Wrestling with Racism - Part III
In conclusion to my short series on racism in professional wrestling I want to explore the differences between past and present representation in professional wrestling and why it is so important. As stated prior, it is my opinion that professional wrestling is theatre as it includes all the elements of a theatrical production and with that designation comes a great deal of responsibility. Art, in any shape, should have some cultural context that, when presented to the audience, creates a dialogue either internally or externally about what is being viewed and what it’s saying about the social, economic, or cultural issues in its relation to space and time. So what the hell is this bizarre, televised pseudo sport? Who are these people who seemed so hell bent on harming or maiming their opponents on live television? What is this pageantry that seems to accompany it? And most importantly - What is the VALUE in professional wrestling? Why does anyone even watch it?
I polled over 150 people and the results were overwhelmingly skewed.
In this polling of male and female professional wrestling fans (age range 18 - 45) a large majority see pro-wrestling as performance art and is mostly used for escapism, entertainment, and family bonding. If the miracle of theatre, as according to Porter, is a real thing and can be used positively to promote new conversations or themes in the topics of race, gender, or stereotypes then professional wrestling can be an extremely valuable cultural asset in the form of performance art.
I argue that this new form of theatre is a merely the next progression of combat entertainment and if we view pro-wrestling through the lens of performance art the wild and eccentric world then begins to shows more similarities to a modern stage production and it therefore brings a new level of self-reflection or representation to those who may not be willing to attend a traditional theatre production.
Historically viewed as fake, toxically masculine, racist, and violent professional wrestling is, if nothing else, a polarizing industry that carries with it the notorious history of being viewed as lewd and dangerous while marketing itself and its merchandise to a very young or immature audience . I do feel that modern professional wrestling is far cry from where it used to be but it’s hard to argue that, traditionally, pro-wrestling has had its problems with inclusivity and representation.
PART I: Past Representation - James Harris as Kamala, the Ugandan Giant
Jim Harris was from Senatobia, Mississippi and like a great deal of Mississippians he grew up very poor. His family were share-croppers and his dad passed away when he was young. Jim didn’t go to school for very long either because he had to work to help support his family. He broke into the wrestling scene in his 20s during the late 70s and worked as either Jim Harris or Mississippi Mauler for a while, training under Bobo Brazil. James worked the Mid-South territory starting in the 1980s where he met Jerry Lawler who came up the idea for Kamala. Lawler, like myself, is a big fan of Frank Frazette, as am I, and he derived the character his art. Kamala’s character was a Ugandan Headhunter and he was portrayed as nomadic, uncivilized, and tribal with piercings and war paint. Often in need of a Western manager to train him in ways to be more civil he was often the center of comedic relief. Something that often annoys me with the professional wrestling industry is the need to repackage or rebrand an already compelling, original character for something so cliché, boring, and generic as stoic warrior or brooding bad guy. James Harris’s real life story of struggle, hard work, and athletic ability were more than enough to get him ‘over’ with a crowd. It's a process we'll see repeated throughout.
Anthony White (Tony Atlas) as Saba Simba (1970s - 1990s)
Anthony White was first a world-renowned power-lifting champion that includes winning the New York Powerlifting Championship (1982), New England Powerlifting Championship (1987), and National Powerlifting Championship (1987). In 2007 his accomplishments and contributions to the sport were awarded with a spot in World Bodybuilding Guild Hall of Fame. He was the winner of the Mr. USA body building competition three times and Mr. Universe twice. He was also the first Black tag team champion which he won with Rocky Johnson, father to Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. Truly an incredible athlete, Anthony’s accomplishments garnered him the nickname Tony Atlas.
However, in the 1990s he joined the WWF where would be packaged as Saba Simba. Saba Simba’s WWE Debut where even Roddy Piper calls out the disgustingness of dressing Tony Atlas the way they did and having him dance out to the ring. Two years later he left WWF for their competitor WCW.
I find this to be one of the lowest moments in professional wrestling history when it comes to representation of Black athletes and performers. Tony Atlas was a prime definition of hard work and dedication and to see him reduced to such a disgusting racist stereotype is heartbreaking. Again, an unnecessary rebrand.
Charles Wright as the Godfather, Papa Shango, and Kama Mustafa (1990s – 2000s)
Charles Wright was discovered during the filming of Sylvester Stallone’s Over The Top. Though not in the film, he was bartending at an establishment the crew and actors would frequent after filming for the day. He was introduced to the industry and became popular in Memphis as the menacing Soultaker. Before moving on to the WWF, he would win the Unified World Championship and was considered a serious in-ring competitor.
That changed during his time in the WWF where he portrayed 3 characters.
Papa Shango. His first character was a voodoo witch doctor that cast evil spells on his opponents. Often portrayed as a heel this was a cash in attempt to make money off of and villainize stereotypes and misinformed opinions. Papa Shango continues to this day to make money for WWE – he was included as a playable character in the newest release in the WWE2k video game franchise. Available for the low price of $59.99
Then as Kama Mustafa – the muscle for the Nation of Domination faction (pictured far left). This was a take on the BPP where a group of Black wrestlers are portrayed as militant and villainous in an obvious rip off of the Black Panther Party. (We’ll get that one in a minute) He's pictured below on the far left. Always menacing and constantly portrayed as a heel the continued misrepresentation of the BPP continues in media.
And then finally, he was the Godfather. He came to ring smoking a cigar, cane in hand, ‘pimp’ hat on, and his ‘ho train’ in tow which were locally hired models that portrayed his prostitutes.
Charles Wright played multiple characters over the course of his pro-wrestling career and, in my opinion, was the victim of a time where tv ratings and The Monday Night Wars caused egomaniac company owners with deep pockets, huge tv deals, and cart blanc to put whatever they wanted on tv. The edgiest, raciest, and often times most controversial content was piquing the interest of cables audiences at the time and these major players capitalized off of it by exploiting their talent with racist or sexist themes and imagery. Kenneth Wayne Johnson as Slick (1980s – 1990s)
A wrestling manager, Ken Johnson portrayed the character Slick who was often referred to as a “stylish, jive, soul brother”. If you look at WWE’s website he is actually still referenced as a greasy con man. And he generally managed heals, cheated in matches, and consistently portrayed an antagonist. George Gray as Akeem the Dream (1980s – 1990s)
George Gray was a white, professional wrestler from South Carolina best known for his character the One Man Gang. However, in 1988 he became Akeem the Dream and was managed by Slick. This character is also a failure of the incessant need for some within the industry to repackage or rebrand already successful professional wrestlers. No longer the One Man Gang, Gray was now of African descent and had returned to his African roots. He would speak in ‘jive’ and dance as tribal themed dancers danced in the background.
Michael Jones as Virgil (1980s - 1990s)
Michael Jones, better known as Soul Train Jones in Memphis, would make his WWF debut in the 1990s as Virgil - the ever vigilant, hired muscle protecting his white savior – the Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase. Their relationship is spelled out in the debut vignette where Virgil says ‘Yes sir’ to his boss, who he is also driving around. Larry Whilmore’s Nightly Show discussed this in great detail.
In one exceptionally unfortunate incident, to get Virgil over (or more popular) with the crowd his opponent dawns a Klan robe and attacks him. At one point the Klan hood is put over the face of Virgil and he is attacked in an almost lynching manner. Obviously view the clip below at your own discretion.
In this clip especially you see a common theme in professional wrestling production. The camera cuts to the crowd and it’s often to show a person’s reaction to what is happening in the ring. In many cases the camera often cuts to children as they are more emotionally invested in the show than their adult counterparts. Having the ability to connect with children through storytelling is a powerful tool. Mark Henry as Sexual Chocolate (1990s – 2000s)
Mark Henry is a world class powerlifter appearing at the 1992 and 1996 Olympic games and winning bronze, silver, and gold at the 1995 Pan American games. He is a World Powerlifting champions, 2x US National Champion, and holds the all-time world record for squat and deadlift. In 2002 he was named the World’s Strongest Man by the WSM Competition.
In the late 1990s he would join the WWF and eventually be named as a member Nation of Domination – a BPP spin-off group. After the group disbanded and he returned to singles competition he was again repackaged as Sexual Chocolate: Mark Henry – a sex addicted ladies man.
Included in his controversial character arc is a sexual encounter with a trans person, an old woman, some of the Godfather’s prostitutes, and finally a sex addict therapy session in which he admitted to losing his virginity at 8 to his sister who he was still actively sleeping with. An athlete with an astonishing resume reduced to a sexually objectified stereotype.
Ron Simmons as Farooq in the Nation of Domination (1990s)
Ron Simmons was a college and professional football player prior to pro-wrestling. He played for Florida State earning All American honors in 1979 and 1980. He finished in the Top 10 for the esteemed Heisman Award in 1979 and in 1988 the school retired his jersey for his contributions on and off the field, an honor only done 3 times in the school’s history. He played for the Cleveland Browns in the NFL between 1981 and 1982 and then for the Tampa Bay Bandits in the USFL from 1983 to 1985.
In 1985 he met Lex Luger who was key to his involvement in the pro-wrestling industry. In 1992 he won the World Heavyweight Championship in WCW becoming the first Black wrestler to win the title.
In 1996 he left WCW for the WWF, where they, again, repackaged the World Champion from his real name Ron Simmons to Faarooq Asad, a heel Black nationalist who would be put at the head of the new heel faction, the Nation of Domination. This group borrowed their design elements heavily from the Black Panther Party and Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam.
In 1997 the Nation of Domination split after Farooq fired Crush (the big white guy in the pic above) and Savio Vega. These two shunned individuals started their own groups called the Disciples of the Apocalypse (Crush) and Los Boricuas (Savio Vega) leading to an era known as the Gang Wars in the WWF.
Instead of letting Ron Simmons be himself the WWF exploited stereotypes for the shock value content that filled the airwaves in the 90s. These are only a few of the many examples that made up a large portion of televised pro wrestling from the 1970s through the early 2000s. In the past pro-wrestling hasn’t done a great job representing minority groups. And this isn’t a hit piece designed to antagonize the WWE or former fans of WCW. Truth is, they’re easy targets and far from the only one guilty of this practice in the entertainment industry. They had tv deals and they broadcasted their mistakes on live television which has been preserved for us to study via the internet. At the time, they employed careless producers and writers who were blinded by ratings and advertising dollars instead of paying attention to the damage caused by perpetuating and commoditizing stereotypes. If professional wrestling is theatre and theatre is a means to educate and provide a healthy means of escapism, especially to children, the onus to portray cultures, races, sexes, and genders fairly and in an accurate, positive manner is on the content producers. This kind of power comes with a great deal of responsibility.
In closing I want to show the modern landscape and that while racism and sexism still exist in professional sports entertainment it is, in my opinion, far better than it was 25 years ago in terms of inclusion and equality. That the offensive stereotypes have been replaced with authenticity and athleticism. PART II: Present Representation: Keith Lee
Former college football player who quit to become a pro-wrestler. Considered to be one of the most agile big men in the industry. No gimmicks, just Keith Lee portraying a strong, stunningly athletic human being. (WWE/AEW)
Kofi Kingston, Big E, Xavier Woods - New Day (WWE)
Say hello to the New Day! Big E is a former college football player and powerlifter. Xavier Woods is a highly decorated in and out of the ring with multiple championships, degrees in psychology and philosophy, a master's in psychology, and candidacy for his PhD in educational psychology. Kofi Kingston was born in Ghana became a pro-wrestling icon after moving to the states with his family. These powerful characters also have powerful personal stories that appeals to a broader audience and connects on a more personal level. Bobby Lashley
A Former high school, collegiate, and military wrestling champion. During his time in U.S. Army he won silver and gold for the International Military Sports Council where he participated in in the World Class Athlete program. He's a ormer MMA competitor and champion. (WWE, Impact)
Another former high school and collegiate wrestling champion, Shelton Benjamin went an incredible 36 – 6 during his wrestling career at University of Minnesota. He is considered an icon in pro-wrestling for his work in reinventing the ladder match, being a multi-time tag team and singles champion, and for competing worldwide . (WWE, NJPW, ROH, NOAH)
Adrienne Reese (Athena)
A former chess club champion and avid video gamer. Got into wrestling via gaming. Became a dominant champion on the independent wrestling scene. She has appeared in mainstream television and independent pro-wrestling across the country. (WWE)
Powerhouse Hobbs never wanted to be anything but a professional wrestler and is one of the biggest stars in the US currently.(AEW)
A world wide recognized brand in pro-wrestling. Jay Lethal is a prowrestling prodigy. He has enjoyed 13 different World Title reigns across different companies in different countries. (AEW/RoH/Impact/NJPW)
Nyla Rose is the first trans POC to hold a main title on a weekly televised American broadcast. (AEW)
Sonny Kiss is the first gender fluid, trans-feminine performer featured on weekly pro-wrestling programing as an upper card performer and champion instead of enhancement talent.
CONCLUSION: So what is wrestling? It's theatre and entertainment. Does it have a racist past? Of course it does. It's a part of the American entertainment industry. And like any other American institution that you give a damn about you try your best to learn, understand, repair, restore, and grow. It's a valuable art form that is celebrated and enjoyed by many but could be enjoyed by many more if inclusion and diversity took up more of the conversation in the industry. It's my opinion that professional wrestling can make positive impacts and impressions on people who may either be deaf to the pleas of the under represented or simply unaware. I'm including a picture that I took at a local wrestling show. Small venue, diverse cast, and an active crowd. Everyone in attendance was just as captivated by what was happening in the ring as those in a large venue setting. In those few moments the show could have been taking place on a mountain top - the audience was completely unaware because they were so engrossed in the story unfolding - the kids especially.
I remember feeling like the kid in this picture. The experience, the escapism, the representation, the ability to put down a bully vicariously through these larger than life heroes - it's incredible. Having a hero that looks, talks, feels, thinks the same way you do is important. I know this is more of a tangent but it's not always easy being a kid and having the ability to escape and feel safe and happy for a while may be a necessity they don't always have access too. I looked forward to wrestling and seeing my heroes but also most of my heroes looked just like me. If pro-wrestling theatre can be that powerful then we must do all we can to make sure it's available and empowering to everyone.
References: Waxmonsky, J., Beresin, E. “Taking Professional Wrestling to the Mat.” Academic Psychiatry 25, p. 125–131(2001). https://doiorg.libraryproxy.quinnipiac.edu/10.1176/appi.ap.25.2.125 Porter, Lynne. Unmasking Theatre Design: A Designer's Guide to Finding Inspiration and Cultivating Creativity. Focal Press, 2015.