The argument over the stewardship of the Black Dragon Fighting Society is not in question in my mind. It just has no place in the Chicago part of the story at this particular moment. I have said before that I am interested in seeing the Fall River BDFS archives for possible inclusion of materials in the film. Fall River is in the latter part of the story.
I got one letter that was really interesting that speaks specifically to the times we were all living in and what it was like to studying martial arts in a racially senstive America of the 1960s.
Dear Mr. Webb:I shared this with my good friend Simmie Williams and he encouraged me to post it. He says he had pretty much a similar experience in Gary, Indiana.
I came across your project while mindlessly trolling the net. As a martial artist I often monitor some of the sites. I was immediately struck by how creative and together your project appears. I like your trailer... the music, the approach to the subject is sympathetic, yet you are not a Dante apologist. Your interviews were also nicely done.
I don't know what response this project has had with respect to the entertainment field and the martial arts community. I also don't know how you are faring.... if you are encouraged, if you have had some success. This project of yours has tremendous value I say this as someone who used to write a bit for the Martial Arts Mags, but I digress.... I want to share some information with you. This
information is not directly relevant to Dante but might well give you some historical context. Let me explain:
Firstly, I am a Caucasian forty two year old man with a family (two sons and a wife, a dog, etc). I moved to Baltimore Maryland when I was thirteen years old in 1974. As a New Yorker I knew I might have to fight a bit ha-ha, so naturally when a friend told me of a Karate class in the local rec center I wanted to give it a try.
I met Willie Ben a student of Riley Hawkins. Hawkins was a local legend. His skills were extraordinary in every regard. My teacher was a kumite and breaking champion. My first experience with Sensei Ben changed my life forever. The first thing Sensei did was cordially and genuinely welcome me into the Dojo. I was the only Caucasian student and the rec center was in the middle of the Greenmount avenue section of Baltimore... a very dangerous area at the time. After welcoming me he beat me from pillar to post. When I came back the next class, same thing. The man was so gentle yet ruthless!
I stuck with it for the next 10 years and this is what I have to say to you.
Baltimore Karate in the African American community was known as Ghetto Ryu. The clubs were organized like Tongs (Sensei's words) often going over to other dojos and fighting each other. Shootings were also common. The practitioners of Ghetto Ryu were incredibly skilled...you had to be to survive as a club. Luminaries included people like Arnold Mitchell (later to go to prison) Frank Hargraves (became a traditionalist), Sensei Ben (less well known but everybody was afraid of him-valuable currency in those days). You had some distinct dojo personalities: security guys, a lot of prison guards, criminals, thugs, martial arts gypsies looking to try a few things, etc.
What had happened was Riley had changed traditional Okinawan Sho Ran Ryu into a lethal street art. Prior to Riley people had fought out of a modified horse stance with the front hand in low block position and the other hand cocked at the hip. Riley changed the stance to a side position where one was low and used fast hand techniques with low kicks in rapid succession. Riley's club was the Avengers, Sensei only graduated a few of us to the mark of the Assassin (his club) and you had the champions... everybody was a showman! We did breaking and fighting demos. Sensei carried a bed of nails and let people break blocks over him.
What is relevant to your project is that Karate in Baltimore at the same time as in the Midwest seems to have developed in similar fashion. And just as with Dante everybody mischaracterized the ability to adapt an art to the environment as somehow being antithetical to martial arts. Just as with Dante virtually all of the students that sprung from the fertile loins of Riley were minorities who often used the art to survive and.... used the art to great criminal effect at times. I love my teachers but I won't revise the facts ha-ha.
The criminal element in some ways was the most loyal. My dojo brothers treated me like a young incompetent who constantly needed a father or elder brother. Incidentally I got this same treatment from Duncan's student's group. It bothers me to no end when people try to portray the violent elements in the African American community as beneath human dignity... I know differently. Whether at Greenmount avenue or the bus station in Philly my safety was often guaranteed
because of "thugs and criminals" who made it their responsibility to make sure I got home safely.
Now a days when the Gracies take an art and adapt it (Jujitsu from Japan to Brazil) people sing it's praises. We were fighting what were then called death matches years ago! A death match was a match where the match was only stopped when someone could no longer continue fighting, hence they would have been killed cause they could not fight anymore. Frankly it is a double standard, if not outright rascism that the Gracies, who are ethnically of Scottish descent, came to
Brazil and adapted their art to survive and are called heroes....while African Americans who did the same thing had their credibility challenged by traditionalists. I make this statement unbiased as I am, as stated, a white boy and, ironically I study a traditional Japanese art (the Bujinkan, Ninpo TaiJutsu). I also studied under one of Ronald Duncan's students and noticed the same double standard...Duncan's legitimacy and credibility is constantly under attack.
Dante plugged into a whole sub cultural martial arts tradition. Ghettos were empowered all over this country by the contribution of African American Martial Artists.... Ghettos because only in the most dangerous places do martial artists have to have skills that pay the bills. I believe that what happened with the count happened in many communities. To call people like Dante a fraud is to miss the point.
People in Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Philly, etc needed the skills and approach of someone like the Count.
Hope this parallel development angle is helpful. Hope you see your project through.