Department of History Associate Professor Offered Fulbright U.S. Scholar GrantThomas Desch-Obi will conduct research on the history of an endangered Afro-Colombian martial art
May 2, 2018
Thomas Desch-Obi, an associate professor in the Department of History in the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences, was offered a prestigious Fulbright U.S. Scholar Grant for 2018-19 to support his research on the history of an endangered Afro-Colombian martial art called grima.
The Fulbright Scholar Grant will allow Desch-Obi to spend seven months in Colombia, beginning January 2019, conducting archival and ethnographic research. His project will have three components: forming and circulating a traveling exhibit; creating a digital archive by filming oral histories of living masters of grima and digitizing copies of their cartillas de malicia (private grima texts); and completing a manuscript on the history of grima.
“Highlighting stories of resistance such as how grima empowered Afro-Colombians to play active roles in struggles for land and political recognition are important to maintaining peace,” Desch-Obi said. “This project will be first to document the rich history of resistance in Colombia before the last living exponents of this African derived art—and their cartillas documenting this artform—are gone forever.”
Grima: An Endangered Colombian Art of Resistance in Times of Peace and War
By the early 19th century, enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Colombian Cauca developed a variety of martial arts collectively referred to as grima, which utilized the unarmed body, lance, or machete for attack and extreme corporal dexterity for defense.
In times of peace they were used in various struggles by Afro-Colombians to help abolish slavery, to gain honor within black communities through bloodless duels and dance, to empower women, and to defend communal lands from encroachment by the rich and politically powerful. In times of war, grima allowed Afro-Colombians to participate politically by defending the liberal party in the numerous civil wars of the 19th century, and to overcome their Peruvian opponents in the conflict over Leticia in the 1930s.
While these grima exponents are acknowledged as history makers in the oral histories of their own communities, they are invisible in published histories of Colombia. With this Fulbright Fellowship, Desch-Obi plans to end this erasure through a historical exegesis of grima’s role in communal life and national struggles from the 1840s to 1950s.
The first part of Desch-Obi’s research project will be to curate a small traveling museum exhibit that will narrate the history of African martial arts to Colombia via the slave trade, grima’s role in abolition and liberal war efforts, the transnational histories of the grima styles “juego cubano” and “venezolano modern,” the role of grima in Colombian literature and dance, and opportunities to save the art. The exhibit will include five short documentaries highlighting various aspects of grima’s history.
Collecting and Digitizing Cartillas de Malicia
Cartillas are hand-written books that have been passed from master to disciple for generations to ensure the undiluted transmission of each grima lineage’s history and pedagogy. However, these books are in peril because many living academy graduates are predominantly in their 80s and 90s with no disciples, which means the cartillas will be burned after their owners die.
Desch-Obi has encountered more than 15 living masters who have agreed to allow the digitization of their manuscripts, dating from the 1850s to the 1950s. But war in Colombia has limited the number of cartillas Desch-Obi has been able to collect. He will potentially be able to collect more cartillas in a region of Colombia where the peace process continues, and then use these hand-written books for his research. The materials will also be housed at Vanderbilt University’s digital archival collection so scholars worldwide will have access.
Manuscript on the History of Grima
Desch-Obi is working toward completing his second monograph Hombres Históricos: Grima and the Afro-Colombian Struggle. This book will reveal how Afro-Colombians emerged from slavery using grima fighting forms to play major roles in liberal revolutions in Colombia and in ongoing struggles for women’s empowerment, political recognition, and defense of communal lands. Desch-Obi plans to publish this book in Spanish with the University of ICESI’s Centro de Estudios Afrodiaspóricos (Center for African Diaspora Studies) and will submit it for publication with Cambridge University Press’s Afro-Latin America series.
“My manuscript will use contemporary accounts to document that these machete‐wielding black soldiers were usually the most feared opponents on the battlefield, and explore the historical development of the tactics and social histories that made this feat possible,” Desch-Obi said. “In doing so, it will illuminate the perspective of these common people, the importance of their skills, and the contributions they made to their country’s history.”
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