Even after a year rife with bad press regarding their racial politics and lack of a black world champion, the WWE has decided to make good through their WWE Network by honoring Black History Month. Only problem is, it’s a pretty half-assed job. As someone that’s not familiar with the PYT Express I was hoping for something more than some random promo of them at an airport where you can barely make out what’s being said, or what the damn point is. And I appreciate the callback to Booker T’s Ebony Experience days, but I could’ve come up with at least 50 other videos showcasing Booker T’s accomplishments. And then there’s the backstage bit involving Cryme Tyme—probably the least offensive one that exists of them.
Which bring me to this list. While WWE likes to pat themselves on the back for how far along they think they’ve come in portraying African-American wrestling characters, I’d like to provide 10 reminders of how far they set them back as well.
10. Momma Benjamin
Dave Chappelle has commented on Hollywood’s weird fetish of dressing up black male comedian actors as women, a lot of which happen to be of the overweight variety. Martin Lawrence built a franchise on this black female stereotype. While the WWE didn’t have Viscera dress in drag, they did hire Thea Vidale, a black female comedian who happens to be overweight, to pretty much play Martin Lawrence’s character from Big Momma’s House. She’d be overbearing, undermining to her adult son, Shelton Benjamin. But, most importantly, she threatened to whoop some ass. Occasionally, she’d help Shelton win matches. After the WWE was done with her (or after she left due to sexual harassment) a similar-looking woman resurfaced years later. In fact, it was a whole army of black overweight mommas who resurfaced at WrestleMania 28 to take up precious pay-per-view time (that could’ve been given to Daniel Bryan) to perform a ridiculous dance routine with Brodus Clay.
9. Nation of Domination
Professional wrestling is the only place where minorities can speak out about racial inequalities and get booed. Just ask Muhammad Hassan. Okay, so it also depends on how the WWE positions these characters when taking up these issues. Despite the Black Panther Party being born out of self defense against police brutality in the mid-1960’s, and dying out by the early 1980’s, WWE figured that 1997 was the most relevant time to create a parody group of them that also included traits from the Nation of Islam. Angry black militant wrestlers had never really been done in the WWE and seemed out of place considering the social makeup of the United States during that time period. I’m not saying racism had ceased to exist, but if WWE’s portrayal of the Nation was intended to hold up a mirror to the black community, then it definitely did them no favors by having them feud with other racially-oriented wrestling stables and making them all look like rival prison gangs.
8. Papa Shango
If you were kid growing up a wrestling fan, then you fondly remember Papa Shango being a bad guy with a cool look who was otherwise a terrible wrestler. If you were still a wrestling fan when you “grew up” then you realized how racist Papa Shango was. Even if he cast cheesy spells and gave the Ultimate Warrior appendicitis. Shango was a play on the witch doctor/voodoo shaman stereotype of the Louisiana bayou variety. Though surprisingly, he didn’t speak with a creole accent. I guess that would’ve been too on the nose. Although, it didn’t stop Disney from producing their own stereotypical Louisiana voodoo villain, complete with his own song. Not that Disney’s cultural incompetence is anything new, but when the WWE comes out looking more culturally sensitive you know you’ve messed up.
Here’s what I had to say regarding Slick from a previous Art of Gimmickry post about The Pimp Wrestler gimmick, which I still stand by:
The WWE wasn’t outright about Slick being a pimp, but with a name on par with Fillmore Slim from American Pimp, Slick definitely had a way about him that screamed greasy, two-bit pimp. Especially when he cut an interview like this. And after watching his music video for “Jive Soul Bro” you’d also learn that he had a penchant for generic KFC and doing women dirty (and not the good kind of dirty). He was pretty much what Vince’s idea of black people were after watching a few blaxploitation films a few years too late.
6. Cryme Tyme
And here’s another excerpt from a previous 10 Count! Black Tag Teams post:
Because there’s only a handful of gimmicks a black wrestler has to choose from, Shad Gaspard and JTG were brought in as Cryme Tyme, a pair of hoodlums from… the hood. And, as we all know, pro wrestling logic dictates that more than one black wrestler usually makes for a gang-type of faction. Of course, there are some exceptions. While the WWE was quick to point out that Cryme Tyme was a “parody of racial stereotypes” and it was an “attempt at Saturday Night Live like humor,” it was clear that they were basically ripping off Keenan Ivory & Damon Wayans’ Homeboy Shopping Network sketch from In Living Color. At first, it didn’t seem so bad as they were babyfaces and were stealing all the heels’ stuff to sell to the crowd. But like most parodies of racial stereotypes and some SNL sketches, it ran its course quick.
5. The Godfather
What little subtlety the WWE used to employ went out the window during the Attitude Era. Coupled with the “times” of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, wrestlers like The Godfather were able to exist. He didn’t have to dance around the subject like Slick did, or literally dance with The Funkettes like Flash Funk did; he could just parade down the aisle a bevy of women and refer to them as his hoes. Then offer the women up to his opponents instead of having to wrestle them. With catchphrases like “Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy” and “Hoooo Train!”, it’s clear Charles Wright will never be an NAACP Image Award recipient, but he will go down as the MVP of black wrestling stereotypes. The sad truth is that his Kama Mustafa, Papa Shango, and Godfather gimmicks were all more successful than his MMA fighter gimmick that had nothing do with his racial makeup. A gimmick I actually thought was cool at the time.
4. Saba Simba
While not as bad as Kamala in that Saba Simba was acknowledged as the former Tony Atlas having gone to Africa for a spiritual journey, it’s still a pretty racist caricature. Even if he wasn’t an uncivilized savage, he still looked like a more in-shape version of Kamala sans beard, face paint, and belly slapping. And probably had a better handle on bowling. It was either the Shaka Zulu outfit, or an over-sized yellow dashiki; the only two acceptable forms of dress after one has come back from an African rebirth. Probably the worst part of the gimmick was Atlas’ interpretation of what an African tribal dance should look like. According to him it was borderline twerking. As bad as it was, Atlas defends the gimmick for having saved him from poverty. Then again, every call up to the WWE has saved Atlas from ending up in the poorhouse one way or another.
The Million Dollar Man was a bad ass character. It was the role Ted DiBiase was born to play. He was a rich asshole who could make less competent wrestlers look great in the ring. The not-so bad ass part was him having his own manservant who just happened to be black. Sure, they often referred to Virgil as DiBiase’s “bodyguard”, but there’s a fine line between being paid and being bought. And DiBiase made it clear that he owned Virgil. The way Virgil’s uprising played out further cemented the fact; even when Roddy Piper backed him up he referred to it as a “human rights” issue. The main issue here is if they really wanted to showcase Virgil as a bodyguard they could’ve done it the way they did with Diesel when he was Shawn Michaels’ bodyguard, or at the very least gone the Curtis Hughes route when he was Chris Jericho’s bodyguard.
I’ll cut the WWE some slack since they didn’t think of this gimmick for James Harris. But they sure as hell didn’t see a need to change it upon his arrival to the WWE. Before familiarizing himself in the ways of great American cultural traditions, like bowling, Kamala was a straight-up Ugandan cannibal from the “deepest, darkest depths of Africa,” which was wrestling parlance for the blackest part of Africa. To further drive home how much of a savage he was, Kamala not only had a manager, but a masked ‘handler’ as well named Kim Chee. And because savage equals stupid, even as a full-time wrestler consistently working all over the world, Kamala had difficulty picking up on things even through repetition. Like, say, how to pin another wrestler. Then again, there was WWE Diva Cameron who proved that it’s possible to forget how to pin somebody in a match even after years of wrestling.
1. Akeem “The African Dream”
Of course the worst black wrestling stereotype was going to be perpetrated by a white man. This is wrestling, after all. If the rumors are true, Akeem was created in order to poke fun of Dusty Rhodes, whose swagger was ripped off from charismatic black wrestlers, like Sweet Daddy Siki, and black culture in general. But in doing so, the WWE mocked the black community, from its cultural influence in the United States to its historical traditions from Africa. The worst part of Akeem wasn’t that he was a white guy trying to do his best impression of what he and the WWE considered to be black (which still would’ve been bad); it’s that he was a white guy purposely doing a terrible impression of what they considered being black was. Jesse Ventura calling it “shuckin’ and jivin'” certainly didn’t help. Then there was Akeem being as white as they come, and every instance of him talking slang sounded like ridicule, and every dance step he’d take looked like he was having muscle spasms. The guy couldn’t even properly daps Slick. And then there was Slick! Having another black stereotype co-sign on this gimmick was an even bigger slap in the face of the black community.