the man who would go on to study other African-influenced martial arts like kalenda stick fighting, said he's always preferred to concentrate on these arts because of the cultural aspects.
Newsome, who became aware of capoeira after seeing it portrayed in the movie Black Orpheus, said: "Watching it, I knew from the way guys moved their bodies it was some kind of Black martial art. Wherever we go, you're going to find a similar type of movement — in the Caribbean, Brazil, here. It just looks a certain way. It appeals to the artist in me. And I didn't want to spend my life perfecting someone else's culture. There are plenty of Chinese, over a billion of them, to keep their thing rolling. I don't worry about them. I want to know what my ancestors did."
Culture wars play out in a number of arenas, and the arena that includes the fighting arts is just one of them. In it, prejudice can flow in all directions.
Penny Johnson Guy, wife of the late African-American martial arts instructor Rico Guy, recalled an incident in the early 1970s when Rico, then her instructor and boyfriend, took her to a tournament run by noted New York karate teacher Fred Hamilton. When Penny, a Caucasian, was introduced to Hamilton, she said he refused to shake hands, claiming he didn't shake hands with white people.
It was in 1954 when two researchers took a number of 12-year-old boys from similar backgrounds to a summer camp in Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. Split into two equal groups, each unaware of the other, they went through their own bonding processes and later were introduced and placed into competitive games against the other faction. Hostility and outright violence quickly broke out between the groups. The experiment is considered a prime example of "in-group–out-group bias," one of the strongest instinctive drives human beings seem to possess.
That bias shows that most humans tend to look on those from outside their own particular group with a sense of trepidation, and often hostility. Although this frequently breaks down along racial lines, it can erupt over a difference in religion, nationality or even something as trivial as affiliation with a sports team.
A number of African-American martial artists have reported experiencing more discrimination from Asians than from white instructors.
Michael Woods, an American martial artist who became one of the first Black stuntmen in Hong Kong kung fu movies, once recounted how a Chinese person approached him and asked, "How many people did you kill in America?"
Ralph Mitchell started training in judo in the 1960s and said he actually didn't face much discrimination from white teachers during that time — but trying to find instruction in Chinese martial arts was a different matter. He finally became one of the first Westerners to break down that barrier in New York's Chinatown when he began learning kung fu there in 1967. Some of the Chinese students he became friends with later said to him they'd always been told by their parents not to associate with Black people.
Ironically, when he went to Asia, fighting in Taiwan and training in Thailand, he found a whole different level of discrimination directed not at him but at other Asians. "You want to talk about racism — you should see the way the Thais and Chinese talk about each other," he said.
Van Clief had similar experiences during his time in Asia. "The Filipinos hate the Japanese, the Japanese hate the Koreans, the Chinese hate everybody," he said. "I'm telling you, it's a crazy world we live in."
It was more than 100 years ago when Albert Einstein demonstrated that even though the speed of light is an absolute, the perception of time depends on the individual observer. In other words, it's a matter of perspective. Perspective changes everything.
Although Chaka Zulu is adamant that isshin-ryu karate sensei Don Nagle refused him instruction because of his race, Nagle eventually did teach other African-Americans.
Steve Muhammad attributes much of Ed Parker's behavior to racism, yet Victor Moore said he never saw racism from Parker and believes Parker was more a captive of the times and the people around him. For his part, Muhammad said he never experienced any racism from karate pioneer Steve Armstrong, while Moore accuses Armstrong of not only discriminating against him in competition on multiple occasions but also having referred to him with racial epithets.
Robert Edwards, one of Armstrong's senior students, is the inheritor of Armstrong's organization. He also happens to be Black. He recalled that when he first walked into Armstrong's Washington karate school in 1971, he saw a sign saying "NO BLACK GI'S" were allowed in the dojo, not an unusual request from traditional white-gi-wearing karateka at that time. But Edwards misinterpreted "GI," thinking it referred to the nickname for soldiers. (GI stands for "government issue.") As such, Edwards thought it was a prohibition against black soldiers from the nearby military base.
"I asked him why he wouldn't teach black GIs, and he turned around and looked at the sign and said, 'Oh, my God! I'm going to have to do something about that sign!'" said Edwards, who believes many accusations of racism are often based on misunderstandings.
Consider the classic Japanese movie Rashomon, in which a samurai is murdered and witnesses recount different versions of the events as observed from their own perspective. Similarly, trying to discern racism in the martial arts can be a conflicted process.
Of course, it's not simply the martial arts community but rather America itself that has the long, tortured, often-confused history of race relations. Thomas Jefferson lobbied ardently for the inclusion of the anti-slavery passage that appeared in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence — yet he owned slaves his whole life.
Did men like Don Nagle and Robert Trias refuse to teach someone because they were racists or because that particular person rubbed them the wrong way? Did Ed Parker and Steve Armstrong not call points in tournaments because they didn't care for Blacks, because they were poor judges or because someone simply threw a weak punch?
It's possible that some African-Americans perceived bigotry where none was intended, but it's also possible that white instructors of the era, while perhaps not rabid racists, allowed their innate bias to play a role. Perhaps a Black person they liked was not discriminated against but one they didn't care for was — whereas a white person in the same situation might have received the benefit of the doubt.
It's also possible that as American society changed over the decades, so did the attitudes of its martial arts instructors. People evolve, and a person's attitudes in the 1970s or '80s may have been quite different from his or her attitudes in the '50s. With time and exposure, one hopes, come tolerance and eventually understanding.
When Ralph Mitchell returned from serving in Vietnam, his kung fu teacher Gin Foon Mark made him an assistant instructor and asked him to teach the Saturday class at his school.
"It was because of the situation, not because he necessarily wanted to help Black Americans — he had to work on Saturdays, so he couldn't teach class himself," Mitchell said. "But that was the first time a non-Chinese taught kung fu in Chinatown. Necessity brought on change. And as time went by, the social situation changed."
In 1998 Darrell Sarjeant moved from New York to Oklahoma, where he began teaching the martial arts he learned from Moses Powell and others. He said he heard stories about how at one time there was a deep rift in the local goju community, where Blacks and whites were divided. But it was no longer the case by the time he arrived.
"Now you see friendships of people from various cultures," Sarjeant said. "When you can punch someone in the head and then shake their hand, it has the opportunity to bring some understanding. My students are not predominantly African-American. So for me, stepping out in front of them, I may be the first representative of African-American culture in their experience. Now I have young men I've taught who are white but they call me 'Dad.'"
Although some people believe that racism still plays a role, if less overtly, many insist it's now a relatively insignificant factor in American martial arts. But that hardly means issues of inequality have disappeared. If Black men have often felt marginalized within the arts, the plight of Black female martial artists has sometimes been even more arduous.
Gerry "Lady Sensei" Chisolm said that searching for images of African-American female martial artists from the 1960s and '70s is like looking for a needle in a haystack. She mentioned how she has yet to find a magazine story from the 1970s on Linda Denley, an African-American woman who was probably the most dominant female tournament fighter of all time.
As an African-American and a woman in the martial arts, Chisolm said she's experienced discrimination on both fronts: "White women began to organize in the '70s with feminist groups, and self-defense training was part of that. But they felt Black women didn't need self-defense because we grew up in urban areas; therefore, we must automatically know how to defend ourselves."
Even by the time I came along, some women's martial arts organizations I tried to be a part of didn't have any diversity. Though I was always made welcome, it was a very isolating experience. But as a woman practitioner, I've also experienced too many instances of being the only woman in the room.
"Chisolm said she views sexism as perhaps a bigger problem than racism when it comes to the arts: "The one thing the world has in common is its disrespect for women, and I get that just as much from African-American men. But often, it isn't about racism or sexism; it's just rampant egoism. There are all kinds of '-isms' in the world, and martial arts does reflect the world we live in."
Part 1 of this article appeared in the October/November 2020 issue of Black Belt. Read it now on blackbeltmag.com.
Mark Jacobs' most recent book is The Principles of Unarmed Combat. His website is writingfighting.wordpress.com. He would like to thank Joseph Svinth for his invaluable assistance during the research that went into this article.
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