Beyond the Dragon: Charting the influence of Bruce Lee and Black Power Activists in the rise of Martial Arts in 20th Century, African American Communities

This paper explores the historicization of the rise of martial arts in urban, Black American communities during the Black Power Era. The Black Arts Movement’s call to create economically and aesthetically independent institutions fostered an environment for African Americans to teach and learn martial arts inspired by East Asian and African influences. However, thus far, scholars have primarily used Bruce Lee and Afro-Asian polyculturalism to historicize 20th century African American martial artistry. This scholarship has been valuable for demonstrating positive interethnic relations and drawing attention to African American participation in the martial arts. However, such work consistently uses Lee’s popularity as the focal point for exploring the rise of martial arts practice in Black communities instead of the work of Black Power and Black Arts activists. By charting both Bruce Lee’s rise in American martial arts and the rise of martial arts in Black communities, I contend that Black instructors who began martial arts programs in the 1950s and 1960s are the roots of martial arts participation in Black communities rather than kung fu films stars such as Lee. By institutionalizing martial art spaces in Black communities, instructors like Shaha Mfundishi Maasi, who taught for the Committee for a Unified NewArk, provided Black Arts teachings that directly transformed community members’ lives. While movies like those of Lee could inspire Black youth to improve themselves, it was these instructors who taught them self-defense skills as well as Black cultural knowledge and self-esteem. Many of these instructors had already established schools before Bruce Lee’s rise to fame. Thus, the oral histories and primary documents examined here indicate that even though Bruce Lee inspired youth to study martial arts, they were able to do so because of martial arts spaces already established in their communities.

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