If you haven’t heard: it has been a challenging year to inhabit a Black body as social media and cyber-activism have allowed us to witness the ongoing assaults against Black bodies on American streets, in parks, in the aisles of big-box stores, during traffic stops and in an array of public and private spaces.
Furthermore, as a Hate Crime instructor, anti-gun violence activist and playwright who spends most of my waking hours considering racialized violence, I find myself far too often stressed, frustrated, grieving or paralyzed in front of media screens.
Consequently, in the midst of the Freddie Gray uprising in Baltimore during the spring 2015, I wasn’t in the greatest mood to attend a school assembly for my pre-schooler populated by non-Black parents and non-Black teachers…but I wanted to see the group scheduled to perform.
Thus, as the school gymnasium writhed with wiggling pre-schoolers and camera-wielding parents, I found a quiet niche on a far wall and watched with curiosity. As the multi-racial, intergenerational orchestra dressed in white warmed up and arranged an array of African instruments, I felt my mood begin to lift.
Through the course of their Capoeira Angola performance, I felt the fog of racial violence lift as I watched the movement and songs of African people affirmed and celebrated in that space. By the end of the performance, I too danced---shocking my preschooler, her 3-year-old classmates and teachers--- to Capoeira Angola’s healing rhythms. I subsequently enrolled my daughter and myself in Capoeira Angola classes in Central Illinois nearly three months ago.
Capoeira is an African martial art that combines dance-like movements, kicks, head-butts and tripping sweeps deployed originally as cultural weapons against enslavement in Africa and Brazil. Practiced as a form of resistance for 400+ years, Capoeira was criminalized and outlawed and had to be taught underground. Capoeira only became publically and legally performed in Brazil during the 1930s. For more information, see: http://www.joaogrande.org/index.htm I am currently studying the Capoeira Angola tradition.
Now watching Capoeira Angola is one thing: training is a “whole-nuther” thing. Each class opens with warm-ups, extensive floor work, sequences and music/singing/instrumentation. Inevitably---as the only African American in this summer session of classes and the largest person in the class in terms of weight--- there is still a moment during every class when I wonder exhausted, breathless and sweating profusely: how did I get here and why am I putting myself through THIS KIND of physical exertion.
Yet each time the realizations come:
1.) Capoeira Angola requires me to drop COMPLETELY into my body and FULLY INHABIT creaky knees, tender ankles, large breasts and my breath…with miraculous results. THIS BODY---that I have apologized for, regretted, sought to conceal, lamented for far too long--- shows up in the space and submits to Capoeira’s demands that I trust it…and Capoeira is showing me all that I can do in this body as I learn about myself via this practice.
2.) Unlike so many spaces in American life, in this space, I have full permission to honor my African American self. Capoeira Angola allows for me to disconnect, breathe, connect completely with my body and reconnect with the muscle memory housing prior ballet, yoga, karate and African dance study to support my Capoeira Angola training…. THANK GOD!
3.) Capoeira Angola requires UNWAVERING focus---particularly when the course is taught primarily in Portuguese. So, beyond intermittent translation at times, silence and deeply focused attention is demonstrated by all students and fosters the sense of COMPLETE PRESENCE in the class.
In an American culture that deifies multi-tasking and distraction, practicing Capoeira Angola rescues me weekly from the grasping for my phone, laptop or the constant craving for cyber-connection.
4.) Capoeira Angola is the hardest thing I’ve done physically since I gave birth to my daughter three years ago. It is difficult every time I show up for the class. But gratefully---in the training space---I meet my bodies’ abilities---not just its limits. It allows me to enjoy my body’s power, flexibility, strength and health.
5.) Capoeira Angola reminds me that WE ARE DEEPLY HUMAN AND DEEPLY VULNERABLE. While training, we constantly hear from our wonderful teachers Denis & Aisha Chiaramonte, “Capoeira Angola is for all people and all ages. Capoeira Angola is for everyone." So when I show up and train with folks from age 7 to 80, beginners and seasoned students, they mean exactly that. Furthermore, I am reminded that we are all journeying, focusing, efforting, stumbling, making mistakes, taking breaks when necessary, building ourselves up in these singular bodies… and as an entire community.
Also, because Capoeira Angola is a contact sport and you come to understand quite clearly that you CAN and MUST learn from anyone of any age on the floor--- whether you are learning from their actual technique…from their grit,…from their kindness…or from the fact that they just keep coming back….just like me.
As an educator and student, Capoeira Angola is a great pedagogical tool for students because our students are in profound need of the following:
---Capoeira Angola provides students an opportunity to be phone-free, device-free and to actually engage with each other as flesh-and-blood people in the world. In America, we are both connected electronically and disconnected emotionally from one another---and I would argue far too violent because of it.
Thus, Capoeira Angola forces you to move with each other, touch each other, look at each other, to literally wrestle with each other. In Capoeira Angola, we connect with each other’s fragility and humanity… to value each other’s bodies and abilities. Such connections are a CRITICAL antidote in a culture typified by “forever wars” and endless armed violence at home and abroad.
---Capoeira Angola obliterates class, titles and rank as we all train in white shirts, white or khaki pants and simple gym shoes with an occasional headband or bandana dangling from backpockets to dab perspiration. As we don the uniform and all are sweating, stumbling and struggling to keep up---whether beginner or advanced---there is a democratizing effect on us all in the space.
---Capoeira Angola requires experiential learning. Learning through physical grappling, oral transmission of information often taught in Portuguese, reliance on team work, building trust through collaboration via movement, music, language and historical instruction.
---Capoeira decenters Western pedagogy and our focus on sedentary, text-based, written learning in exchange for movement-based, orally taught movement, history and music in a fusion of Portuguese and African languages.
Our teachers, Denis & Aisha Chiaramonte state at least once a class: “Capoeira Angola gives you what you give it...” Thus, in this time of terror against Black bodies, I thank Capoeira deeply for what it has given me already: the ability to inhabit this Black body joyfully, gratefully and with deep compassion come what may.
Nicole Anderson-Cobb, Ph.D. is a Chicago native who grew up on Chicago’s Southeast Side in the Calumet Heights community. Dr. Anderson-Cobb earned a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (1995), a Master’s degree in History (1998) and Doctorate of Philosophy in History (Concentrations on Africa, Comparative Islam, Gender, & Media) from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (2007).
Dr. Anderson Cobb has returned to the classroom as a visiting lecturer at the Department of African American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign teaching Hate Crimes 410 for the 2013-Present academic year.
Dr. Anderson Cobb was selected this year for the UIUC Department of Journalism Specialized Fellowship Program (for scholars with terminal degrees) where she will pursue specialized training and conduct projects in her areas of interest during the 2015-2016 academic year.
Dr. Anderson Cobb is also currently publishing her second play “Campus Jihad” that examines the impacts of racism, Islamophobia and a mass shooting on a college campus. Dr. Anderson Cobb can be reached on twitter: sandals60617.