By Mylika Scatliffe
Special to the AFRO

Foil.

Sabre.

Epee.

These are not terms you hear used by the average teenager from East Baltimore. Certainly not the average African-American teenager, well, anywhere. 

Amir Whitehead has been fencing since the age of 7 or 8, when his father, a former Broadway Shakespearean theater actor, introduced him to the sport. “I was exposed to the sport in one of his plays and thought it was cool and something I should try,” Amir recalls. He also played basketball and baseball, even quitting fencing for a while to concentrate on baseball. However, by 8th grade, he committed to fencing, realizing his burgeoning passion for the sport. 

By definition, “Fencing is an organized sport involving the use of three categories of swords – epee, foil, or sabre – for attack and defense according to set movements and rules.” The use of swords dates to prehistoric times, but the organized sport of fencing only began at the end of the 19th century.  It’s probably safe to say that when imagining fencing, most of us picture dramatic duels and sword fights in period dramas.

Not anymore.

Amir matter of factly explained how, for the last 10 years or so, he’s been traveling the East Coast participating in fencing tournaments, once competing against a man nearly 3x his age and ranked number one in the world.  When asked how he felt about his performance, while he did not win that competition, the 17-year-old said he performed “decently,” and it was “pretty good.”  While he may at times be a little intimidated by the skill of his competition, he ultimately trusts his skills.

His weapon of choice is the foil, which was the only one offered when he began fencing at Chesapeake Fencing Club in Parkville, Md.  The foil, as well as the epee are weapons whose users’ garner points by poking their opponent with a blade. In foil fencing, contact must be made on the opponent’s chest and back, as opposed to the sabre (with which one slashes more so than pokes and can score on the entire upper body) and epee (poking with the blade on the entire body). The foil remained his favorite when he moved to the All-American Fencing Club when his coach at Chesapeake Fencing left for college.

Think about the confidence and self-discipline required to pick up a sword and go to battle, even in full protective gear, against opponents twice your age. At age 17?  “Fencing has definitely improved my confidence and focus,” Amir said.  It became immediately obvious as he listed the elite universities he’d considered – Brown, University of Pennsylvania, Boston College ,– before falling in love with Lafayette College in Indiana on a recent campus visit and committing to join their fencing team. 

It’s not Amir’s responsibility to represent to the world the positivity of African- American men. He shouldn’t have to; the world should recognize it anyway as it does for everyone else, with grace and without justification; but that’s another story for another day. However, it’s nearly impossible not to see him that way, as that representative. He is well- rounded and traveled for someone so young. In 8th grade Amir traveled to France. He traveled to Mexico and Guatemala during his freshman and sophomore high school years, respectively; this gave him an opportunity to perform Christian mission work as well as an opportunity to practice his Spanish language skills, having taken Spanish since 1st grade.  Between sophomore and junior year, he took a 6-week course in African-American literature at the University of Michigan, where he studied renowned Black authors and acquired a deeper understanding, beyond the surface instruction, generally taught about Black history.

Amir accomplished all of this while participating in a sport with an intricate set of rules, in which he rarely sees anyone else that looks like him; besides perhaps his coach at All American Fencing, Charles Greene.  He is a three-time Junior Olympian, twice qualified for the Summer Nationals, is a two time All American, and is ranked in the top 25 on the East Coast.  Pre-COVID, he was competing in two tournaments a month.  It’s a rarity to see African Americans fencing and while it doesn’t exactly bother him, “It can be a little uncomfortable to see no one else that looks like me.” And while people are “shocked to see him and more shocked to see him beat his counterparts, he is absolutely confident in his ability and the assurance that he deserves to be there.” 

Poise, self -assurance, and self-respect radiates from Amir, even over the phone. He emphatically believes fencing has taught him focus and discipline which has influenced all areas of his life. It’s evident as he describes his plan to major in economics and minor in Spanish with an eye toward becoming an international stockbroker. When asked if he desires to compete in the Olympics, he first commented that” everyone asks him that” and while he is not opposed to the thought of Olympic competition, his immediate focus is to fence well in college and perform well academically. 

Amir wishes there were more African Americans in the fencing world, but schools and clubs for fencing typically do not have many, if any, African Americans. It’s an expensive sport when you add up the equipment, tournaments, entry fees, and travel to high level tournaments, and the cost can be prohibitive. “It’s a definite goal of mine to introduce more African American young people to fencing,” Amir said with conviction.  

A larger, more sophisticated worldwide lens might not resist capturing a young man like Amir, who while already so accomplished, still enjoys hanging out with his friends, shopping, going to the movies; and his most favorite pastime, “Watching TV with my Mom and Dad.”