Who does Kofi Kingston sing for? On the first episode of Smackdown Live episode after Fastlane, Kofi and Vince McMahon had a heated conversation about chances, belonging, and opportunity. Specifically, Kofi told Vince, “I have never complained about the fact that you have never allowed someone like me to compete or contend for the WWE Title.” I think if you aren’t from the space he’s speaking from, you can’t understand who he’s talking about outright.
The same week this promo aired, it was announced that Harlem Heat, the tag team comprised of current WWE Hall of Famer Booker T and his brother Stevie Ray, would be inducted into the same space as a unit. Even with the WWE HOF’s “Duck, Duck, Goose!” selection process, longtime fans would look at their longevity, victories, and title reigns as strong enough to justify induction. On social media, I noted the humor of Booker T going into the HOF for the second time, in New York, being that both him and his brother have zero New York ties outside of their team name. On a popular Facebook wrestling group, someone innocently asked, “Why are they called Harlem Heat if they’re from Houston?” The responses help to explain how a Kofi Kingston can be appreciated and passed over at the same time.
“Harlem sounds tougher than Houston.”
This is true… to a segment of the population. 3rd Ward, 5th Ward, Acres Homes… Houston is every bit as “tough” as any spot in New York. But people who don’t frequent places with people of color use the information they don’t have to reach for to explain things. So when someone says “Harlem sounds tougher,” what they’re saying is “I’ve been exposed to Black people for the most part through media, and I associate ‘tough’ Black people with this area of the country. So (insert WCW booker) wasn’t WRONG naming a team “Harlem Heat,” he was building off of expectations people would ride with.
What’s any of this got to do with Kofi Kingston, budding main eventer? It would be intellectually dishonest to say there’s never been a Black WWE Champion (I don’t need any more grey hairs, so “how Black is The Rock?” won’t be the focus of any of this). It would be just as dishonest to say there haven’t been contenders. But look at that list. Ahmed Johnson, Ron Simmons, Bobby Lashley, and Mark Henry jump out. What do these men have in common? Johnson played professional football for the Dallas Cowboys. Simmons finished 9th in the Heisman Trophy race, and was drafted by the Cleveland Browns. Lashley was a D2 wrestling champion, and Mark Henry was an Olympian. When Kofi Kingston says “someone like me,” he’s not talking about the Black WRESTLER, he’s talking about the Black EVERYMAN.
If you examine the presentation of Black champions and contenders, their initial listing, or introduction, stresses their athletic background. The Rock was the “blue chipper,” Bobby Lashley “armed forces champion,” Mark Henry “the Olympian.” Outside of MVP, a clear take on the “diva wide receiver” template, the Black WWE contender has had a John Henry quality to him, “pure” and “all-American” and “hard working” and the like. Kofi, who does have a martial arts background, wasn’t a “relate-able” collegiate athlete, so even without a heavy foreign accent, was saddled with a “Jamaican” gimmick out the gate.
Is there something WRONG with a guy with dreads being given a Jamaican gimmick? That depends; if Dolph Ziggler was given Sheamus’ gimmick, how would that have played? If Randy Orton donned a mask and henna tattooed “Mexican” across his stomach, would it wave been accepted? At the time, to Vince McMahon, a new Black character needed a gimmick people would “get,” and throughout WWE, you just won’t find a lot of Black character’s whose gimmick wasn’t either “super athlete” or deeply rooted in a “Black that’s familiar to white people.” Look at NXT-era Sasha Banks: Sasha Banks doesn’t talk in heavy slang, doesn’t dress cheap, isn’t promiscuous, and isn’t even overly flirty. But a mostly-white crowd started chanting “Sasha’s ratchet!” which didn’t fit anything on how she was presented or how she carried herself in real life. Something they weren’t familiar with was given, and they used an unrelated buzzword to try to explain what they were seeing.
This isn’t an anti-white fans story. If anything, I’m saying that it’s the responsibility of the promotion to present three-dimensional characters of every background so that every Black team doesn’t have to be “from the hood.” I tried explaining to a group of friends in 2015 that Xavier Woods represented what “cool” is now, and it fell of deaf ears, because the Black nerd that doesn’t skip leg day isn’t something they’d really experienced, and look at what he’s done for himself in multiple spaces in 2019. I’ll never forget Konnan of all people saying once on his podcast that Woods was “The whitest Black guy in (WWE).” That’s who a Kofi Kingston sings for: The people of color that don’t fit into boxes. He’s a great athlete… just wasn’t an amateur one. He’s got a fire about him… it’s just not rooted in him pulling himself up from his bootstraps.
So when you look at Booker T, five-time WCW Champion, who immediately feuded with the Rock and Stone Cold upon entering WCW, it took him five years to win his next world title. WrestleMania 19 is noted for his title match loss the Triple H, in a feud based on the idea that “people like him” didn’t get to be champion; in fact, he had to become an English King to finally accomplish that. Triple H, who I don’t consider to be racist at all, was able to appeal to Vince’s mindset towards the Black athlete to make this true in the moment.
Kofi Kingston’s story, whether he wins the WWE Title, loses his WWE Title match, or just gets more TV time for awhile, is special and difficult and scary because it’s unfamiliar territory, and because they won’t say outright what I’m trying to say. The “every man” of color – the one who’s middle class, the one who doesn’t have muscles coming out of his ears, the one who doesn’t start dancing or rapping at the drop of a dime – is rarely one presented in WWE, especially at the very top of the card. But the more WE get to see NEW in wrestling, the better understanding you have of the world around you, and the better the world will be as a whole.
(Cameron Hawkins (@ceehawk on Twitter) cohosts the PWTorch East Coast Cast every Wednesday night with Travis Bryant. He is a regular cohost of the Wade Keller Pro Wrestling Post-show.)
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