The Unbelievable Legend of the First Black Samurai

Samurai of the Chosyu clan / Felice Beato /Wikimedia/ Publ

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The legend of Yasuke is not one you would have found in your high school textbooks or heard your grandma talking about at the family dinner table.

In fact, most people would never believe you if you started talking about a Black samurai as if it was some fictive character from a movie. However, the truth is that he was real!

Yasuke was a 6’2” enslaved African who landed in Japan on a missionary trip with his master in the late 1500s.

He quickly became a human spectacle to all the locals who had likely never seen a Black man before. His presence caused such a commotion that people were trampled trying to get a glimpse of his impressive stature.

The most powerful Japanese warlord, Oda Nobunaga, caught wind of Yasuke and wanted to see the man himself. In pure disbelief, citing that he had never seen a man with skin the color of an “ox” or “charcoal,” he forced Yasuke to strip down naked and scrub his skin to prove it was not ink.

After this degrading act, Yasuke quickly became a local celebrity in the savage tradition of Blacks being presented as exotic and unnatural. In this particular case, Yasuke benefitted from his differences and was openly embraced by this foreign community for his physical strength and unyielding loyalty.  

Samurai is considered one of the most enduring symbols of Japanese culture, and Yasuke is the only recorded Black person ever bestowed this honor. He was given a place of residence and his own Katana blade, invited to eat with Nobunaga, as well as fought and won many battles alongside the warlord.

It is difficult to imagine what it feels like to go from being enslaved to becoming a respected samurai warrior. This unique story builds on the cultural footprint we have left on the world and helps reveal the true breadth of the Black experience.

We are a people with a rich history and it is imperative that we embrace it by continuing the tradition of passing down our stories from generation to generation.   

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