I need to begin this piece by acknowledging that I am not the right person to write it, that despite my own marginalization I am a white woman and, as such, regardless of whether or not I am seen as a woman or a man, the institution of American policing, the carceral state, capitalism itself, was created to protect my whiteness from the non-white Other through centuries of murder, slavery, extortion, rape, and other crimes meant to be invisible from my eye.
It’s weird, maybe, that an image from a wrestling show makes such a statement necessary, but as someone who writes about this medium, sometimes as a journalist, sometimes as a narrative theorist, and sometimes as an historian, I can’t turn my head away when I am called to witness something important—something that seemed impossible, frankly, until it happened. So I am going to write about Big E and Kofi Kingston (and Xavier Woods). I am going to write a little about the portrayal of Black power in professional wrestling. And I am going to write a little about the significance of taking a knee and raising a fist on WWE television. If I fuck this up, I am easy enough to find on social media.
I am not being hyperbolic when I say that the image of Big E and Kofi Kingston kneeling in solidarity with those protesting for an end to the extrajudicial murder of Black people by the police “seemed” impossible. As brand after brand tweeted their meek, often actionless message of support for the Black community, they were met by legions of people, employees and outsiders, with receipts as to their conduct towards the community. World Wrestling Entertainment’s receipt is longer than one from CVS. Considering the well-documented lack of Black world champions and the fact that it took until 1998 to make it happen, characters rooted in racist stereotypes, how wrestlers extremely popular in major Black markets in the south were signed to be secondary or tertiary to Hulk Hogan in white markets in the north, Vince McMahon casually saying the n-word on national television to John Cena, Attitude Era blackface angles, shoot interviews with writers and wrestlers detailing an unfathomable number of micro and macro aggressions, the Triple H/Booker T feud booked heavily around racist tropes about Black men with a criminal history (which Triple H won), and the way that Black wrestler after Black wrestler after Black wrestler makes it to the point where they’re no longer served by secondary titles but just kind of stay at that level forever, the WWE’s culture is one of deep, undeniable racism, top to bottom, and that’s just taking one marginalized community into consideration, grievances listed off the top of my head.
Beyond that, the real world is not something that touches professional wrestling often, and when it does it’s usually either because a wrestler died unexpectedly, or because the McMahons are looking to exploit it, your Owen Hart tribute shows and your WrestleMania programs booked around the Gulf War. One notable exception to this was the episode of SmackDown held days after 9/11. Another was on May 1, 2011, when the Extreme Rules pay-per-view ended with John Cena taking the mic, declaring that Osama bin Laden had been “compromised to a permanent end,” and left the arena to “Stars and Stripes Forever.” As I’ve written too many times over the past three months, wrestling is meant to be a distraction from the problems of society, not address it directly. It’s always there, of course—no matter how much you’d like it to be otherwise, all art is political—but WWE’s audience is primarily white and male, and when you think about white men in this country, something too many of them want to do is avoid thinking about the problems they cause or the systems that cause problems on their behalf. This is so ingrained in wrestling culture that something as simple as Steve Austin posting a picture of himself in a reusable cloth mask during a pandemic where said attire is strongly recommended draws men out of the woodwork to tell him to stop being political.
I have long argued that wrestling fans are more sophisticated than the bumpkin Trump supporter mainstream media often makes them out to be, but there is no shortage of fans, wrestlers, and promoters who do brook things like wearing a mask as an assault on American freedoms. If WWE could get away with pretending that there wasn’t a pandemic, it would. So we’re here in this moment, with an artform that has historically been ill-equipped to deal with issues of race, gender, sexuality, labor, and everything else under the sun because it’s largely run by white men, the performers in its upper echelons are largely white, and the perception of its fanbase, one that wrestling has been all too happy to maintain, is that it, too, is mostly white. So yeah, Big E and Kofi Kingston taking a knee was not possible until, suddenly, it happened.
We are the Nation.
I want to go back to 1996. Spurred on, perhaps, by the success The Gangstas—a heel trio out of Smokey Mountain Wrestling that consisted of New Jack, Mustafa Saed, and D’Lo Brown until ECW offered New Jack and Mustafa more money to leave—a group called the Nation of Domination appeared in the USWA, a feeder promotion for the then-WWF, before the group made their debut on WWF television in November 1996. The Gangstas were heels because New Jack’s promos riled up the white, southern audience in SMW while being fundamentally on the money about the racist attitudes of that audience. By contrast, the Nation were something else entirely, a stable of Black men dressed as if wrestling school were integral to the methodology of the Black Panther Party, whose Black power fist they adapted. In the beginning, they were managed by Clarence Mason, a practicing attorney who left that profession to play an attorney on TV. Initially a kind of harmless lawyer character who paled around with Jim Cornette, he put away his tie, put on a bowtie, and became the Louis Farrahkan to Faarooq’s Huey P. Newton, covering as many bases of black radical thought as Vince McMahon and his creative team could think of.
An aside on Faarooq—Ron Simmons, now a WWE Hall of Famer who shows up from time to time to say “Damn” at a bad piece of writing, is recognized by the WWE as the first Black world champion in the history of wrestling. Technically, Bearcat Wright and Bobo Brazil won world championships in the 1960s, but neither win was officially recognized, and, territories being territories, the lineage of such things is as much a matter of corporate interpretation as it is the work of history. Brazil won the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, a title whose lineage is extremely complicated by the territory system and, later, its affiliation with a number of promotions larger than the later day NWA, but refused it because his opponent, Buddy Rogers, was injured. When it turned out that Rogers wasn’t injured, he was awarded the title. Then Rogers won it again, the NWA decided not to recognize his previous losses, and instead of having a black world champion in 1962 we got one 30 years later, which has largely suited history just fine. So, imagine—Ron Simmons is the man who broke the color barrier for a major world championship in professional wrestling. He leaves WCW in 1994, wrestles in ECW for a bit, signs a contract with the World Wrestling Federation, and rather than acknowledging his role in history he is given a character from history, Faarooq Asad, a Black gladiator (ignoring that gladiators were slaves, Black gladiators did not exist).
In most stories about bad gimmicks, this is the end of someone’s career. Instead, Faarooq (setting a precedent for plenty of minority wrestlers who followed) ditched the last name and became a revolutionary. The Nation of Domination debuted at Survivor Series 1996, the same night The Rock debuted. Early on, beyond Faarooq, Mason, and few actors in Nation of Islam gear, the members of this revolutionary Black faction were not Black. You had Savio Vega, a Puerto Rican wrestler who previously played the role of a ninja and whose WWF career from this point forward would be marked by his various affiliations with other gangs. You had PG-13, J.C. Ice and Wolfie D, a pair of white rappers from the fed’s Memphis affiliate. And you had Crush, shape-shifting one more time for the WWE and becoming a biker-cum-criminal after his real life run-in with the law.
It’s true that non-Black people have been part of the revolution for a long time, but the extent to which the WWE’s version of that revolution chose to center whiteness, and what kinds of whiteness, points towards the company’s goal of creating a heel faction that looked powerful while moralizing that people speaking towards the injustices they face are often hypocrites. Here’s this former world champion, speaking with his rich, powerful, and righteously angry voice about being held down for being a Black man, and at his side are a pair of white rappers and a guy who looks like he got lost on his way to hang with his white supremacist biker gang. You take the optics of Black revolutionary politics and weld them to the optics of white cultural appropriation and criminality, and you signal to your white audience that the man at the center is a does not have the moral standing that white audience requires of black leaders.
And, yeah, wrestling heels are supposed to be hypocrites, and wrestling heels are at their best when what they speak towards are issues that are real to them. But the difference between, say, a Cactus Jack promo where he’s upset that some chud came to an ECW Arena with a sign asking that violence be visited upon his son and a Faarooq promo where he speaks to the systemic injustice faced by Black people is that Cactus Jack can go home without worrying that his son will be actually harmed, and the injustices brought to the table by Faarooq are so long and extensive that there are decades of movements, literature, courses of academic study, and so on saying the same thing, only it’s packaged here as something that’s safe for white people to boo.
The WWE has a history of belittling organized revolution, though its target is normally the labor movement. The Nation of Domination was a great group in a very strange way, where it’s 1997 and there’s action figures of guys who look vaguely like Black Panthers on the shelves at Toys “R” Us, where the WWF’s roster of five or six Black men at the end of 1996 swelled somewhat to accommodate the Nation’s shift from “multicultural” to Black. But they were heels stuck in feuds with other heels—the plodding, notoriously awful Gang Warz angle pitting them against the Boricuas and the Neo Nazi looking Disciples of the Apocalypse—or they were heels stuck in feuds with racist faces like D-Generation X, who did things like cut long, mocking promos where they imitated the Nation while wearing blackface, or tag their locker room with racist graffiti to try to start a fight between them and the Hart Foundation. Every single week the Nation of Domination came out, said “By any means necessary, power to the Nation,” stretched the fist of Black power towards the lights, and got their legs cut out from under them. And unless you count The Rock’s entrance, where he climbed to the second turnbuckle and slowly stretched his fist out over the crowd, that’s the only context in which symbols of Black power and revolution appeared in WWE programming until Friday night.
This is the XFL.
It’s not just that Big E and Kofi Kingston reclaimed a symbol their employer once used to garner heel heat to a degree that members of the Nation tell stories about fans waiting outside of venues like Madison Square garden to pound on their departing vehicles. 1997 is not so long ago, but the speed with which culture has progressed (and receded) since then makes it seem like the Attitude Era is as far back in wrestling history as the original Four Horsemen. While it’s true that most (if not every) race-based stables—think Latino World Order or Latin American Exchange—have been modeled after the Nation of Domination in that they were heels on the basis of speaking towards the very real discrimination they faced, WWE stables since then, until you get to your Wyatts and SHIELDs and New Days, have largely fallen into two categories: groups of upstarts pissed off about the lack of opportunity afforded to them, or groups of people in power trying to keep those upstarts at bay.
But the lack of visible diminishment of Black power doesn’t mean that it stopped being part of World Wrestling Entertainment’s culture. In 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem as a protest against racial injustice and police brutality. Kaepernick was not the starting quarterback at the beginning of the season, and the 49ers were a floundering team, but for anybody in the National Football League, the most popular sporting organization in the United States, to make a protest of that nature on such a large stage made him (and the players who took a knee with him) the focus of the season. Coverage of Kaepernick in sports media was what you’d expect—white people still, as rumors swirl that he may make a return to the NFL after being unofficially blackballed by the league after a season where he performed well enough statistically that he otherwise would have had no problem signing to a team, talk about how his protest was a “distraction,” how it disrespected the flag, and how there are better ways to lodge one’s dissent than by doing it on the clock.
One of the leaders of this racist circus was WWE Hall of Famer and President of the United States Donald Trump, who used the pulpit of his Twitter account to say that NFL players who participated in the protest ought to be fired. In one of the more infamous public displays of petty bigotry during the early days of the Trump presidency, Vice President Mike Pence went to a game between the Indianapolis Colts and the San Francisco 49ers, stayed long enough to see Kaepernick kneel, and left in mock disgust, which, according to most reports, cost $325,000 and was in all likelihood premeditated.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 8, 2017
In this atmosphere, ESPN released a 30 for 30 documentary about the XFL, Vince McMahon’s failed football league from the early 2000s, one of several disastrous ventures the WWE chased after, flush with Attitude Era cash and suddenly absent any competition. In the documentary, McMahon considered whether or not he’d try to relaunch the league if given the opportunity. The internet did its job and made fun of the idea, McMahon sniffed around copyrights for a few months, then liquidated some WWE stock, started a new company called Alpha Entertainment (to distance the potential venture from WWE). and announced the revival of the XFL on January 25, 2018.
Two things about the XFL relaunch made it sound like a football league created by racists who call into sports talk radio shows. The first was that McMahon wanted to disqualify anybody with a criminal record from playing in his league. In 2018, XFL Commissioner Oliver Luck spoke to the impracticality of the idea without outright disagreeing with McMahon, saying that both of them wanted men of “good character” but that they would “have to develop … more specific policies about what would disqualify a guy.” The criminal record idea didn’t stick, as the league looked the other way to allow its teams to pursue Johnny Manziel, a middling quarterback with a domestic violence charge on his ledger. While he never signed, the potential for him doing so was such that Luck made a public statement about him. But “disqualifying” people from work on the basis of their criminal record is a practice steeped in racism, and its eventual “no felons” stance, which opened the door for a man who abused his girlfriend but closed the door to anybody with a felony for possession of marijuana, which Black men, including athletes, are disproportionately charged with in comparison to white men.
When it came to Kaepernick? According to Luck the conversation never went so far as discussing the anthem, as his salary demand was $20 million dollars, way beyond the $4 million salary cap each team had, let alone the $495,000 maximum allocated to the starting quarterback. If that’s true (and I can’t find anything where Kaepernick speaks to the meeting), signing him would have broken the XFL before it even began. While the momentousness of Kaepernick stepping onto a field for the first time in years would have been an indelible image in American sports, something the McMahons could brag about from now until the end of time, ultimately what mattered more to the fledgling league was its ability to control player salary without the threat of players using any deal given to Kaepernick as leverage to renegotiate their own deals.
But also, that second thing, arguably the most notable thing about the XFL relaunch, is that it not only refused to allow its players to kneel in protest, it publicly advertised that its players would do no such thing. Thinking about Donald Trump’s endless tweets about the protest, about how soft the league, its commissioner, and its owners were, you can argue that the XFL’s new identity was significantly influenced by, if not a full-throated response to, Kaepernick’s protest. Given that one of the first sentences Vince McMahon uttered of his reborn league was that it was “going to give football back to the fans,” calling these two pieces of administrative business “dogwhistles” is pretty kind. In the same 2018 podcast where Luck spoke about players with criminal records, he postulated on how that could be accomplished, stating “we could say to a player, ‘Hey there is a clause in the contract that says I hereby agree to stand for the National Anthem.’ Period. End of story.” In February 2020, on the eve of kickoff, Luck went on a Bloomberg Sports podcast that players would “stand and respect the flag,” and, if not, there would be “consequences.”
Between pandemic and protest, 2020 has been an absurdly long year, but in February of this year, the man chosen to run Vince McMahon’s football league said, loud and proud, that no player in Vince McMahon’s football league would be permitted to protest. Colin Kaepernick hadn’t played a down of football since the end of the 2016 regular season. There were no protests in early 2020. But this was important enough four months ago that a lack of free expression on the part of men being paid peanuts to play one of the most dangerous sports in the world was touted as a feature of the league, which was just allowed onto TV and welcomed into cities without much comment about how unbelievably paternalistic and rooted in specifically anti-Black racism this was. Four months later, in Vince McMahon’s wrestling promotion, Big E and Kofi Kingston take a knee and raise a fist. I hope the significance of this moment is becoming clear.
It’s a New Day.
The first time I saw Xavier Woods was when a bunch of “promo evaluation” tapes from WWE Developmental leaked on YouTube. If you saw this year’s documentary about FCW, you know how these work—a wrestler steps up before their peers and Dusty Rhodes, maybe the greatest promo in the history of the business—and speak. Those tapes are long gone, so I forget what they said, but he was an arresting, comfortable presence at the microphone, who soon had one of the early cult successes of the relaunched, development-minded NXT with his “The roof is not my son but I will raise it” promo. His debut on the main roster, as R-Truth’s tag team partner, didn’t go anywhere and ended quietly. Elsewhere on the roster, Kofi Kingston and Big E were already a tag team, but they were in the middle of a losing streak and in need of a change. After losing to the ad hoc team of Curtis Axel and Ryback, Xavier Woods went to the ring in a blistering white and red outfit, mic in hand, and spoke.
It’s a great promo—Xavier Woods is a great promo—conveying the frustration of not moving ahead despite doing what’s asked, the urgency of taking opportunities as opposed to waiting for them to be given. Everybody, at least everybody I spoke about wrestling with at the time, thought that this was the second coming of the Nation of Domination. This being 2014, yet another year where wrestling was utterly devoid of interesting storylines, the prospect was tantalizing. This promo happened on July 21, Big E and Kofi had a few tag matches with Woods as their manager, but by August 8, the act was quietly shelved. Then, on November 3, this video aired:
Vignettes for Kingston and Big E followed. They were well produced, but the mashup of gospel music, James Brown stage antics, motivational speeches, and the the way all three men spoke like preachers was eaten alive by an audience that had been trained, albeit briefly, to dislike this group because they were trying to find inspiration and power in their Blackness despite a system that didn’t want that. Their re-debut as a unit, as a trio of positive Black men whose means of introduction was through images inherent to Black culture, was an uncharacteristic risk on the part of WWE creative, and it bombed. The “New Day rocks” chant started out as a simple sympathy spot, one of the three clapping on the apron, but fans began chanting “New Day sucks” in unison with it, a wholesale rejection of their persona not entirely dissimilar to how WWE fans treated a young Rocky Maivia. And then, like Rocky Maivia, they turned heel.
This saved the New Day, but in a way that’s more than a little sad. Thinking about the Rock, one of the things that WWE pounds into the ground when discussing his early career is that fans rejected him because it was the mid-1990s and people couldn’t get behind a babyface who smiled and laughed in the ring. Yeah, things in 1996 were very, very different than they were in 1987 or whatever year smiling and laughing was enough to get someone over as a babyface, but I can’t think of many Black men in WWE whose in-ring career involved that much smiling and laughing, except maybe Junkyard Dog and Koko B. Ware, neither of whom were defined by their smiling and laughing. It’s not that smiling and laughing is the issue—”enthusiastic kid happy to get a shot” isn’t a bad character, nor is “group of men who believe in positivity.” The failure is a creative one by its very nature, not just in failing to give someone something to do, as creative did for the New Day initially, but in failing to create a template by which a Black wrestler could succeed as a babyface beyond being a good hand. Why did the WWE’s creative team fail to figure out what the New Day was until they were forced to turn them heel? Here’s a screenshot of the room from a 2019 recruitment video:
Yes, everything on WWE television passes at least one of the McMahons before it airs, but the genesis of those ideas is a mostly-white, mostly-male room. It’s not a coincidence that a room that has turned out multiple xenophobic anti-Immigration angles struggles with the notion of a marginalized babyface, but it’s something the company is almost comically incapable of addressing—the pressure of writing so much television for bosses as prone to micromanagement, insult, and overwork as the McMahons causes an astronomical turnover rate, and, furthering the issue, when WWE makes cuts to the room, the people shown the door, as what happened when the company made its “cost saving” cuts after WrestleMania, are often women or marginalized writers.
It is frankly a miracle that, despite these obstacles and the huge setback that was their debut, the New Day not only survived, but eventually thrived. The three, together or separately, are some of the biggest personalities in wrestling today, and once that became a feature of the act, they took off and became babyfaces again in February 2016. They have been babyfaces ever since, and it does not seem feasible that the group will turn or break up anytime soon. Their merchandise sells too well. The three have unbelievably good chemistry. They are critically acclaimed, nigh universally beloved, and undeniably important to the fabric of wrestling as it is today, and to the history of wrestling for all time.
Their signature moment, or one of them at least, is Kofi Kingston’s win over Daniel Bryan at WrestleMania 35, the culmination of an 11-year journey that began with a man from Ghana being given a Jamaican gimmick. Kingston’s WWE career was one where he was either a player for the Intercontinental Championship, the Tag Team Championship, or was being told he wasn’t good enough to play in the main event. Had his career ended before WrestleMania 35, his highlight reel would be full of spots where he narrowly avoids elimination from the Royal Rumble—going to ridiculous lengths for a shot at the WWE Championship—only to be eliminated eventually anyway. It’s a great story the way any story about a marginalized person rising above the culture of their employer is—one cries because it is possible, and one cries because it was necessary to break that ground in the first place.
KofiMania was unlike anything I’ve ever seen in professional wrestling, a real, tangible celebration of Black excellence and joy in the middle of a WWE ring. Before him, the only Black man who won the WWE Championship as a babyface was the Rock, who was not a babyface in the classical sense of the term. Before that it was Ron Simmons. Before that is a vast and embarrassing stretch of time dating back to day one of professional wrestling as we know it, two unrecognized title reigns and decades where the best any Black man could do was win the belt that meant he was the second best.
All of this was before the New Day’s Feel the Power podcast released an episode where the trio spoke about racial injustice and the indiscriminate murder of Black people with Andreas Hale, before Friday night, when Kofi and Big E took a knee and raised a fist in a ring owned by a man with a history of belittling and suppressing symbols of Black pride, Black power, and Black resistance. The podcast is on WWE’s YouTube channel. Their raised fists are on the WWE on Fox recap. These moments have been acknowledged, entered into the record, and cannot be taken away. There is a long way to go—WWE’s YouTube channel begins it’s description “In the wake of senseless violence,” which sidesteps the issue at hand—but in the past week I have seen wrestling—wrestling—not only make space for its performers to speak about race and empathy, but make a space, however small, for Black grief. It’s horrifying, how the medium has come to this point, how something that seemed impossible four days ago is now seared into my brain forever. The question now is what we do now that we’re here. I have no answers or suggestions. I just want us—people in and around professional wrestling—to recognize this for what it is, and to realize that we’re witnessing something important.