With the passing of Julian Shabazz, author of Black Stars of Professional Wrestling, and the current protests instigated by the brutal treatment and death of African Americans at the hands of police officers, we at Slamwrestling.net felt a larger conversation was warranted. We present to you this integral and timely group discussion that includes thoughts on Shabazz’s legacy and the portrayal of race in pro wrestling.
Shabazz himself once said in an interview on SportsTalk with Glenn Harris on May 26, 2000: “Wrestling itself is really just a microcosm of the larger society and unlike other major professional sports today, wrestling still promotes stereotypes to you know market their product. The NBA, the NFL, they really don’t push, you know, race very much in people’s faces. But wrestling still uses stereotypes: the Italians, the angry Russians, the crazy German, the retarded Latino and the ignorant, foot-shuffling stereotypical black person even today.”
This group discussion features contributions from: Blackjack Brown (former freelance pro wrestling photographer and columnist for the Chicago Sun Times); Chris Bournea (writer and director of the Lady Wrestler: The Amazing, Untold Story of African-American Women in the Ring documentary); Phil Lindsey (contributor for Daily DDT and writer and editor-in-chief for Bell to Belles); Joe Anthony Myrick (editor at Daily DDT); Kenai Andrews (former contributor for Slam Wrestling and current TV host of TKO Countdown and editor-in-chief of MMA Crossfire); David Joseph (freelance broadcaster and contributor for Daily DDT) and Anthony Mahon (freelance contributor for Daily DDT).
EDITOR’S NOTE: Please also refer to the compelling round table video on race released by Ring of Honor (ROH) on July 18, 2020 at the end of this story.
Jamie Hemmings: What is Julian Shabazz’s legacy in pro wrestling?
Brown: (To) say it like it is!
Bournea: I think whats interesting because I think one of the awards he (Shabazz) received was he was called a ‘Griot.’ I think that’s definitely a fitting title for him. A Griot is, of course, a storyteller of African descent who preserves the culture. He was definitely a Griot, preserving African American culture. I mean, he wrote … books on different subjects, including one on hip hop. So he was definitely a Griot, preserving African American culture and getting it out to a broader audience beyond, you know, who might just typically pick up a history book about African Americans. And that’s definitely a very important contribution that he made.
Lindsey: I think his (Shabazz’s) legacy will just be, the times that I knew of him, how I found out about him, is I would see random clips of stuff where he would either speak or like he was on BET at one point. I think it was the Tavis Smiley show (BET Tonight with Tavis Smiley). And he was a guest with Booker T and I think Ernest “The Cat” Miller and Paisley (Sharmell Sullivan-Huffman) were on it too. I just think his legacy was just how big of a character he was. I mean the book itself was important, but every time he was allowed to get on someone’s platform and talk about wrestling, he was so excited about it. He always knew what he was talking about. And he just had this kind of larger than life character for somebody that was just like an author. It was always interesting when I did come across his name to just hear how he spoke and just how he carried himself. I think he was on the Wrestling Observer, too. I think he did an interview with Meltzer (aired on September 14, 2000).
Myrick: I can’t speak much on Julian’s legacy as I don’t know much about it or him, but from what I’ve seen, he touched a lot of people in his life and it hurt just as many people to see him gone. That’s got to account for something. I think it might speak to how special he was as a person that he was able to touch multiple people’s hearts so vividly in his absence. That’s hard to do.
Andrews: He (Shabazz) filled in an important gap in wrestling history with his book.
Hemmings: What is it like being an African American pro wrestling fan? How is this experience different from being a non-African American pro wrestling fan?
Brown: Personally, I don’t really know the difference, but I’m sure that there is.
Bournea: Well, I have to say, I don’t necessarily consider myself a wrestling fan. I was into wrestling when I was in middle school and then I sort of outgrew it. So, my approach to my documentary that I made and Julian’s approach to his book come from two different places because I saw in an interview that he decided to write his book in 1998, when both Bobo Brazil and Junkyard Dog passed away. He was like, hey, there’s no comprehensive book celebrating my heroes, I should write something. Whereas I sort of came to wrestling as an outsider until a friend of mine made me aware of these women that did live right in my own city that I wasn’t even aware of growing up. So, whereas he grew up a wrestling fan his whole life, I was a casual fan when I was young and then sort of outgrew it. And then, you know, got more into it as I researched my documentary. One observation I would definitely make is that being an African American wrestling fan, you don’t always see yourself just like in any kind of media or sports, you don’t necessarily always see yourself reflected. A lot of other sports are much more integrated or even you know, predominantly African American like basketball and football, but I still think there’s a long way to go and a lot of barriers to be broken for African Americans in professional wrestling. I mean, there have been a lot, as Julian documented in his book, there have been a lot of African Americans in professional wrestling, but for a fan, you kind of have to seek them out. And a lot of times, they’re not as celebrated as the white wrestlers are. So, I would say as a fan, not seeing yourself reflected is kind of a downside.
Lindsey: It’s interesting. There’s a lot of fans that have been watching for a long time. We’ve kind of gotten used to some of the stereotypes in it. And some of it’s problematic and we just kind of deal with it being problematic just because we enjoy wrestling. So, it’s kind of like watching something and sometimes you look at it, like, oh, this is, this is… kind of bad. Why do I continue to watch this? But it’s also like, we want to support a lot of the athletes, a lot of performers that are in wrestling and sometimes that means we have to ignore some of the crazy, problematic stuff. I still think there’s so much room for inclusion, in terms of not only black performers but black fans. I think there’s almost this belief that there’s not a lot of (African American) fans, so a lot of promotions don’t cater their programming to us. But I think there’s a lot of Black fans and I think right now there’s such a demand for more Black wrestlers and more inclusive shows.
Myrick: It’s a very different experience from the average fan, I think. You’re often kind of – for lack of a better phrasing – double thinking while watching wrestling and it’s hard to not keep race in mind when watching; hard to distance yourself from racial aspects, positive and negative in wrestling. I may see something onscreen regarding race, be it problematic or positive, and a non-Black fan may not see or, furthermore, think I’m reaching. For example, I think the Kofi Kingston storyline had racial undertones. Not bad ones, it was tastefully done, but Kofi Kingston pointing out to Vince McMahon on SmackDown how he never allowed “someone like me” to fight for the (World Wrestling Entertainment) WWE Title, that line reads differently to me. When I see Kofi Kingston raise the WWE Championship at WrestleMania as the first dark skinned, South African man to win the belt, that moment is going to read a little more significant to me than the average non-Black fan. But as soon as I point out the importance of race in all of this, the average non-Black fan might tell me I’m reaching for something that isn’t there simply because they don’t see what I see or relate to my plight.
Andrews: As a wrestling fan raised in Toronto, I remember there were not a lot of Black wrestlers to cheer for. They basically fell into two or three categories. The savage, e.g. Kamala, Abdullah the Butcher, eccentric babyfaces, e.g. Junkyard Dog, Koko B. Ware, and the super powerful heels, e.g. Butch Reed, Zeus. Slick was another funny stereotype. In essence, these characters were designed not to be taken seriously. Unlike a Hulk Hogan or Randy Savage.
Joseph: Being a Black wrestling fan is unique. Black wrestling fans know not to be tone deaf because we have experienced that for so long. So, we know how to view stories in booking from another lens. We have a third eye that provides extra creativity and imagination. In my opinion having more Black journalists, executives, creative team members will help pro wrestling lock in that 18-35 demographic again. For so long older white men have been running things. Having more young, Black voices can elevate the business to new heights.
Mahon: To me at least, it isn’t much different from being an African American consuming any form of media that is white-dominated. I feel an extra attachment to Black wrestlers because I feel like they represent me and that representation for Black people among all fandoms is important yet currently isn’t being showcased enough.
Hemmings: Quite often pro wrestling will incorporate real life events into its storylines. But when it comes to race, quite often the results have been appallingly tone deaf and racist. What are your thoughts on racial storylines in pro wrestling?
Brown: It was just the storyline and I took it for what it was, sometimes realistic. Realistically, that’s how the world is. Some people can’t take it. You know, the realism to things and reality. And you get a lot of hate mail. A lot of people are sensitive over little things. I mean, Don Rickles was one of my favorite comedians and man, the stuff that he could say. Now you can’t. People get offended, overly offended with that stuff. You know?
Bournea: That’s interesting you say that because one of the interviews I watched with Julian he made that point. He said that you know, wrestling, a lot of sports have tried to not address race at all. In fact, you know, look at the big controversy with Colin Kaepernick taking the knee in football, you know, the NFL didn’t want to address racial issues at all. But wrestling, as Julian said in his one interviews, a lot of times promotes stereotypes. So, I think a lot of times, it’s just wrestlers, they’re kind of seeing their way into the business. And it’s like, okay, if this is something that I have to kind of put up with to make a name for myself, I’ll do that. And wrestling I think has a reputation for being so over the top and so sensational and doing anything controversial, just to please audiences, I think fans kind of go along with it. I don’t think the wrestling industry would be able to get away with it if fans weren’t kind of on board with it because I can’t see the NBA, promoting similar stereotypes and fans being okay with it. So, to a degree, the audience is either not that aware that they’re stereotypes or just sort of goes along with it, thinking of it as just fun and just entertainment and kind of harmless.
Lindsey: I think there’s a way to do it and you can do good stories with it. I mean you can look at ‘Kofimania’ for example. ‘Kofimania’ touched on race. They never outright say it but it’s always kind of like the elephant in the room for the entire storyline. And it made his wins feel more important at Mania and made it more of a feel-good moment. I mean there’s, of course, bad examples of it like the Booker T thing with Triple H or some of the older stuff like I think some of the New Jack stuff is up there too.
Myrick: There’s a right and a wrong way to pull (off) racial storylines. Certain storylines need Black people and, in general, people of color at the helm to avoid the obliviousness that produces racist moments on TV. More than half of the most racist storylines and moments in wrestling would have gone very differently if there was some Black person in a position of power there to say that something would be a bad idea.
Andrews: These storylines obviously need to treated more carefully and delicately by writers who understand these issues. Unfortunately, the primary purpose of storylines is to draw money. So it is unsurprising that we continue to see half-baked storylines of any type.
Joseph: I always believe that if a storyline is done tastefully and RIGHT, then yes, it is fair game. I do think racial based storylines can work. For example, ‘Kofimania’ recently. It wasn’t exactly “race based,” however the undertones were clear. Kofi prevailed over Daniel Bryan on the biggest stage. That showed Black people around the world that this can be done. The minute you put a Black wrestler in a box as just an ex-con, or just a rapper, I think it is offensive. Black people are so much more than rappers or criminals. It is important they are presented as equals if not better
Mahon: It depends on the storyline. Big E’s video about how Black wrestlers can only go so far helped the Kofi Kingston WrestleMania storyline because his words not only came across as heartfelt but were rooted in truth and proven through history. Other storylines like Triple H vs. Booker T is a classic example of how storylines with racial elements can go horribly wrong but that also highlights an absence of Black decision makers and executives not just in WWE but across the board. Wrestling also has a history of broadcasting toxic and demeaning stereotypes on camera as well as under-utilizing talented Black wrestlers. It’s difficult dealing with that as a fan and then especially with social media, constantly seeing comments from people that don’t understand the harm in under-utilizing Black performers and in some cases, assigning them gimmicks that amplify stereotypes.
Hemmings: Further on the point of pro wrestling incorporating real life events into their storylines, do you feel that the current wrestling promotions are using their platforms effectively to discuss current events like the protests?
Brown: They (wrestling promotions) don’t want to go over the edge. You know, nowadays, you can’t really go over the edge without hurting the fans and the people on these (executive) boards, you know. It’s not like a mom and pop organization no more. We run that now and you can’t offend people. People are just too overly sensitive with things, you know? There’s a right way and a correct way and a decent way. Everybody is too sensitive.
Bournea: I have to say I haven’t watched a lot of pro wrestling recently. But from what I can gather, I don’t think there has been much of addressing the current racial climate of the country at all. I mean, the NFL of all organizations came out and said we were wrong for not taking our black players more seriously and their concerns about race. I haven’t heard any statements about that from Vince McMahon or any high-level promoter or even wrestlers themselves haven’t committed from what I’ve heard, haven’t made any statements about race or supporting Black Lives Matter. Maybe I’m just not aware of them. But it doesn’t seem like there’s been many high-profile people in the wrestling industry coming out and speaking out about the issues that we’re all facing right now. (Editor’s note: on June 2, 2020 the WWE put out this message via its social media: “WWE supports an inclusive society and condemns racial injustice. We stand beside our Black performers, employees and fans around the world, and encourage everyone to use their voice to speak out against racism. We offer our sincere condolences to the family of George Floyd and the families of countless others who have lost their lives due to senseless violence.”)
Lindsey: I don’t think they (the wrestling promotions) are honest. Honestly, yeah, people are putting out statements. But you know, statements are great, but I think sometimes you need to hear where you want to make real change in your company and how you plan to actually look at the protests. And you know, how do you plan to act on what’s going on? And I mean, I’ve seen where there are wrestlers that are trying to speak out and doing good things, but the companies themselves not so much.
Myrick: Yes and no. I do appreciate some promotions speaking out against racism, but 1.) statements from certain promotions produce a bad taste when those promotions have a history with running racist, questionable storyline angles, and 2.) at the end of the day, statements are just statements. Words are just words. I want to see action. Whether action comes in the form of these promotions creating a more diverse environment both onscreen and backstage, or simply donating their sums to the right organizations in the support of the Black Lives Matter movement and these protests, then that speaks louder to me than any statement a public relations intern could have cooked up at their desk.
Andrews: I don’t think wrestling has ever really explored racial issues on a successful mainstream level other than PSAs. It’s a difficult subject to tackle and the goal is to make money. I think the best wrestling can do is continued improvement and progress African American wrestlers (so they) are treated equally in terms of opportunities. That takes time. There is no instant magic solution.
Joseph: I do think all pro wrestling companies can do a lot better. There should be more pro Black merchandise. There should be more commercials showing wrestlers going to protests together. If they claim to support Black people, they have to actively show us and do the work. Their weekly programming must highlight the issues going on. There are plenty of ways to do this.
Mahon: I think promotions could be doing more. It’s easy to put out a statement denouncing racism but it’s shallow if the change doesn’t come from inside. Are they having internal dialogues? Are they donating? Are they going to genuinely showcase—emphasis on genuinely—their Black performers? Are they doing the work to be anti-racist? A statement is important but action matters more.
Hemmings: Has pro wrestling improved on highlighting African American pro wrestlers?
Brown: Oh tremendously yeah. We had a world champion not too long ago, a Black world champion, Kofi Kingston.
Bournea: I think there’s been slow but steady progress. I think especially I’ve seen a few more African American women start to be featured more. So, I think it’s slow progress. I wouldn’t say there’s been leaps and bounds, but it’s sort of like here and there, there have been more African American wrestlers featured. But I don’t think it’s by any means, the level of what you would see in other sports. So, I would say it’s progress, but it’s very slow.
Lindsey: Yes and no. You do have great things like Kofi, but you’ve had so many great stars that kind of languished on a mid-card and they didn’t reach the heights that Kofi did. And I think that’s still kind of a thing in a lot of companies. You still don’t see a lot of Black world champions. Now, what I do think it’s improving, is there a lot of Black entertainers that are trying to go and make their own route, like what F1ght Club Pro (Wrestling) is doing right now (based in District of Columbia, USA) is great for that reason, because they’re trying to build history around having a company that’s owned by black people and the title is so representative of African American History as well.
Myrick: Again, yes and no. The way Black people in wrestling are portrayed in wrestling, for the most part, is miles ahead of what it used to be 30, 20, even 10 years ago. A lot of that representation is good, and in other cases, it feels like wrestling is going backwards in regards to such diversity. Even going back to Kofi winning the WWE Championship, that was a big moment for the Black wrestling community and an important milestone for young Black fans to see. On the other hand, he lost the title in 10 seconds (to Brock Lesnar) and was completely taken out of the main event picture from there. It was like a “two steps forward, 10 steps back” moment. There are a lot of moments like that in regards to how Black people are portrayed in wrestling. Again, it’s better than it was in the past, but it could still be better.
Andrews: Like society, wrestling has been dragged kicking and screaming into a disappointing amount of progress for African American wrestlers and other minority groups. It’s 2020 and many of the issues plaguing Black wrestlers remain. The difficult work of developing an infrastructure that consistently produces content that reflects the diversity of the demographic of the people that watch it takes resources, thinking, and most importantly action, that wrestling collectively continues to demonstrate that it is not interested in pursuing.
Joseph: Historically, pro wrestling has been racially insensitive. However, I will say there has been some improvement with how Black wrestlers are presented. They are not thrown in a box nearly as much these days. See last question for what they (the pro wrestling promotions) can do more of. I think they could have more Black commentators and workers.
Mahon: Yes and no. Because of the growth of independent wrestling as a whole, fans can tune into more wrestling and expose themselves to a deeper talent pool than (they) ever thought possible. With that said, they do need to be showcased more specifically within the larger promotions. AEW has very few Black performers and even less in consistent big spots on the card. Up until Kofi Kingston won the WWE Championship, there was no Black men’s world champion for exactly six years. There’s a laundry list of Black performers that could’ve and could still be main eventers. Trust them.
Hemmings: To you, what are the most important moments and/or your favorite moments featuring African American pro wrestlers?
Brown: One of my highlights was when Rocky Johnson and Tony Atlas won the tag titles, that’s going back a ways. And I call them my brothers, Bubba (Ray) and D-Von, the Dudley Boyz. D-Von is Black and Bubba is white. They are my brothers and I call them, I talk to them almost every week and they don’t look at the black and white stuff like that, especially in wrestling. You know, they don’t separate the two. I guess it is, but everyone (in wrestling) comes into (it) as one.
Bournea: I don’t think I’m knowledgeable enough about the contemporary wrestling scene to comment on that and I apologize.
Lindsey: What are my favorite moments? I mean, ‘Kofimania’ stands out for me because I’ve been a Kofi fan for years. So, I’ve always been kind of arguing for him for a long time. Like No! No! Kofi should be champion, he’s won every other title with the company. He should be a world champion by now! So that was actually one of my favorites and then, of course, The Rock was a big deal when I was growing up. There was a lot that he did that was a big deal. I mean, Booker T was also a big deal. I was a big Harlem Heat fan. So, I was a big fan of that as a tag team. I still to this day think they’re one of the best tag teams probably ever and just seeing them get the nod for the (WWE) Hall of Fame and to see Booker become a two-time Hall of Famer was pretty cool. In terms of women’s wrestling, I’m a big Sasha (Banks) fan. So, I enjoyed her finally winning a title on Raw. Women’s wrestling is being taken more seriously now. So, we’re finally seeing a lot more Black women get the spotlight that they deserve. And I think that’s really cool.
Myrick: Some of my favorite important moments that ring to mind are Kofi’s win at Mania, Ron Simmons becoming the first African American (World Championship Wrestling) WCW champion, and The Rock becoming the first African American to win the WWE championship.
Joseph: Booker T winning the King of the Ring in 2006. That was the launching pad of a fun gimmick! Naomi winning the Women’s championship at WrestleMania 33. She is so talented and I think she can use more TV time.
Mahon: Kofi Kingston winning the WWE championship; Cedric Alexander’s run in the Cruiserweight Classic; Mark Henry’s fake retirement; Sasha Banks winning the NXT Women’s championship and The Rock’s rock concert in Sacramento 2003.
It seems only fitting that Shabazz himself provide the closing words for this discussion. From the Introduction of his book, Black Stars of Professional Wrestling, 3rd Edition, released in 2019, he wrote: “Unfortunately, one of the most overlooked subjects of the sport has been the contributions of Black performers. There have been many prominent Black athletes who’ve competed in wrestling for generations. Sadly though, they’ve rarely received anything close to the type of attention that some of their white counterparts have gotten. Like every other institution in America, pro wrestling has historically and continues to be permeated with racism. Most of the Black wrestlers have been overlooked, underused, misused and discriminated against for years. They’ve rarely been paid comparable salaries and many of the characterizations have been racist, sexist and down right insulting.”
On Saturday, July 18, 2020, Ring of Honor held its own round table on racism and Black Lives Matter, with host Ian Riccaboni talking with Caprice Coleman, Kenny King, Jay Lethal, Shane Taylor and Jonathan Gresham. Check it out on YouTube: