Despite the bloated property costs in Brooklyn’s increasingly swanky Clinton Hill that forced community karate instructor Thomas Lewis to find another building to teach lessons on Monday, Sept. 9, the studio on Fulton Street was brimming with people peering inside from the sidewalk. These were not aspiring black belts, however; this was the eve of the citywide elections, and Lewis, more commonly known as Master Sabu, had allowed City Council candidate Jelani Mashariki (nephew of the late, great Jitu Weusi) to use the front half of the Humble School of Martial Arts as a campaign space. He contended that the Mashariki family had been instrumental in efforts to keep the school running.
Unconditional generosity seems to be as deeply embedded in the 63-year-old’s way of life as his martial arts. Lewis was born and raised in the Red Hook Projects and has been offering karate classes for over 15 years throughout different neighborhoods in Brooklyn, including Park Slope and Fort Greene. His classes reflect the rich diversity for which the borough is known. Lewis has taught students as young as 3 and as old as 91, with skill levels ranging from white belt to black. Unlike most institutions, Humble School of Martial Arts is open to the public free of charge; Lewis believes that someone’s financial situation should not prevent them from participating.
Because many children resumed their studies at school this week, Lewis insists that his class size is much smaller than usual. Elementary- and middle school-aged students file in on bicycles shortly after 6 p.m., when their class is scheduled to begin. As they remove their shoes and tighten karate belts over starchy white uniforms, Lewis asks them about their day and inquires about their homework load. The Humble Martial Arts students anchor their responses and addresses with “sir,” a common practice in self-defense culture. Lewis says he must enforce a strict set of rules for his younger students in order to counteract the negative habits they’ve picked up in modern society.
“All they do is watch TV or play on the computer,” he says as one of the senior students, a brown belt with a booming voice, takes over the class and leads a sequence of punches and kicks. “It gives them a short focus. They never want to do anything long.”
Lewis’ high expectations balance out his otherwise easygoing personality, and both are consistent throughout the class. One minute he jokes with a student at the blue belt-level. “Do you smoke?” he asks the young boy. “You move like you do,” he says as the boy stifles his giggles. The next, he sends the same student to the back of the class for joking during technique exercises. “Right now, they don’t understand, but as they get older, they will appreciate it,” he says. “I won’t give any breaks because the world won’t.”
While he notices the positive effects of martial arts, which he argues only begin with self defense and extends to improved self-esteem and overall health, among his elder students, Lewis maintains that his primary focus is on the Black youth of Brooklyn, many of whom are raised by single parents while the other serves jail time.
“The kids I talk to, they don’t think about tomorrow,” he said. “I try to give them a sense of love and family.”
The karate school, then, presents them with something of an alternate universe. They shed backpacks and Nikes and enter the classroom barefoot, and before throwing a single punch, Lewis leads them through a series of mantras that promote self love.
In addition to teaching karate classes to learners of all ages, Lewis also opens his doors on Christmas and Thanksgiving to provide holiday dinners to those in the neighborhood who might not otherwise receive one. “People assume that if you have a house, you have food on the table,” he said.
Lewis has come to terms with his impending relocation and is currently on the lookout for spaces to continue his lessons. Through it all, though, he remains optimistic—a trait that is no doubt a byproduct of his training. “People think about karate as purely physical,” he said. “But it builds character. It’s a way of life.”