I wanted to wait six months before I compiled this. As a person that bores easily with people, activities and the habitual day to day, I always test things to see if I would stick with it be it a job, a video game, a book, or whatever is in front of me.
With that said, I am a Brasilian jiu jitsu practitioner, or a jiu jitsuka as I’ve researched. White belt. Fresh meat. The whole nine yards. This won’t be a typical ‘I Love BJJ!’ stream of consciousness, since I’m a bit of a outlier in the scene.
Outlier meaning I have no idea why I keep going.
“So, Jada, why are you here? For fitness? You want to be a bad ass battle chick? Why do you keep coming back?”
The locker room is eerily quiet. I guess it’s a legitimate question for the strange black woman who sits in the back, not engaging, no idle chit chat. Headphones in ears, using 70s’ soul or vocalese to self-soothe her anxiety of having anyone, male or female, in her person space. Her nose in a book, avoiding eye contact until class starts. The last two weeks it was Sarah Kane’s play compilation. This week, it’s Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Poet.
I admit, my greetings are superficial. A few senior purple, blue and brown belts are trying to pull me out of my shell. In the rare occasion that I roll, or spar for the layman, they want to see what I can do. Rumors of my fitness background quietly make their way into their out of earshot observations.
Capoeirista Regional under Mestre Boneco, circa 2005 to 2007. I never got my yellow cord. I couldn’t stop grabbing, didn’t like my name being changed, wanted to perfect my balance and combos before going into the roda. Did not want to learn Portuguese. Embarrassed a visiting Mestre during my public baptism when I grabbed his foot and nearly threw him to the ground. I was too weird for my team. Read too many books and didn’t talk much. The group had a dynamic I wasn’t sure I fit in. I quit, but they never pushed me out. When I moved to Los Angeles, I was on a journey of finding myself; I wanted to cement my own identity before gaining another.
Found a small group of black Angolans, Capoeira Angola practitioners, circa 2007 to 2008. Instead of cartwheels and back flips, abadas and cords, I was taught a slower game in Crenshaw. My uniform: white shirt, brown leather belt, khakis. There were no belts; your skill was your ruler. I was taught to break joints. I loved that. The smoothness of regional with the brutality of finishing a fight. Angola was about combat over flair. It was not popular, and the group was very underground. We were not welcomed into regional rodas since the Angolans were more brutal than their European counterparts. I enjoyed it, but the group was so splintered, so disorganized, so dramatic and jealous. I quit, but Angola’s beautiful brutality stuck with me. I yearned for it for years.
Pole Dancing, Sling and Aerial Arts, circa 2009 to 2015. Migration from Los Angeles to Seattle. Tall, uncomfortable shoes, catty women, lap dances, silks that smelled musty, wiggling on the floor to quasi sexy music. I did these things, played the girl power game just to get up in the air, as high as a story, and focus on the sound of my own heartbeat. I was good at it; artistic, eclectic, strong, outrageously flexible for my size 10 frame. Years of Capoeira molded my body for their Jades, Aleysias and inversions, but I was not girly enough. Not sleek enough. Not…haughty enough. My skin was too smooth for silks, so I had to use rope. The thought of performing gave me panic attacks. I wasn’t there to be on stage, I just wanted to train and quiet my mind. I stopped going when performance prep was pushed. All I wanted to do was move, be still, maybe make some friends along the way and go home.
It was early 2017 when I was nearly assaulted in a homeless shelter. I was a volunteer, feeding the residents every weekend for months, so I thought I saw the worst of what could happen. I was wrong. Some dude coming down from his binge felt that I wasn’t nice enough, wasn’t feeding the line fast enough and swung a sucker punch. I was quick enough to dodge it, but not enough to defend myself. Mike Tyson said it perfectly: Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. I didn’t have a plan and it was in that moment I felt my most helpless.
That night, I quietly decided I had enough. The compound interest of my splintered childhood; the physical abuse and its’ emotional toll. The sexual assault that never received justice followed by an adult life of being stalked multiple times with very real threats. All of this ended in a cash out of a near sucker punch. Fuck this.
So I looked up martial arts, effective martial arts, and came across BJJ. I had no idea what it was. A long time friend was doing it in the early 2000s but our circle didn’t understand it. UFC and MMA was a new concept and we all thought he was going to beat hamburger patties in cage. It was until I saw the below video that I knew this is what I was looking for.
I didn’t know who Mackenzie Dern was. But I did know that an teenager took down a 37 year old black belt, confusing the hell out of him to the point of fight or flight. Her submissions reminded me of Capoeira Angola, but she used her hips to pull them off instead of her knees. Bingo.
The locker room waited for my answer and I gave a superficial one, cloaked in half truths: it’s meditative and I think a lot during the day. This quiets my mind. I want to learn. I don’t think my teammates really want to know the truth; my life is wrought with enough social tragedies as it is. And I don’t think that they want to hear the truth of why I show up.
Do I tell them I don’t know why I show up? Do I tell them that I could care less about what a belt means in comparison to what I can learn and do? Do I tell them I do not see their face when we drill, but myself, a twisted version marred and maniacal waiting to be defeated, and mocking me when I don’t? Do I tell them that I treat my time on the mat as a parishioner would in a house of prayer? Every bead of sweat, every swollen joint, every bruise an offering to a God I’ve never met yet I know she exists. Do I tell them I embrace the philosophy of just enjoying the process, not the victory?
I told one person that I think of jiu jitsu as yoga with chokes, and the look I received sat in between comical and incredulous, so I stopped sharing. Perhaps Mark Johnson, Marcelo Garcia, Rickson Gracie and Jean Jacques Machado share my passion for the art itself; the golden moment when you’re aware of the two bodies having a physical conversation, mottled with semicolons and explanation points. You answer, they rebuttal and it goes for 20 minutes. Your sweat is ujjaii. Your bow and arrow choke is asana.
I think my Professor understands, but he lets his eyes absorb before he speaks. He says nothing, but corrects my form and I humbly bow to his skill. It is humbling to know that you’re bad, but those who have walked your path can see your potential to glory, being a stoic observer until you see it yourself…no matter your gender, age, race creed or size. I know I am a rarity, a female stranger in a marginalized male martial art, but to know I am on the path of enlightenment on my terms makes me love the struggle all the same.
My name Jada C. Brazil and I am a jiu jitsuka; it is a pleasure to meet you again, Internet.