Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

Sick Hands and Sweet Moves: Aesthetic Dimensions of a Vernacular Martial Art

Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

Sick Hands and Sweet Moves: Aesthetic Dimensions of a Vernacular Martial Art

Article excerpt

The 52s is a contemporary African American vernacular martial art that developed, according to oral tradition, as an effective means of defense in prison settings. Yet, in 52s, effectiveness is not good enough. Comments by resource persons assert that sick (destructive) hands must harmonize with sweet (artistic) moves. The competent fighter must maintain composure and control while destroying an opponent. Drawing techniques from literally any source available, including boxing, Asian martial arts, folk styles of combat, and dance, this "martial bricolage" is characterized by strategies, rhythms, and attitudes based in the interplay of the sick and the sweet. Comparable tensions are evident in urban folk games (slap "boxing"), dance (uprocking, break dancing), and verbal arts (freestyle rap). This article examines the aesthetic principles shared by these martial, ludic, and performance genres.

humans compete for status, and sometimes, the competition turns violent. While assessing the value of a detention center fight for establishing "rep" (e.g., reputation in the inmate hierarchy), Big K, the protagonist of Douglas Century's journalistic account of life within a Brooklyn "posse" (gang), mused that his "fight with the trusty kid didn't count for shit. He'd been too barbaric; he'd been banging the trusty's face into the desk out of pure rage" (1999:77). Obviously, in the light of Big K's dissatisfaction with the way in which he achieved victory over the "trusty kid," winning is not enough. The dilemma facing Big K may be illuminated by contrasting the terms "science" and "art" as applied by the practitioners of his preferred fighting method-the 52 Hand Blocks or simply the 52s.1 Insiders commonly label fighting tactics as "street science" (see BimbaJaba, below). Science,2 in general, is evaluated by its efficacy in achieving a technical goal, whether the goal is heating a room or knocking an opponent unconscious. In contrast, "art" (a label that Big K himself uses to describe the 52s) also entails evaluation of the quality of the performance leading to an accomplishment. Therefore, Big K looked beyond results in judging his fight. In many ways, "being sick with it"3 (a reference to efficacy, thus a scientific judgment) by "putting together sweet moves"4 (an evaluation of performance, an aesthetic judgment) is as much music as mayhem.

The following article proposes that the contemporary African American fighting style known as the 52s or the 52 Hand Blocks and its variants are so wedded to aesthetic principles that they are appropriately categorized as vernacular art forms.

Fieldwork

Although I claim no personal credentials in the 52s, as a martial arts student and instructor with over thirty years experience, I have been able to adopt the participantobserver role in my research on the 52s. Daniel Marks gave me my earliest access to the theory and the practical applications of the 52s; he remains a valued teacher and sounding board for my research. I began a correspondence with him in 2002, during research on Afrikan nationalism in contemporary martial arts (see Green 2003a). In 2003, I met Daniel in person at the "Masters of Streetology" self-defense workshops in Maryland where he was teaching kali (Filipino knife and stick fighting) and informally passing along bits of the 52s. There he introduced me to Darrell Sarjeant, who generously shared his own interpretation of the 52s (which he called "Indigenous Boxing") and his hybrid Sadiq Kali Silat martial art. I regularly commuted from Texas to Oklahoma to train as his student from 2003-07. Dennis Newsome, who brought the fighting style known as "Jailhouse Rock" to the popular media as a fight choreographer for Mel Gibson's 1984 film Lethal Weapon, has passed along valuable information during occasional training sessions in Texas and California, lengthy conversations, and a single extended demonstration of the effectiveness of his Jailhouse Rock during a spontaneous (and very one-sided) sparring session in a hotel parking lot during a visit to Texas in 2004. …

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