His dreadlocks tied back in a bun and his face scrunched, Kofi Kingston glared at WWE CEO Vince McMahon and delivered a scripted line that alluded to his company’s very real and tortured racial history: “I’ve never complained about the fact that you have never allowed someone like me to compete or contend for the WWE title.”
He didn’t mention race, but observers read between the lines. Kingston, a veteran of the fan-favorite trio of black WWE performers known as the New Day, was referencing a glass ceiling crashed into by generations of performers of color who preceded him. The reference worked as part of a story line, building toward Kingston’s WrestleMania 35 match against WWE champion Daniel Bryan on Sunday at MetLife Stadium. It was also grounded in reality.
“Kofi meant what he said about people not getting opportunities,” said Fred Rosser, who wrestled for the WWE as Darren Young from 2009 to 2017. “It’s staring you right in the face.”
“There’s not a doubt in my mind that’s what this entire story line has been about,” said the Ringer’s David Shoemaker, host of “The Masked Man Show” podcast and author of “The Squared Circle.”
Professional wrestling is a scripted sport, meaning performers who achieve the highest billing are chosen by McMahon and his team of writers. There are no batting averages or shooting percentages, no analytic-based meritocracy. Normally, the performers who rise to the top possess some combination of stage presence, charisma and athleticism.
But Kingston’s line on the March 12 edition of “Smackdown Live” drew attention to an important fact: Only one black man, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, has held the WWE championship in its 56-year lineage. Two black wrestlers, Mark Henry and Booker T, held the world heavyweight championship before it was retired in 2013.
The broader story has focused on Kingston’s lack of opportunities in his 11 years of employment and on McMahon’s labeling of him as a “B+ player.” But to some former WWE performers, professional wrestling journalists and fans, the narrative’s nuances are also a nod to the company’s racial skeletons. And Kingston’s rise, in that telling, represents WWE reckoning with its past — and might even point to a more diverse future.
“The company has the ability to put a black man in the driver’s seat and let him be the face of the company,” said Elijah Burke, a WWE performer from 2004 to 2008. “I want to see someone who looks like me be the face of the company. That signifies change, not putting the belt on someone and taking it right off him.”
WWE is a publicly traded company with global reach. For years, though, its platforms portrayed many performers of color through a stereotypical lens.
Cryme Tyme, a pair of “street thugs,” were television mainstays in the late 2000s, replete with gold chains, du-rags and references to theft. In 1998, white wrestlers D-Generation X infamously wore blackface to mimic the Nation of Domination, a group of black nationalists led by the Rock. And in 2003, world heavyweight champion Triple H implored his WrestleMania 19 opponent, Booker T, to “dance for me” and ridiculed his “nappy hair.”
Greg Hyde, co-host of ESPN’s “Cheap Heat” podcast, said he was uncomfortable with that verbiage but expected the story to end with Booker T taking the championship. Instead, it ended with Booker T on his back, staring at the ceiling, as Triple H crawled on top of him.
“Yes, it’s art and it’s scripted and it’s not to be taken too personally, but it’s hard not to, because like all art, it reflects society,” said Hyde, who is black. “It reinforced ideas about black people in society.”
Jay Lethal, who wrestles for Ring of Honor, a smaller domestic wrestling company, said he has never been asked to act out a stereotype.
“I can vividly remember Koko B. Ware,” Lethal said, referring to a popular black star from the 1980s. “I have this image of him always dancing,” added Lethal, the first black man to hold the ROH world championship. (He will defend his title during ROH’s joint show with New Japan Pro Wrestling at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.)
“If I had to dance, I don’t know. Maybe I would have,” Lethal said. “I fell in love with wrestling. It was all I could see. It was all I could think about it.”
Kingston, 37, who was born in Ghana and whose real name is Kofi Nahaje Sarkodie-Mensah, does plenty of dancing alongside his New Day partners, Big E and Xavier Woods. But the difference, Kingston said, is that New Day’s dancing is authentic and true to the men’s characters.
“You would see people of color on television in certain roles. We wanted to make sure we represented people of color who were just themselves, having fun,” Kingston said in a recent phone interview. “The message we want to put out there is it’s okay to be yourself. There’s no definition of what black is supposed to be or what white is supposed to be.”
New Day is regularly among the company’s leading merchandise sellers, but the group’s success has prompted questions. Teams that have achieved similar levels of success are often split up, with wrestlers given a chance to shine as singles competitors. That hadn’t happened for New Day before Kingston’s recent rise, which started only after he replaced an injured Mustafa Ali in a WWE championship match in February.
In the current story line, McMahon — who uttered the n-word in a 2005 WWE segment intended to be comical — yanked away Kingston’s championship opportunity, then mandated he beat several more wrestlers to affirm his worthiness.
“People like us will only get so far,” Big E said in a video posted last month to his Twitter account. “People like us, historically, and moving forward, clearly, can only get so far.”
WWE writing staff probably helped craft the video, which was not shown on television. But the sentiment at least seemed to flirt with authenticity, considering the personal convictions of the New Day wrestlers.
Last July, Hulk Hogan, the 1980s wrestling megastar, was reinstated to the WWE Hall of Fame after a three-year ban stemming from the release of an audio clip of him making racist statements.
Hogan’s return prompted renewed conversations about the industry’s racial baggage. New Day released a joint statement, with the wrestlers saying they would refrain from associating with Hogan until they saw a “genuine effort to change.” Kingston said in a late-March interview that the group’s position had not wavered.
Hogan has appeared on WWE programming twice since being reinstated, most recently on the Jan. 7 episode of “Raw” to pay tribute to the late announcer “Mean” Gene Okerlund. It wasn’t long after that Kingston’s rise began. Soon chants of “Kofi! Kofi! Kofi!” bombarded WWE programming weekly.
“Kids who look like me can look at the screen and look at a WWE show and see that things are possible because I’m doing it,” Kingston said. “The story line we’re doing now is very powerful for a number of different levels. There’s a lot of reasons why people feel the way they do. We can speculate on the whys and everything, and we’ll never get an answer. I think the most important thing is it’s happening now and we’re in the midst of something that’s groundbreaking and historic and something a lot of people want.”
Still, some remain skeptical.
“Vince is always going to go to what makes him money,” Burke said. “Can Kofi be that money for him?”
That question might be answered on Sunday. Kingston will walk through the curtain in front of a packed stadium, a little more than 16 years after Booker T’s infamous loss to Triple H. Millions of fans around the world will hang on his every move, hoping for a new day.
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