Mark Jacobs takes a closer look into why Chinese martial arts are popular in the African-American community.

When I attended a screening of the documentary The Black Kungfu Experience at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image last year, I noticed the film pointed out something that many have observed over the years: There appears to have developed a social intersection of African-American and Chinese culture that finds its crossroads right in the middle of the kung fu world. How to explain such a juxtaposition of two disparate cultures? Noted New York kung fu practitioner and former BET reality-TV star Novell Bell, aka The Black Taoist, offered this insight: “Brothers just love kung fu. It’s the rhythm.” Potential stereotyping aside, there seems to be a level of agreement about the nature of kung fu movements from other prominent African-American practitioners. Legendary martial artist Ron Van Clief, who’s featured in The Black Kungfu Experience, is better-known to film fans as “The Black Dragon.” Drawing from his extensive experience in both Japanese and Chinese arts, Ron Van Clief opined that the harder Japanese styles are “ugly” compared to Chinese arts, which simply flow better.


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In all likelihood, the ethnic fusion of African-American and Chinese culture reached its zenith in 1985’s The Last Dragon. The movie follows the adventures of a black kung fu expert named “Bruce Leroy,” who spouts fortune-cookie philosophy while walking the streets of Harlem bedecked in a frog-buttoned kung fu jacket and huge wicker hat. Bruce Leroy has passed, in certain circles, from camp to cult status, and his style from The Last Dragon continues to be imitated. UFC fighter Alex Caceres likes to bill himself as “Bruce Leeroy,” after the Bruce Leroy character from The Last Dragon. And at the underground kung fu fights Bell stages around New York, you can see various African-American masters attired in their own kung fu jackets — and even the occasional wicker hat, as seen in The Last Dragon. Many attribute the ongoing fascination with the Chinese martial arts to the enduring power of cinema. Indeed, the roots of the African-American kung fu phenomenon stretch back before Bruce Leroy from The Last Dragon — all the way to the 1970s, when Hong Kong chopsocky films drew crowds in practically every inner-city theater in America. “The theme in a lot of kung fu movies is about the underdog fighting against the oppressors,” said Martha Burr, who, along with Mei-Juin Chen, produced and directed The Black Kungfu Experience. “And that resonates in the black community.”

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While the underdog theme may have drawn African-American audiences to the theater, it was undoubtedly the way Chinese masters kicked butt on the silver screen that pulled them into the kung fu schools. Cinematic masters didn’t just kick butt; they kicked it with style. This, as much as anything, may explain the allure of Chinese martial arts. “Both cultures have a shared emphasis on style,” said Warrington Hudlin, a filmmaker and a trustee of the Museum of the Moving Image. “It’s a decorated, ornamented, performed experience. Think about those movies and the way guys came out posing. You don’t really fight in those poses — it’s a stylized version of the art, and that’s very much a shared aesthetic. But that shared aesthetic goes both ways: I remember Bruce Lee wearing a blue dashiki in the TV show Longstreet." Despite any shared aesthetics, for some early African-American enthusiasts, the Chinese martial arts community was unwelcoming at times. Noted praying mantis kung fu instructor Ralph Mitchell once recalled in Black Belt how it took him several months to gain entry into a Chinatown kung fu school in the 1960s. Tayari Casel, another martial artist featured in The Black Kungfu Experience, remembered having his kung fu belittled by a Chinese master at a tournament because Tayari Casel didn’t know the Chinese names of the techniques he was performing. Nevertheless, in a time when many traditional martial arts are experiencing slowed growth because of the rise of mixed martial arts, interest in kung fu — at least in the African-American community — remains high. “There are still a lot of African-American kids doing kung fu now, and I think that’s because they’re able to study with these pioneering black masters,” Martha Burr said. “But in a way, it’s really an American martial art now. I think black people took Chinese culture and Americanized it. It’s not a black cultural thing; it’s become an American cultural thing.”

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Do you want to maximize your self defense skills? Learn the game of combat chess and most importantly the queen of all moves.

Allow me to intercept those who would object to the title of this article. I'm not claiming that there's a secret move, shortcut or hack that will give you the edge in any fight. Even if there was an ultimate weapon or strategy, you likely would avoid it because you
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Looking to buy some weights to gain some strength?

Looking at Dumbbell, Kettlebells or Weighted bar? How about an all in one that won't just save you some good amount of money but also space? Look no further, we bring you the GRIPBELL!

Let's face it, when we do want to work on some strength building, we don't want to go around shopping for 20 different weight equipment things. That would just not want us to even do any sort of strength training. But what if we only needed a few, a few that can do the things we want without having 20 things lay around? That's where the GRIPBELL comes in. Let me clarify with you first, these are not some heavy duty, muscle exploding weights, they are for building the level of strength we as martial artists want without going crazy and insane in bulk sizing!

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Many different types of "blocks" are taught in most martial arts school. We are taught high blocks, low blocks, middle blocks, knife hand blocks, etc. Some schools will also teach how to use the legs to block an attack, as well.

The purpose of this writing is to possibly open some minds to the possibilities of going outside the box and considering alternatives to the basics.

Blocking is taught as a way of protecting oneself from harm. Truly, we don't "block" anything, as a non-martial artist would think of it. What we call "blocking" is more of a redirection of an opponent's attack, or even a counterstrike against the opponent's attacking limb.

To block something would mean to put something, like your arm, leg or other body part directly in front of the attack. That would certainly hurt and possibly cause some damage. The goal should be to move the attack out of the way in order to prevent injury and provide a way to fight back. For example, many schools teach blocks as a limb moving toward the strike such as a circular high block.

The movement required for a block might have other uses, if you keep an open mind. The blocking techniques can also be used as attack techniques. For example, your "low block" may be used as a striking technique against the outer thigh of the attacker. Your high block might be used as a strike to the jaw. The set up for a block can be used as a deflection, as well as the actual block.

Doing a block or a series of blocks will most likely not end an attack. A block needs to be followed by a counterattack. While the block is usually taught as a separate technique in order to learn it correctly, it should also be used in combination with a counter.

The more you know, the more you realize how much you don't know. Intensive books can and have be written about basic techniques. With this writing, I am hoping to create interest in exploring the additional possibilities for what we have been taught and what we teach others.

About Grand Master Stevens

GM Stevens has been training in taekwondo for 47 years under the tutelage of the late legendary Grand Master Richard Chun. He holds an 8th degree black belt and is certified in the USA and in Korea. Grand Master Stevens is a member of the Board of Directors of the prestigious Richard Chun TaeKwonDo World Headquarters organization. He has been very active in his community and has been a volunteer with the Glen Rock Volunteer Ambulance Corps for over 11 years. He is a certified member of C.E.R.T. (Community Emergency Response Team).

Gary Stevens Taekwondo is located at 175 Rock Road in Glen Rock, New Jersey.

For more information: call (201) 670-7263, email: StevensTKD@aol.com or go to www.StevensTaeKwonDo.com

Having partners at or above your skill level is important for improving in your martial arts training. At some point, however, you will probably find yourself with a shortage of skilled partners, especially if you are an instructor.

This can happen for any number of reasons: students can move away, change their work schedules, start a family, etc., and just like that, you find that you're the highest-ranked student, or sole instructor, in your gym or dojo. This doesn't have to be a bad thing. In fact, if you take advantage of it, even working exclusively with lower-ranking classmates or students can improve your skills.

I used to host a twice-a-week training session at my dojo where I invited mostly black belts from other schools (as well as a few of my advanced students) to come and run drills. It was a blast. These were tough two- to three-hour sessions where I got to work with fighters of all different sizes, speeds, and technique preferences. My sparring improved dramatically over the next few months, and I don't think I've ever been in better shape. But unfortunately, it doesn't always work out that way. And as the old saying goes, "You gotta work with what ya got." So, make it hard on yourself.

I like to set handicaps when fighting my students. Specifically, I focus on forcing myself to work on improving my weak areas. Is you right leg weaker than the left? Then only kick with the right leg when sparring your students. Not much of an inside fighter? Don't kick at all. Training with partners of lesser skill not only helps you improve your weak points but gives them an opportunity to improve as well by working on strategy. It's also great for building their confidence. It can also be a low-cost opportunity to test new techniques and combinations, which benefits you as well.

In grappling, just like sparring, there is little benefit to wrapping lower ranking classmates into pretzels over and over, for them or you. Instead, let your partner put you in a bad situation. Let them get the mount; help them sink in that choke or armbar. If you start standing, such as in judo, allow your partner to get the superior grip before attempting a throw. This way you will get comfortable working out of a weaker position and your less-experienced partner can perfect their technique (and get experience using multiple techniques, if you get out of their first one).

You might think that giving advantages like these to students who may be far beneath your skill level is much of a challenge. Trust me, you'll reconsider that sentiment when you wind up sparring a 6'5" novice with zero control over his strength after deciding to only use your weak leg, or have a 250-pound green belt lying across your diaphragm trying to get an armlock after you let them get the pin. Remember, this is exactly what you signed up for: a challenge.

If you find yourself at the top of the heap without partners who are sufficiently challenging, there is no need to despair. Use it as a low-stress opportunity to improve your weaknesses and develop avenues to help your less experienced classmates and students to grow. You may even be surprised. One day they might present more of a challenge than you ever imagined!
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