[Illustration by Peter Gamlen for Mic]

"Safety isn't just physical": How martial arts can help Black queer people build every kind of strength

Ask someone to name a martial artist and superstars like Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan will probably spring to the tip of their tongue. In the United States, those names, and select others, like the Shaw Brothers, dominate and thus shape perceptions of martial arts and its practitioners, even decades after the kung fu film explosion of the 1960s-1980s. Yet Black communities throughout the diaspora practiced martial arts long before its first boom in the U.S. Fast forward to the present day, and Black LGBTQ+ people have expanded on the history of martial arts for community self-defense, in their own unique pursuit of physical, mental, and spiritual fulfilling.

For years, I'd been interested in pursuing a martial art, but I didn't actually sign up for a gym until shortly before the coronavirus pandemic hit. I took the plunge because, for one, I needed a hobby. With writing now my job, what was once my main method of decompressing was now the very thing stressing me out. There were also, of course, self-defense benefits.

As a queer Black Muslim woman, I'm no stranger to violence on any level: personal, structural, metaphysical. Been there, done that. After I moved to Philadelphia, though, the amount of street harassment that I received increased. Part of it came from a particular fetishization of Black Muslim womanhood; my hijab was apparently a signal that I would be especially open to advances like random marriage proposals on the street. When I rejected or ignored them, some of these men threatened me. Here's the thing about me: Wallahi, I'll hit back. Given that pure animosity alone isn't enough to win every fight, I needed to make sure that I could throw a good punch.

"My involvement in the sport is me taking agency over my own body and taking control over my own personal protection."

When it comes to other Black LGBTQ+ people, I'm far from the only one to get into martial arts for self-defense. "Black LGBTQ+ folks have always sought both joy and access to safety," Maryam Aziz, a post-doctoral scholar at Pennsylvania State University's Africana Research Center with almost 20 years of martial arts experience, including a second-degree black belt in Goju-ryu karate, told Mic by email. "Black trans folks have always been at the forefront of thinking about community self-defense and continue to be."

Yet for some, self-defense occupies a fantastical terrain. It's about how to handle yourself in a "what if" situation that's unlikely to occur. On Reddit forums, I've seen people talk about getting into martial arts for self-defense, but when asked, they admit they don't really know when they'd ever need to use their knowledge. Myself and other Black LGBTQ+ people, however, are not asking "if" we'll ever have to defend ourselves — it's "when." For us, violence is not obscure. It is very tangible. If we haven't experienced it outright, then someone in our intimate circles has. Although hate crime statistics do not capture the full reality of people's experiences, as many instances of violence go unreported, documented rises in LGBTQ+ hate crimes puts 2021 on pace to be the deadliest year yet for trans people.

As part of their research, Aziz explores martial arts and unarmed self-defense in the Black Power Era. They also teach anti-hate crime self-defense workshops in campuses and local communities based off their work. They have seen the desire to protect themselves motivate plenty of LGBTQ+ people into joining a class. "As we know, Black trans and Indigenous women are killed at disproportionately high rates," Aziz told Mic. "The self-defense aspect of martial arts can be appealing for that reason."

Like Aziz, Torrie O'Neil, a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu out of Grappling Mastery who also practices Muay Thai and wrestling, sees the benefit of martial arts for self-defense in Black communities. She told Mic, "In general, I believe that Black communities are very vulnerable. We see how society tends to paint us as aggressive and violent individuals. However many of us have no proper training and just go off of instinct."

O'Neil didn't intend to get into BJJ. After finishing grad school, she wanted to pursue freestyle wrestling, but she couldn't locate a dedicated gym. Eventually, she found her current gym, which offers wrestling once a week. "I tried BJJ on my first day and was instantly hooked," O'Neil told Mic. Since then, she's founded The Mighty Dames, a grappling group dedicated to supporting women heavyweights.

"My involvement in the sport is me taking agency over my own body and taking control over my own personal protection," O'Neil told Mic. "In the last year we have seen Black gun ownership increase. I would love to see the same increase in Black attendance in self-defense, boxing and/or jiu jitsu. The more ways we can protect ourselves, the better."

The physical portion of martial arts is only one small aspect of the practice, though. "Safety," Aziz said, "isn't just physical. It is indeed mental and spiritual." So even if people aren't explicitly coming for the physical aspects of self-defense, Aziz continued, practicing martial arts may "provide grounding to Black queer folk who want to feel at home and strong in their bodies. Folks are also looking for the confidence and mental fortitude to believe they will defend themselves without help if necessary."

"Safety isn't just physical. It is indeed mental and spiritual."

It's those connections beyond physicality alone that drive Kai Hartsfield's practice in Washington, D.C. Last year, Hartsfield took up Capoeira Angola, an Afro-Brazilian martial art developed by enslaved people in the 1500s. Their interest in Capoeira Angola wasn't motivated by physical self-defense, but began years before after seeing one of their organizing comrades practicing the sport in 2016.

"I was drawn to the art because of its rich history, lineage, and connection to African culture," Hartsfield told Mic. "I didn't have access to actually play until this past year. There are multiple forms of capoeira and, unfortunately, most schools do not train the more traditional style known as Capoeira Angola, so it was difficult to find a school and an instructor."

As soon as they began training, Hartsfield felt a spiritual connection with Capoeira Angola. Throughout the pandemic, they continued to practice by themselves outdoors, and eventually moved back indoors. They told Mic, "When I'd have a bad day, an anxious day, I'd come to class and begin singing, playing instruments, practicing movements, and immediately feel better."

Time, however, has separated Capoeira Angola from its roots. At a school of seven, Hartsfield was one of only two Black students. "Although I'm not Afro-Brazilian or Angolan, I felt uncomfortable sharing this training with folks not connected to the diaspora," Harsfield told Mic. "Because it is so holistic and Black, I just can't imagine that they're having the same connection I am. It's some things that can't be taught."

"I also understand mestres' [experienced capoeira instructors] desire to pay the bills and keep the art alive, which unfortunately means sharing it with other people," Hartsfield added. Still, the tension remains. "Unfortunately, the school I attended wasn't an anomaly, and capoeira, like much of our culture, has been whitened."

In some ways, Aziz's introduction to martial arts mimics Hartsfield's own. While Aziz told Mic that they got involved in martial arts because "I loved being in my body as a child," they shared that almost everyone in their family had taken a martial arts class. Aziz's father practiced martial arts while he participated in community organizing and would often share stories about his training. "He finally signed me up for my birthday," Aziz said of their father. "I never stopped. Martial arts pushed me into new growths, and I fell in love."

When martial arts was introduced to the mass public in the West, it became something tied to capitalism and imperialism, rather than to enslaved people's pursuits for freedom. As Aziz explained, after World War II, "Arts like karate were spreading rapidly because U.S. soldiers learned them ... in the Pacific. Eventually, by the time the early 1970s hit, many Americans could learn martial arts."

Martial arts further grew in popularity with the arrival of kung fu films, which not only made men like the aforementioned Lee famous in the U.S., but, Aziz explained, saw Black men like Jim Kelly "bringing millions of dollars into a faltering Hollywood." The popularity of kung fu films amongst Black communities influenced how Black people are thought of in relationship to martial arts — but that's not the full origin story.

"All peoples and nations have their own Indigenous martial arts. That means that innumerable arts exist and existed on the continent of Africa," Aziz told Mic. In West Africa alone, there's Dambe from the Hausa people of Nigeria; Senegalese wrestling, which can be seen being utilized by Oumar "Reug Reug" Kane, a mixed martial artist from outside of Dakar; and plenty of others.

These martial arts were not forgotten when enslaved people were stolen. Instead, they evolved. While the martial arts practiced throughout the African diaspora may not look identical to the art forms that enslaved people took across the Atlantic, Aziz said, "They are cousins. So Black folks have always practiced these arts."

While we often focus on the fighting aspect of martial arts they are, indeed, art forms. It's easy to trace the familial relationships between martial arts like Capoeira Angola and breakdancing, circle keeping, and call and response, as Hartsfield pointed out. But one important thing to note about Capoeira Angola is that it implements musicality because enslaved people could then hide that they were preparing to fight.

That use of instruments, namely percussion, to hide enslaved peoples' true intents is reminiscent of stepping, whose roots can be traced back to the 1739 Stono Rebellion led by an Angolan man named Jemmy. During that rebellion, enslaved Africans in South Carolina used drums to call others to join as they marched towards St. Augustine, then controlled by the Spanish who promised freedom to destabilize the British empire. After the rebellion, the Negro Act of 1740 banned enslaved Africans from actives like playing drums in hopes of stifling any further uprisings. Instead, enslaved people began to use their bodies as instruments, which became stepping.

"We cannot rely on others to keep us safe."

The use of martial arts for liberation in the U.S. did not die out with slavery. "During the Black Power and Black Arts Movements," Aziz said, "community organizers used [martial arts] to learn practical forms of safety to complement armed self-defense, or to replace it when it wasn't feasible. They also used them to stay spiritually present and grounded under state repression and anti-Black violence."

In the 1980s and '90s, Aziz said, Black martial arts became less associated with film, and more so with hip hop. There's maybe no better example then the Wu-Tang Clan, whose member RZA taught himself martial arts by watching movies. Now, Black martial artistry is associated with promotion companies like the Ultimate Fighting Champion (UFC), or the choreography seen in movies like Marvel's Black Panther.

Even if it wasn't their original reason for joining, the revolutionary potential of martial arts keeps many Black LGBTQ+ practitioners involved. Still, navigating martial arts spaces can be exhausting, as white supremacy can run rampant. As O'Neil said, "It is hard not to notice that I am often the only women of color (or person of color) on the mats, and almost always the only queer person there."

For Hartsfield, their first school required them to hide parts of themselves. "Capoeira Angola is a traditionally male-dominated, patriarchal, hierarchal martial art. Many practitioners and mestres hold close to tradition, and because of that are often misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic and abuse their power as teachers," Hartsfield told Mic. Because they saw those dynamics in their own school, Hartsfield "compartmentalize[d]" themselves, they said. This meant not sharing their sexuality, identity as a trans person, or pronouns.

"It's a calculation I make daily as a Black trans person, so I settled in to shrinking this piece of myself," Hartsfield said. In that aspect, they see an ugly similarity between some martial arts spaces and the rest of the world. "It's a common experience Black LGBTQ+ folks face of having to leave one or more identities at the door. I could choose to be unapologetic and stand in all of my identities, as I often do, but in this environment I kind of just don't feel like it and would rather just play capoeira without having to explain myself or argue."

Hartsfield eventually left their first school. But their story highlights the importance of martial arts spaces that are built by and for oppressed communities. O'Neil's work with The Mighty Dames is an example of such a space. She shared that the lack of other visible Black, gay women "leads me to do more outreach within my community. As BJJ is not a popular sport in the Black community, I want to help expose more kids to the sport, as they could be our new world champion or the happiest hobbyist in their town."

It all ties into O'Neil's belief that martial arts are for everybody. She said, "Everyone should have a basic level of understanding how to defend themselves, not just with a weapon, but with their bodies. The BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities are two of the most attacked ones in this country. We cannot rely on others to keep us safe. We need to take the power and learn how to protect ourselves, and martial arts are a great way to start."

Although Hartfield's first school has "stained" their experience with martial arts, they are still looking for a second school to become involved with. Their decision to stick with Capoeira Angola is driven by a desire to see Black martial arts thrive. "Black folks have a deep history of martial arts as self-defense that often have had to be kept underground," they said. "My hope is that we can keep these art forms alive and more accessible to Black trans folks as a form of self-defense and spiritual connection."