Enso Honors Black History Month

February is Black History Month, and we paid tribute to it by focusing on Black history in the martial arts. Each week, shared a bit of this knowledge as we strive to learn it alongside our students. We invite everyone to read, share, question, and research on your own, too!


“Our Fist is Black”

Installment #1: Feb. 5

The following information was found in Our Fist is Black, a scholarly article that focuses on the intersection of the Black Power Movement and the popular rise of martial arts in Black communities in the 1960s and ’70s. We invite you to read the entire article and let us know what stood out to you! Here are a few pieces that stood out to us:

  • The Black Karate Federation (BKF) was formed around 1969 by a man named Grandmaster Steve Muhammad, along with seven other martial artists in the Los Angeles area. The BKF logo (pictured above) was worn by hundreds of young martial artists over the next decade and featured a mash-up of symbols that were used to signify Black identity, martial arts, and empowerment:
    • The fist is both rooted in the martial arts tradition of Kenpo, which means “fist law,” as well as Black nationalist symbolism. It was said to be inspired by the 1968 Olympic Games podium gesture by sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
    • The red, black, and green banner mirrored the Pan-African flag.
    • The cobra, indigenous to many regions in Africa, represented both its African roots as well as the swift movements of the martial artists themselves.
  • BKF founders Steve Muhammad and Donnie Williams appeared in a scene from Bruce Lee’s 1973 movie Enter the Dragon (see clip on YouTube!). In the scene, they are shown leading a class with the BKF logo prominent in the background.
  • There’s a historical tie to Chicago, where a martial artist named Nganga Tolo-Naa developed a style of martial arts called “Kupigana Ngumi” with the goal of integrating traditional East Asian movements with Black cultural reflections that youth could identify with. While the literal meaning of the artform is “fighting with the fist,” instructors focused on learning about one self and learning about one’s culture.

We look forward to hearing what stood out to you, and we’ll share more history next week!

“The Greatest African American Martial Artists in History”

Installment #2: Feb. 12

The following information was found in The Greatest African American and Afro-American Martial Artists in History, a historical blog by Ben Miller. We invite you to read the entire article and let us know what stood out to you! Here are a few pieces that stood out to us:

  • Going waaaaay back. As far back as the age of antiquity, there is evidence of martial artists of African descent testing their abilities in Europe. This included individuals brought to ancient Rome as slaves who then fought for their freedom in the famous arenas of Pompeii and the Coliseum.
  • Fast forward to the middle ages. Starting in the middle ages (1400s) and continuing for the next 300 years, there are many depictions of people of African descent in books and artwork about martial arts — especially swordsmanship.
  • First fencers reach American South. In what eventually became the United States, the earliest documented references to fencing (1730s) featured people of African descent. Though brought to the Americas as slaves, some of these individuals achieved fame and esteem as Black martial artists and were sought after as instructors in white society.
  • Famous duels! One of the greatest fencers of his time was a Black man named Jean-Louis Michel, who was born in Haiti in 1785. He famously participated in a “mass duel” in 1814, when he killed or disabled 13 fencing masters in just 40 minutes.
  • The sensei of his time. Around the 1830s, New Orleans became known as the “duel capital of the western world,” hosting on average one duel per day and being home to many fencing academies. One of the most famous and sought-after masters of arms was a Black man named Basile Croquère, who fought in many battles and duels before dedicating himself to teaching youth.

We look forward to hearing what stood out to you, and we’ll share more history next week!

“Black Impact Within the Martial Arts”

Installment#3: Feb. 19

The following information was found in Our Story: Black Impact Within The Martial Arts, written by Rhett Butler, a journalist with the Boxing Writer Association of America. He comments on the impact that Black martial artists of the 1970s “Blaxploitation” era had on today’s boxers and MMA fighters.

We invite you to read the entire article and let us know what stood out to you! What stood out to us most was the writer’s tribute to Jim Kelly. Here are a few things about Kelly’s legacy that stood out to us:

  • “The world’s first Black martial arts star.” Kelly is most famous for his roles in Enter the Dragon, a Bruce Lee film, as well as Black Belt Jones, Hot Potato, and Black Samurai. According to the author: “While his movies weren’t block busters by any means, the impact, significance and influence of his films and roles are elements that can’t be measured or quantified by revenues or ticket sales.”
  • The only Hollywood film with three leading Black men? According to the blog, one of Kelly’s more influential — if lesser known — movies was actually Three the Hard Way, one of the only Hollywood films ever to feature three Black stars. The “sinister and bold” plot features three Black men aiming to destroy the efforts of a white supremacist who is trying to eliminate Black people through a toxin that only affects them. According to the author: “These movies may appear simplistic compared to today’s big budget films and CGI effects, but in the 70’s, stars like Jim Kelly and movies like this were trailblazers for a Black America that was struggling to get ahead, especially those in the rough inner cities like New York and Chicago. They demonstrated that Black people could fight back, literally, against racism, oppression and the strangle hold that Hollywood had over the industry and the roles that Black actors were allowed to take on.”
  • He studied karate! Kelly started out as a collegiate football player, but left the sport to study Shorin-ryu karate. Just like our style of Shotokan, Shorin-ryu is another traditional style of karate that originated in Okinawa, Japan, and that you often see at tournaments.
  • He was a teacher. Kelly opened a karate dojo in the Crenshaw neighborhood of Los Angeles. His fame on the movie screen and his knowledge in the classroom helped spawn a new generation of martial arts adherents globally. According to the blog: “Jim Kelly was an originator and inspiration to young Black men trying to pursue both the martial arts and an on-screen career, journeys that take years to perfect.”

Now we’re psyched to watch some Jim Kelly films!!

We look forward to hearing what stood out to you, and we’ll share more history next week!

“The Forgotten Fury”

Installment #4: Feb. 26

The following information was found in The Forgotten Fury: 12 Legendary Black Martial Arts Masters You Need to Know, and the title sums it up perfectly! The author describes these individuals as “masters whose stories come right out of a comic book.”

While these 12 masters studied many different forms of martial arts, we of course were most interested in the 5 who specifically studied karate. Here are a few things that stood out to us:

  • Vic Moore was the first Black national karate champion and successfully placed in every tournament from 1965-1975, defeating notable fighters such as Chuck Norris, Jim Kelly, and Joe Lewis. Alongside Joe Lewis, he would introduce Kickboxing to the American public on the Merv Griffin show in 1973. Mr. Moore is also infamous for appearing in a “random clip of Bruce Lee throwing a punch at a random brother’s face at what appeared to be a tournament” — apparently controversial because it was nothing more than a speed drill and, according to the author, Lee violated some agreed-upon terms for the exchange!
  • Karriem ABdAllah was the first Black man in America to develop his own functioning karate system, which consists of 25 styles of fighting. He developed legitimate fighters who were successful in tournaments during the 60s and 70s before retiring from karate and moving into boxing and kickboxing. His championship kickboxing fight with Jeff Smith was the under-card fight for the Muhammad Ali and George Frazier, “Thrilla In Manilla” fight.
  • Ron Van Clief was known in movies as The Black Dragon and The Last Dragon, the latter a movie that mirrored his own life in many ways as “the Black guy walking around Chinatown and fighting in underground tournaments.” He was also an accomplished fighter in more formal arenas as an 8-time U.S. Champion and 5-time World Champion. Karate was one of several martial art forms he studied, and he would eventually merge Karate and Kung Fu to create his own system, Chinese Goju.
  • Fred Hamilton was instrumental in pioneering bare knuckle full contact karate. He is also known as the first martial artist to allow women to participate in martial arts competition!
  • George Cofield was a master of our style, Shotokan karate. He received his initial training while in Japan, serving in the military, and many of his students were successful champions and still continue his legacy today.

We look forward to hearing what stood out to you!