Brooklyn native Soke Haisan Kaleak, 68, is a Black Belt Hall of Famer, who has trained under martial artist Grand Master Dr. Moses Powell, and is the founder of Kuroshikai Jitsu Karate Do. He has taught his own form of martial arts for decades to Black and Brown youth.
“Osu! Shoto! Tsuki! Warrior’s ready,” said one student as he entered the dojo at the NYPD Community Center in East New York. On one wall there’s a line of mirrors facing an arrangement of large blue mats and along the other various punching bags and equipment. Next door a dance class might be in full swing as kids run up and down the marbleish stairs. And police officers perch at the ground floor check-in desk.
Kaleak, who is addressed as ‘Soke,’ or a traditional Japanese term meaning “the head of the family or house,” is often seen at the helm of the class when he’s not casually observing his teacher-students as they practice different self defense moves, stances, katas, and karate techniques in the dojo.
Traditional karate is more than about learning to fight, said Kaleak, it’s about a system of discipline. “I’m going to teach you how to fight so you don’t have to fight. That’s what we’re doing here,” said Kaleak. “We teach our students not to look at it as a sport. It’s a way of life.”
Kaleak began his martial arts journey about 60 years ago, he said. He grew up primarily in Bed-Stuy, Park Slope and Brownsville with a single mother and is the oldest of his three siblings.
“I didn’t grow up in a house with a father so I kind of like was doing the ‘man’ thing early on. Just trying to be more stable than most 9- or 11-year-olds,” said Kaleak, “and it was in substitution of all the negative things going on in the streets at the time.”
His mother paid for karate classes under Todachi Nakamura, held at the time in a room inside of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) center. He said he and his friends were making fun of the class when Nakamura gave him his first lesson. Kaleak went on to train under Dr. Powell, his first Black martial arts teacher, for 22 years.
Powell was a Harlemite boxer before he met his teacher in 1954. Powell excelled to the point of creating his own system of self-defense jiu jitsu in 1960 that he in turn taught to generations of Black martial artists, including Kaleak and actor Wesley Snipes. Powell broke color barriers as the first Black martial artist to perform at the United Nations and the 1965 World’s Fair. Powell’s system was named Sanuces Ryu, which translates to ‘simplicity and survival.’ It focused on “nerve striking, pressure points, lumber destruction, angle of attack, and joint manipulation.” Kaleak holds a 9th degree black belt in the Eye-to-Eye system of Sanuces Ryu Jiu-Jitsu, a 6th degree in the street survival art of Kumite Ryu and a 5th degree in Shotokan Karate Do.
He expanded on what he learned from Powell, and in 1974 started his own martial arts system called Kuroshi-Do with other fighters. He then opened his own dojo centered around youth, called Kuroshi Kai, which existed under the Police Athletic League (PAL) afterschool programs and in community centers in many locations.
“It was really centered around the kids,” said Kaleak, who implemented a Father’s Day program for youth fighters without a biological father at home.
During the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kaleak weathered a personal and financial storm. Classes that were being held at the Brooklyn Sports Club in Starrett City shuttered just as Kuroshi Kai was poised to celebrate over 10 years at the facility with a grand party. “We put thousands of dollars into the preparation of that which got virtually lost because New York City had closed down and we were not able to have any gatherings at all,” said Kaleak.
Kaleak also came down with COVID early on in 2020. “And was in the hospital for 11 straight days and my oxygen level was under 80%,” said Kaleak. “I thought I was suffering from sinuses. If it wasn’t for my students who came and got me out of the house and took me to the hospital, I’d have probably stayed there.”
Kaleak, like the rest of the world, shifted to virtual classes to stay in touch with students everyday. When lockdowns were lifted in-person classes didn’t resume at the sports club. But, said Kaleak, students adapted to “difficult” circumstances. A hybrid of Kuroshi Kai is now housed at the police community center on 127 Pennsylvania Avenue in Brooklyn under the Mayor’s Saturday Night Lights initiative, meant to encourage healthy relationships between youth and police.
“We don’t pay rent so to speak but we don’t really make a salary either,” said Kaleak. “We kind of do it for free. We do it out of love for wanting to teach the art.”
Kaleak is now the master of martial arts sitting in his dojo who watches kids, like himself as a child with Nakamura. The thing he looks forward to the most is seeing his passionate students become teachers and masters in their own right.
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w