Black Belts on Black Folks - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Black Belts on Black Folks

Black Belts on Black Folks

By Eugene S. Robinson

Mixed Race man practicing Tai Chi


Because when everybody was kung fu fighting, and those kicks were as fast as lightning, you would have been a fool not to.

By Eugene S. Robinson

It usually starts early.

A shove here, a bully there, and that proving ground that poet and author Charles Bukowski called “the great American schoolyard” quickly beats the wheat from the chaff. You learn how to duck and run, avoid at all costs, or stand and fight the indignities both small and large that come with living with other humans.

“My mother told me the very first time I got shoved and beaten around by some other kid and came inside crying, that if I didn’t go back outside and stand up for myself, she was going to beat me, too,” said traditional martial artist Kevin Byas. “So, in a way, my mother was my first teacher.”

… singularly distinguished by a hard-core, no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners style that suffered fools poorly. 

Tough lessons in being tough would also come from the martial arts studios studding New York City’s black neighborhoods, where the fine art of self-defense had found a sure foothold. Serious martial arts studies were being driven by guys, often war veterans, who brought what they had learned back with them after returning from action in Japan and Korea.

Traditional martial arts (TMA)

Karate, kung fu, judo, aikido, jujitsu, escrima and silat. Largely standardized systems, relatively unchanged from how they were originally taught.

First and foremost among them was Dr. Moses Powell, a man, all 5-foot-10 and 240 lb. of him, whose name is never very far from ideas like legendaryand badass. He schooled the DEA, FBI, the Secret Service andaction star Wesley Snipes in a martial arts amalgam he cottoned together: part traditional jujitsu, part Shorin-Ryu karate, part aikido, part boxing, all tough guy. He was even invited to demonstrate his art at the United Nations.

Powell studied with Filipino-American World War II vet Professor Florendo M. Visitacion, who had himself studied with the  native New Yorker and former Marine Charlie Nelson, who served at Guadalcanal and picked up his deadly serious wrist locks and leg breaks via fellow fight travelers from all over the world. Powell’s love for martial arts was singularly distinguished by a hard-core, no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners style that suffered fools poorly. It was as philosophical as it was physical, and it spread throughout New York like a cult.

Other/nontraditional martial arts

Mixed martial arts (MMA), krav maga, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (derived from Japanese jujitsu), and freestyle or catch wrestling. Much more fluid in the exercise, adoption and application of techniques. 

All three teachers ended up in Brooklyn and Upper Manhattan, in storefronts and two-flight walk-ups, in Nelson’s case, making their unlikely martial arts incursions into the American landscape far ahead of the Bruce Lee-fueled mid-1970s explosion of interest. Which they were primed to exploit after making martial arts their own since the 1960s, and establishing tie-ins to the community’s interest in Africa, Black Nationalism and separatist religious communities like the Nation of Islam. Students and coaches alike were looking past Asia and straight to Africa for the real roots of some of the world’s oldest martial arts.

“We understood that the Nuba of the Sudan had practiced some form of martial arts,” said Grandmaster Robert Crosson, one of Dr. Powell’s most significant practitioners, speaking from Florida, where he had stopped to speak at a seminar. Crosson is a legend in his own right and has extended his interests into movie roles, bodyguarding gigs for actors, hip-hop artists, celebrities and even, at one time, none other than Mike Tyson. Recalling the far reach of the practice, Crosson notes, “Dr. Powell was a big fan of using whatever he had learned to use from wherever he had learned it.” Mixed martial arts, indeed.

African American MMA fighters fighting

Mixed martial arts (MMA)

The influence extended into music, from the Afrika Bambaataa-allied Kemetic Masters of the Martial Arts with Dr. Shaka Zulu and their more historically accurate take on the arts, to the more militaristic take in Public Enemy’s security force the S1Ws (Security of the First World). Powell’s offshoots such as Crosson and others — Jim Kelly on the celebrity tip — launched competitions and more schools, instilling healthy addictions to learning the arts of self-defense in the hearts and minds of urban black America. A community that had, to quote Chuck D, started looking past the days of “yes y’all’ing.”

Filed under “lighting a candle versus cursing the dark,” for black folks whose identity might have previously been framed by if not servility, then a mute acceptance of substandard treatment, Asian self-defense practices stood as a compelling counterpoint to the peaceful-warrioring of Martin Luther King Jr. And for at-risk urban youth through the ’70s and ’80s, martial arts were far better fuel for inspiration than any tepid “Just Say No” campaign.

“You look at kids from unstructured environments,” said Crosson. ”And that hunger for structure will lead them to do good things that they only imagined they could do — and that, knowing about the power of martial arts, I already knew they could do.”

Or, as longtime martial arts chronicler Eddie Goldman once pointed out, “It’s not surprising to me at all that guys like Nelson Mandela [were] fighters. Doing difficult things requires a toughness that you can only get from fighting.” Which is why Crosson might advise onetime tae kwon do practitioner President Barack Obama to “get back to training, brother — it’s good for the stress.”

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