By Jamie Swinnerton
Each February the lives and deeds of historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Thurgood Marshall are taught to students across the country for Black History Month. But black history is not confined to the borders, events, or people of the United States. For one teacher’s aide at Boynton Middle School, the black history that he identifies with actually comes from Brazil.
Elijah Ambe has been working for the Ithaca City School District for about two years, and this year he is putting together an event for the students all about an aspect of black culture that many people still don’t know much about. Capoeira is a mix of martial arts, dance, and music that was started in Brazil in the 16th century by enslaved Africans. Ambe has been doing capoeira for about two years now and plans on continuing with it for the rest of his life.
“The Portuguese did not want the African slaves to be able to form coalitions and try to escape, so what they literally did was they decided to break people up based on the ethnic groups that they came out of,” Ambe said of the origins of the cultural practice. “Because they didn’t want people to be together with other people who spoke the same languages, worship the same gods, practice the same culture, eat the same foods. Capoeira came out of that.”
They definitely couldn’t practice any form of self-defense. But, what they could do was sing and dance.
“They would practice in secret,” Ambe said. “They disguised their dances in a triangular dance called the Ginga – which is actually the predecessor of modern breakdancing – and the martial aspect of those things were done in secret.”
But its history is part of why Ambe chose to pursue the idea of holding a Black History Month event on Feb. 15 (or Feb. 16 if a snow day is called on Feb. 15) all about capoeira.
“It really inspired me to want to go ahead and take it upon myself to organize something that I think would have a really impactful and positive message that directly relates to Black History Month,” Ambe said. “And I can’t think of anything better than Capoeira.”
Because of the secret nature of its birth, and because the practice of capoeira was outlawed in Brazil until the 1930s, many aspects of the cultural practice are based in code. Practitioners were given new capoeira names to protect their identity. Within the local Ithaca group, Ambe’s capoeira name is Gnu. Ultimately, capoeira was created to help enslaved Africans escape the sugar plantations of Brazil.
“To escape the plantation, they would do things like they would do hairstyles of cornrows, which would be maps of the plantation and that would tell them where the escape routes were so they could escape and could go hide in the jungle and make these settlements called Quilombos,” Ambe said. “Quilombos were settlements of indigenous populations, freed African slaves, and even poor whites. The most famous of these settlements was a settlement called Palmares. Palmares remained unconquered for over 200 years.”
Ambe said the specific style of capoeira that he and the local capoeira group in Ithaca, Capoeira Angola Quintal-Ithaca, practices traces its lineage to Palmares.
Before Ambe brought the idea to Boynton Principal Jeff Tomasik he floated it to his teacher/Mestre and the founder of Afro-Brazilian Arts school, Capoeira Angola Quintal (ABA-CAQ) in New York City, Michael Goldstein (whose capoeira name is Ombrinho). According to the ABA website, the nonprofit is an organization that “inspires wellness, leadership, and community through capoeira.” A school event like what Ambe had planned was just up the ABAs alley. The day of the event, a number of capoeira practitioners from ABA-CAQ will be performing with some of the local capoeira group members.
“I wanted an opportunity to share an aspect of the black culture that I practice,” Ambe said. “It’s really frustrating to have a black history month celebration where you don’t see yourself reflected in what the day is being perceived or practiced as, and you’re black. So, it was important to me to bring this here.”
After the morning presentation, Ambe said some of the performers have been invited to a few of the classrooms to speak. Another performance, this time with some of the students, will be held during the eighth period. Although he had always been drawn to martial arts, Ambe didn’t start practicing capoeira until he moved to Ithaca a few years ago. For his instructor, Brennen Feint, he discovered capoeira after attending a class taught by a friend’s brother.
“Finally, I just went down to check it out, see what it was about and was really drawn to the music and the acrobatics and the cultural aspect of it,” Feint said. “It is a vehicle for transformation for good and a source of liberation and empowerment.”
The lessons that students learn in class – patience, looking for opportunities and taking them when they appear, protecting oneself while still appearing very open to people – can be brought into their personal lives, Feint said. The event at Boynton is part of a larger outreach effort that ABA-CAQ and the local Ithaca group are going to be doing.
“Our local group’s mission is to really kind of move forward more aligned with the roots of capoeira, and making it available to the people it’s supposed to be helping,” Feint said. “Rather than just making it all about one aspect, like the martial arts aspect of it, or whatever you want to pull from it, we really want it to be more of a community strengthening and building kind of thing and work with other social justice groups to try to help promote social justice and really just help people.”