It’s a New Day at the WWE
The WWE’s hottest act is black, and not afraid to say it — and wrestling’s racial history is terrible, and complex, and black fans love it
Big E, The New Day’s rambunctious and rotund heavyweight, is howling at tens of thousands of wrestling fans at CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Nebraska. This is the May 9, 2016, edition of Monday Night Raw.
“Don’t you dare be sour. Clap … ! For your world-famous, two-time champs, and feeeeel the powerrrrrr.”
The crowd mimics every word of Big E’s preamble. Then New Day’s gospel-choir entrance music hits. It feels like a mixture of Kirk Franklin and Mary Mary. The three men who make up one of WWE’s most popular acts — there’s uber-athletic and one-time Jamaican Kofi Kingston, the video game-loving mouthpiece and legitimate doctoral candidate Xavier Woods, and the aforementioned Big E, the hoss of the group — incessantly skip, prance, gyrate and, yes, twerk their way down the ramp to the ring.
The New Day is the current — and longest-reigning — WWE tag team champion. They’re in Omaha to build hype for their upcoming title defense against one of WWE’s newest attractions, The Vaudevillians. The Vaudevillians — Aiden English and Simon Gotch — are pair of grapplers recently called up from the WWE’s developmental system, NXT, who are influenced by 19th-century fashion and decorum. The Vaudevillians come complete with handlebar mustaches and 11th-grade-theater-class attire. “[We] represent the skills and values of a bygone era,” the duo states on the regular. This “bygone era,” based on their costuming and vernacular, appears to refer to the carnival culture of post-Civil War America.
Let’s get this out the way: Professional wrestling is fake. The matches are predetermined and finalized by suit-wearers backstage — not the larger-than-life men and women in the ring. Competitors who “fight” on stage/in the ring can easily be best of friends behind the scenes. When a wrestler talks to the crowd from the ring (the “promo”), he or she doesn’t necessarily mean the words coming from his or her mouth — most likely a team of writers provided the script. But while some punches might be pulled, and the kicks are audibly enhanced, these professionals take the same athletic risks as those in the NBA, MLB and NFL, the only difference being that wrestlers’ risks are coordinated. All that being said, Big E, Woods and Kingston, each black, have a bit of an issue with The Vaudevillians “nostalgic” view of history.
Big E is now pantomiming swimming across the ring’s surface. Kingston continues a hop-skip-clap combination. Woods has his renowned trombone. And Francesca II (RIP, Francesca I) is in tow. The crowd chants, nonstop, “New … Day rocks! New … Day rocks!”
And then: “[The Vaudevillains] are from … an era that frankly was not too kind to people like us,” Big E declared moments after Kingston can be seen twirling unicorn-horn-adorned headbands like nunchakus. “You know …” he continued.
This was it. This was the moment many black wrestling fans — and many blacks in general — have been waiting a long time for. Three black men were about to explain to more than 3 million people, most of whom are white, what it’s like to be a black person in America. New Day was about to explain how centuries of racism still have lingering effects in a nation that claims to be postracial. Specifically, New Day was about to run down the very institution that has them on television — an institution whose owner once blurted the N-word on live TV. This was really about to happen.
Until Big E finished his sentence.
“… smartphone users.”
“Exactly,” Woods adds. “If I didn’t have my GPS, I wouldn’t know how to get anywhere.”
Ah. Not this time.
It’s an obnoxiously humid afternoon in downtown Washington, D.C. But despite the 100-degree weather, at least 40 people are parked outside the Verizon Center, though the Washington Wizards and Washington Capitals haven’t played here in over three months. These sweaty fans — a bunch of them in powder-blue New Day shirts — are waiting for the traveling circus known as World Wrestling Entertainment and its July special event, Battleground. In a room the size of a broom closet, somewhere in the back halls of the arena, all three members of New Day are assembled.
Over the past year, the team went from one of the most stereotypical and racist acts in the most successful pro wrestling company in the world to its most prized commodity. If the Junkyard Dog, the first popular black wrestler, was our Sidney Poitier, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was our Denzel Washington, then New Day is our Three 6 Mafia, the ones who weren’t supposed to be here but made it here nonetheless. New Day — via hard work, an us-against-them, chip-on-the-shoulder attitude, a splash of comedy, and the “power of positivity” — are now the most made-for-TV act in WWE since the days of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and The Rock. The New Day outsold John Cena, The Rock, and Brock Lesnar in merchandise sales at this past year’s WrestleMania, WWE’s Super Bowl.
They did all this while being unapologetically black. Here’s just a taste of what The New Day have been up to over the last year:
- They screamed “What are those?” at their opponents.
- Woods has played “Taps,” the Final Fantasy victory theme song, and, while in Brooklyn, New York, Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York on his trombone.
- They sang their own rendition of Jay Z’s Empire State of Mind
- Woods has relaxed, conked, Rufio’d and Dragon Ball Z’d his hair.
- Kingston once wore Golden State Warrior Stephen Curry’s “old people shoes.”
- They remixed 2 Live Crew’s We Want Some P—- into “We Want Some New Day.”
- They popped out of a giant box of Booty O’s cereal at WrestleMania 32 at Jerry World while dressed like Dragon Ball Z characters.
The three of them are best friends. They travel, lodge, and watch Worldstarhiphop and Hoodclips together. They’re so close that they believe they each have the right to defend an individual title in the event one of them wins one in the future. “If one of us … was to become United States champion, Intercontinental champion, WWE World Heavyweight champion,” Kingston explained, “all of us are United States champion, Intercontinental champion, WWE World Heavyweight champion.” This also applies to nonwrestling life events as well. “Kofi just had a child, I feel like we all had a child,” said Big E.
“They have been able to showcase blackness on TV in a way — in wrestling — that we haven’t really seen,” said writer David Dennis Jr., who contributes to The Undefeated, and to the Uproxx wrestling blog, With Spandex. “When I look at them, I don’t feel like they’re being forced to show a 60-year-old white guy’s version of blackness. They’re being themselves on TV.”
Greg Hyde, half of ESPN’s Cheap Heat podcast, respects the fact that three intelligent black men are on television screens having fun and enjoying themselves. “What I like about them is the fact that you have three college-educated black males, and WWE doesn’t shy away from that … They’re not just jocks.”
Each member of New Day holds a degree from an accredited institution. Kingston, from Ghana (and the WWE’s first African wrestler), and Big E earned undergraduate degrees from Boston College and the University of Iowa, respectively. Woods holds multiple degrees from Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. As his Twitter handle implies, Woods has been working on a doctorate in educational psychology since joining the WWE, and his goal has been to be the first sports entertainer with a doctorate. A recent class-action lawsuit against for-profit institution Walden University forced Woods to transfer, though. He lost 100 credits in the process, and he’s since put his academic pursuits on hold. “It’s a very painful decision, because it’s what I’ve been gearing towards since I was a child,” he said. “Hopefully in the next few years I’ll get it.”
Like the rest of the roster, New Day is on the road 52 weeks a year, performing in more than 270 shows in just the United States alone. While that much time on the job could lead to an insulation from the real world, these three are aware of issues in the black community. “We don’t try to fit into any type of box, or stereotype,” said Big E.
“It’s hard for African-Americans to start with a blank slate,” added Woods, “because we’re either seen as hoodlums, or thugs, or hip-hop gangsters. So, it’s nice that in this era we are able to just start from scratch and be ourselves.”
After the July deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police officers, Woods tweeted out a video of poet Javon Johnson explaining the plight of little black boys in America. A year ago, after wrestling legend Hulk Hogan’s racist tirade was leaked online, Big E tweeted “Appropriate a culture, pilfer from its dialect, profit wildly from it, and regard its people as subhuman. Makes sense … ”
The Black Lives Matter movement has intersected with professional sports in recent weeks (the NBA, WNBA, NFL), and New Day is willing to have that conversation as well. “You definitely don’t want to feel like because your skin is dark or because you’re an African-American that you’re going to be brutalized by people who are put in a position to protect and serve,” said Big E.
And Woods added, “With everything happening in the country … from all aspects, we all have to be better. Because … whether you’re part of the police or you’re African-American, or have brown skin … there are good people on both sides, and there are bad people on both sides.”
Woods, Kingston and Big E are just three of 13 black superstars on the WWE main roster, three of whom are black women. Of this baker’s dozen, there’s a wide variety of real-life storylines: the first openly gay wrestler in the company, Snoop Dogg’s cousin, and the world’s strongest man. There’s also Titus O’Neil, who was rising in the company until he grabbed WWE chairman Vince McMahon during a live broadcast this past spring and was suspended for 60 days. There’s also WWE Women’s Champion Sasha Banks, who could be the company’s next Rock.
“We do not ask any longer,” said Woods to a crowd in July 2014. He’s clad in a white suit, and the kind of brow line glasses made fashionable by Malcolm X. “Now, we take.”
Kingston and Big E had been on a losing streak for weeks, and Woods, fresh from the equivalent of WWE purgatory, was there to set the wrestling world straight: They were about to take over. Months earlier, Big E tweeted out a quickly deleted photo of the WWE creation Nation of Domination, a 1990s stable of faux black nationalists who used to stand at the edge of the ring and raise their fists in unison in the form of the Black Panthers. After Big E’s tweet, and along with Woods’ new persona (he spent the previous year as a jolly, dancing sidekick), fans assumed the WWE was bringing back the Nation, this time in the form of Woods, Kingston and Big E.
“You [could] see from the body language that ‘We’re going to be serious black guys,’ ” said LaToya Ferguson of The A.V Club, “who in theory are correct about what they’re arguing, but because of WWE knowledge, you know they’re going to be heels, they’re going to be portrayed as angry black men.”
And then, out of nowhere, the trio who at this point had been together for just a few weeks, disappeared for four months. Why? McMahon was cooking up an idea. The three men of New Day had brainstormed a collection of ideas, including being the “smart, athletic friends” that they were, but McMahon proposed they be … black preachers.
Yup. “All three of us were just like ‘Oh, my God,’ ” Kingston told the Talk Is Jericho podcast in 2015.
By November 2014, vignettes started to air on Raw and Smackdown, advertising the coming debut of WWE’s newest stable. The promos were … bad. Backed by an all-black choir straight out of The Fighting Temptations, the three men, each in his own vignette, sang, danced and preached about a new day coming to the WWE. Was there a call-and-response with the choir? Yes. Was there a James Brown cape routine? You betcha.
Not surprisingly, fans revolted. Crowds across the country booed New Day, who were supposed to be the good guys. Or worse, crowds didn’t make any noise at all. In wrestling, fans prefer the antihero to the grinning good guy, the grinch to Santa Claus. It also didn’t help that three black men were singing and dancing nonstop.
“When they debuted,” said David Shoemaker, author of 2013’s The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling, “I was holding out hope, but as the weeks went on it became clear that there wasn’t a second gear … They were just going to be three guys that were thrown together that had some sort of vague black church gimmick and that they were just upbeat, fan-friendly wrestlers.”
For about half a year, New Day got purposely booed. While cheering on his partners from outside of the ring, Woods started a clap to help engage fans, to the beat of pat … patpat, pat … patpat. Those in the crowd were supposed to clap along, but instead took the beat and added New … Day sucks, New … Day sucks to the cadence. On top of that, the team wasn’t winning all that much. A change didn’t come until five months after New Day premiered.
Kofi Sarkodie-Mensah, 35, was born in Kumasi, Ghana. From the age of 1, he was raised in Boston. While in high school, he joined the wrestling team under the impression that it was “fake” wrestling, eventually becoming a state runner-up at the Massachusetts state wrestling championships. The son of intellectuals — his father is a professor at Boston College and his mother was president of the Ghana Association of Greater Boston — Kingston graduated from Boston College with a degree in communications. He took an office job at an advertising company and quickly learned the corporate world was not for him. While working nine hours a day, he trained at a gym more than 60 minutes away from home, sometimes not making it back to his bed until the wee hours. He wrestled for various New England companies for about a year before getting his big break with WWE’s developmental system in 2006.
In the wrestling business, it’s about being memorable, to the fans and to the backstage executives. So Kingston, who’d never even been to Jamaica, adopted the persona of a Jamaican, complete with a thunderclap, a finishing move called “trouble in paradise” and an accent worthy of a cameo in those annoying Red Stripe beer commercials. Inspired by reggae artist Damian Marley’s seminal 2005 Welcome to Jamrock, Kingston created a character that was staunchly different from anyone else at the wrestling school. After two years in WWE’s minor league, Kingston debuted on television on Jan. 22, 2008.
Ettore Ewen, 30, was born in Tampa, Florida. As a standout high school wrestler (2003 state champion), football player (2004 Hillsborough County High School “Iron Man of the Year”), and student (He held a 5.0 GPA while attending Tampa Preparatory School) he earned a football scholarship to University of Iowa. Multiple major injuries led to him play just one season with the Hawkeyes, where he totaled just 14 tackles before focusing solely on school. Big E, a self-described introvert, signed with NXT, known then as Florida Championship Wrestling, in 2009 while also taking up powerlifting. Before becoming the second NXT champion in 2013, Big E broke four national powerlifting records.
The son of an actual Jamaican immigrant, Big E debuted on television on Dec. 16, 2012, giving face-who-runs-the-place John Cena a good walloping on his first night. Soon after, he was a main staple on the main roster, eventually winning the Intercontinental Championship, the company’s second-tier title.
Austin Watson, 29, was born in Columbus, Georgia. He grew up wanting to be a professional grappler, and like Big E, Woods wrestled in high school, fashionably so. In order to fund his pro wrestling education while in college, he worked at a day care center near his campus in South Carolina. At wrestling school in the mid-2000s, he came across red, white and blue ring gear, similar to that of Rocky character Apollo Creed. He dubbed himself Consequences Creed (no relation to Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis or Carl Weathers’ Apollo) and turned professional in 2005.
Winners and losers are decided before Raw goes live every Monday. Feuds are planned out as early as a year in advance. Champions are penciled in well in advance —well, almost always. Unlike in real professional sports, where, more or less, the best individuals and teams win the prized championship. The Cleveland Cavaliers, Denver Broncos, Kansas City Royals and Minnesota Lynx won titles this past year because they were the superior teams, not because the Roger Goodells or Adam Silvers of their respective leagues decided 12 months before for it to be so.
For those who are in on the joke, we’re willing to tolerate some outcomes for the greater good of our imagination. Our person may not win today, but we know they might win later. And we don’t have to wait until next season like fans of football or baseball.
But this becomes problematic for the black fan. We know it’s scripted and fake — but even in this fantasy world the black man can’t come out on top. As The Atlantic pointed out two years ago, in WWE’s 64 years of existence there’s only been one black man (half-black Canadian and half-Samoan) who has held the company’s most prized title belt: the WWE World Championship. That person, of course, was box office superstar The Rock, who first won the title in 1998. Since then, multiple wrestlers have challenged for the WWE championship (though, not since 2013), but as we know, the wrestlers don’t decide the outcome with their abilities. The fact of no more black champions means decisions have been made outside the ring.
Considering the history of race in professional wrestling is like pork hot dogs. You know what it consists of, but you avoid thinking about it too much in order to enjoy the final product.
White professional wrestling was introduced to the United States in the late 1800s. Blacks began to integrate the sport about a century later. There were separate world heavyweight championships for Negroes. Houston Harris, known as Bobo Brazil, was, according to author David Shoemaker, the first “unofficial” African-American world champion in America (his title was never formally recognized by the National Wrestling Alliance). This led to black stars such as Edward “Bearcat” Wright (who was briefly suspended from wrestling in Indiana for challenging segregated matches), Reggie “Sweet Daddy” Siki, “Sailor” Art Thomas, Ernie Ladd, and Rocky Johnson, the father of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
In those days, blacks were only allowed to fight one another, as mixed-raced bouts could lead to near riots from the predominantly white crowds. But once white promoters recognized the economics of catering to a growing ethnic minority audience, things changed. But black bad guys could also lead to fan revolt, so promoters created storylines centered on overt racism from the white performers that was meant to drum up sympathy for their black counterparts. WWE rehashed this technique in 2003, with white superstar champion Triple H telling black underdog Booker T that champions don’t look like him.
Half a century of progress in the squared circle paved the way for Aug. 2, 1992, which saw former All-American football player Ron Simmons defeat super heavyweight Vader for the World Championship Wrestling (WCW) world title (WCW was WWE’s largest competitor for nearly two decades, until WWE purchased the company in 2001). It was the first recognized world championship win for an African-American. Simmons won in an era that was, yes, more accepting of African-Americans in the business, but, like in the rest of the country, not willing to view blacks as actual equals. Former WWE commentator and Minnesota governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura was a notorious offender on-screen, referring to Junkyard Dog as having a “mouth full of grits” and described his wrestling style as “shuckin’ and jivin’.” He called another black wrestler “Buckwheat.”
There is of course, more. WWE Hall of Famer “Rowdy” Roddy Piper once applied black paint to one side of his face, and this wasn’t the first or last time blackface would be an issue in the WWE. Popular southern group The Fabulous Freebirds painted their faces with the Confederate flag, while androgynous grappler Goldust painted his face black and donned an afro while feuding with zoot-suit-wearing funkadelic Flash Funk. Rebellious and juvenile stable D-Generation X applied blackface and skin-darkening cream to impersonate the Nation of Domination. This moment came complete with a Fat Albert impersonation of former powerlifter Mark Henry.
Henry, a former three-time U.S. National Weightlifting champion, dealt with racism more than any wrestler in recent memory. Aside from being in the Nation of Domination in the 1990s, the 45-year-old was also a member of forgotten stable Thuggin’ and Buggin’ Enterprises, a collection of black, Samoan and white wrestlers led by slick-talking manager Teddy Long, best known for yelling “holla!” and “playa!” during his time with WWE. He was called the N-word in 2008 by backstage producer Michael “P.S.” Hayes, a member of the aforementioned Freebirds, and was referred to as the “Silverback,” as in a silverback gorilla, by the WWE in 2007.
“Mark f—— hated that,” said former WWE writer and producer Alex Greenfield. “For a lot of reasons, some personal … and some just racial stereotyping inherent in calling a f—— black man a gorilla.” Henry said he ultimately forgave Hayes for the N-word incident, and allowed the producer to stay with the company after given the option by McMahon. But, said Henry, “You walk up to any wrestler, white, black, indifferent, and you [ask] them, ‘If you want Mark Henry to go completely off, what do you say?’ … And they would all say the same thing. You use the word, he’s gonna go off.”
Greenfield worked closely with Henry during his short tenure with WWE in the mid-2000s, elevating Henry and other people of color during his time producing Smackdown. There was just one black writer on staff during Greenfield’s early days at WWE. When ESPN’s E:60 went behind the scenes with WWE last year, it showed just two black men in a room of 20 or more when backstage executives were discussing the future of talent in development. Currently, WWE’s website lists zero African-Americans on its executive leadership team. African-Americans make up 23 percent of WWE’s audience. This figure trails only the NBA with regard to who watches major U.S. sports, according to Nielsen.
“I don’t want to be the white dude making the definition of what racism is and how it operates, but there is, at the very least, an ignorance about how the world has changed over the last 20 years,” said Greenfield. “When it’s always Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior in those top spots … those aren’t people that look like a pretty big segment of the wrestling audience.”
There’s been two stages to the career of Mike Jones. At one point, he was Virgil, the right-hand man to “Millionaire Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, a Donald-Trump-meets-Richie-Rich character from the late 1980s. Then, decades later, he became an internet meme. Virgil, 54, grew up in Pittsburgh, in a strict household helmed by a Navy father and no-nonsense teacher mother. There are conflicting reports as to where he went to college, some reports saying University of Iowa and others University of Virginia, but that’s typical of Virgil, whose side of the story is always someplace between truth and fiction.
Nonetheless, by the 1980s, Jones, using the moniker “Soul Train” Jones, was fine-tuning his character and skills in various wrestling promotions before the WWE came calling in 1987. At the time, Virgil was a chiseled athlete. Men of his size can be the “strongman,” “bodyguard” or “silent enforcer,” known for their strength and aggression. But as he came of age in the wrestling era of blacks as jive-talking mouthpieces, skull-carrying voodoo practitioners and two completely different Ugandan tribesmen, the WWE packaged Virgil as DiBiase’s personal chauffeur, money-handler and indentured servant. “My character was to play a slave. Let’s face it,” Virgil recently said through email. “It has stuck with me and people think of me as that slave character. I try to make the best of it, but I live the struggle.”
Through the years, Virgil took actual beatings for DiBiase regularly and was used as an enhancement talent (“jobber”) for other wrestlers in the company. When he switched over from WWE to WCW in 1996, he played a similar role of sidekick to the New World Order (nWo), a group made popular by Hulk Hogan. Virgil said he tries to keep up with today’s product as best he can, specifically New Day, whom he’s been in a bit of a war of the words with since last August.
After the trio captured the tag team titles for the second time at last year’s SummerSlam, Virgil sent out a congratulatory tweet, “Congrats to my son Xavier Woods for getting the win like his father ME at #summerslam tonight.”
But then Woods uncharacteristically retorted, “No, i’m not your son. When I was 17 you told me that I’d never make it because I’m black #GetOffMe #SubtweetinA–.”
When asked recently about the comments, Virgil didn’t let up. “He needs to ask himself where he would be if it wasn’t for guys like me. I also want to see if people will know his name in 30 years … that is the true test.”
Woods responded, visibly uncomfortable: “I can appreciate [Jones] for the things he’s done or the fact that he was an African-American in this industry, but as far as encouraging other young African-Americans to follow in those footsteps, and to make something for themselves, he was not encouraging and I cannot support or appreciate that.”
Page Magen, Jones manager, stated that his client’s battling the long-term effects of three decades worth of skull trauma. And Virgil added, via email, “Been taking bumps for 30 years. I can’t remember a lot of things and I know my memory is shot. … But I keep trucking along and making people happy!”
Shad Gaspard and Jayson Paul were both born in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1980s and grew up in families who regularly went to wrestling shows at Madison Square Garden, which wasn’t just the mecca for New York Knicks basketball. While Paul, 31, better known as JTG, knew he wanted to be a wrestler since he was a toddler, Gaspard, 35, didn’t seriously consider the profession until he was 16. By the early 2000s, both men found their way to WWE’s developmental territory, Ohio Valley Wrestling (OVW), in Louisville, Kentucky, where almost immediately they were paired together. A third man, “Abraham Washington,” was also originally partnered up with the pair, but washed out of WWE in 2012 for joking about rape.
With wrestling characters being an exaggeration of the men and women playing the parts, JTG and Gaspard wanted to create complex characters that connected with the fans … and made them money. So the Gang Stars was created by JTG, but then revered wrestling promoter Paul Heyman suggested Cryme Tyme as a more unit-friendly name.
Here’s where the duo had a decision to make. They could complain about the obviously racist overtones of a name like Cryme Tyme for two young 20somethings, or, as many black wrestlers have done throughout the history of the sport, swallow their pride and cash those checks. “I saw it as part of the business,” said JTG. “The fans loved it, Vince loved it, so we kept it.”
McMahon’s blessing, along with an opportunity to immediately be put on Raw, was all Gaspard needed to hear to be on board. I saw the ‘Yo, yo, homeboy’ thing you guys are doing in OVW. I loved it, Gaspard recalled the chairman telling him at the time. Gaspard also said McMahon had told him he’d be a future world champion in the company, so getting to the main roster was all Gaspard needed to hear. Cryme Tyme would go on to have one of the most notorious runs in company history.
“Yo, yo, yo, yo. Pop a 40 and check your Rolie, it’s Cryme Tyme,” the voice actor declares as the duo’s entrance music hits. JTG with a grill and Gaspard picking his afro are the first images of the entrance video, followed by “we’re bringing the ‘hood to you” lyrics — and video images of the pair assaulting and robbing random citizens, and a police officer. Before their debut on Raw, WWE released a statement warning fans that the new tag team “will parody racial stereotypes” and noted that “this attempt at Saturday Night Live-like humor is bound to entertain audiences of all ethnic derivations.”
Dressed like characters straight out of Def Jam Vendetta,—complete with white tank tops, baggy jeans and Timberlands, JTG said he modeled his look after rap legends LL Cool J (rolled-up pant leg), Nelly (platinum grill) and 50 Cent (tank top, bulletproof vest). But the attire, mixed with Cryme Tyme’s forced vernacular and exaggerated pimp walks, reeked of guys trying to be “down,” similar to Taye Diggs and Anthony Anderson’s characters in 2003’s Malibu’s Most Wanted. Despite only spending three years together, Cryme Tyme has been accused of setting black wrestlers back decades. The gimmick was offensive at best and intentionally racist at worst.
“Come on, it’s the opposite of racist,” Vince McMahon told his own WWE.com in 2006 in response to Cryme Tyme. “I don’t know how it could be racist, and I don’t know how our company could be racist. Cryme Tyme is a riot. It’s basically a takeoff on Kill Whitey. Is someone going to take exception? Sure. If I’m not pissing somebody off in the world, I’m not doing my job.”
JTG and Gaspard, who left WWE in 2014 and 2010, respectively, have no regrets. “In all seriousness, I’m a gangster,” said Shad, adding that Cryme Tyme was just “us being us.”
Gaspard did mention that early they were pitched a storyline that dealt with fried chicken that he fought back on. He also talked about the double standards when it came to him and JTG being compared to white wrestlers. “It always bothered me that when us being us playing practical jokes on people was considered ‘gangster,’ but when Shawn Michaels and Triple H did it, it was considered entertaining TV,” Gaspard said. JTG expressed displeasure with how other people of color (specifically Latino group the Mexicools, who rode to the ring on lawnmowers) were treated on-screen during his time with WWE but with the caveat that “It comes with being in the wrestling territory.”
As a black wrestling fan, it’s easy to pile on the WWE and its performers about the representation of blacks. Through the years, we’ve been conditioned to believe that black performers will either (A) sing, dance and be happy, (B) be angry, (C) reside in Uganda or (D) be The Rock. While New Day is essentially that first trope, they bring an authenticity to the role that black wrestlers before them weren’t able to pull off. They don’t dance because that’s what black people do, they dance because they’re enjoying themselves night in, night out. Just look at them.
Comedian Chris Rock’s 1996 Bring the Pain is best remembered for the “Black people vs. n—–” routine. This form of pathology was deemed hilarious at the time, though in recent years it’s been rightfully criticized for its offensiveness. For his part, Rock told CBS News in 2005 that he’d never do the routine again. When we criticize Cryme Tyme — or Shelton Benjamin and his “momma” or Papa Shango/Kama Mustafa/The Godfather or The Boogeyman — like it or not, we are playing into this societal game of rebuking forms of blackness we don’t agree with or that induce the white gaze.
It’s the same tango black people have to dance to with the latest Tyler Perry movie. Sure, his Madea character is full of the worst stereotypes, but a lot of black actors (Lance Gross, Kimberly Elise, China Anne McClain) got a Hollywood push because of Perry. Poppin’ 40s and checkin’ Rolies isn’t a form of entertainment I relate to, but as JTG and Gaspard proved, there are people out there who can. We aren’t a monolith, so how can we expect all black characters to represent just the “talented tenth” of us?
What New Day’s been able to do is make “black” whatever they want it to be. “We like what we like, and we love hip-hop music, but we’re also fairly nerdy as well,” said Big E. The trio has referenced Phife Dawg, Gucci Mane and “sliding in DMs” in their promos, while at the same time Woods hosts his own YouTube gaming show UpUpDownDown where he plays classic and current video games with other WWE superstars.
“It’s cool to be able to be on this platform and show young black kids that … ‘No, you’re going to be just fine. This is totally acceptable and totally OK,’ ” Woods said. Like The Rock before them — who loves country music and may or may not vote Republican — New Day isn’t boxed in by their blackness. They are who they are, and they hope those who watch — specifically little kids — are able to take that message and apply it to themselves. Black isn’t about adhering to a certain criteria. That’s what’s made them so endearing to fans despite the rocky start as “preachers.”
“Something about when they added Xavier, there’s something that changed,” said Cheap Heat host Peter Rosenberg. “I don’t know if it’s his real-life awesome kookiness as a person and the fact that he’s such a goofball – this ridiculously smart, but at the same time intentionally goofy nerd – that allows the other guys to loosen up and find this role. I’m not sure what it is.”
With all that said, it’s not as if WWE hasn’t made strides in recent years. New Day has been pushed to the stratosphere the past 400-plus days, and newcomer Apollo Crews (an apparent combination of Apollo Creed and actor Terry Crews) will compete for the Intercontinental title this Sunday at SummerSlam. And Sasha Banks is the top female competitor in the company and opened Raw earlier this month, a rare occurrence for the women’s division. Also, the last three tag team champions, New Day included, were all-black teams.
“Is WWE better in 2016 than it was in 1987? Absolutely,” said Rosenberg. “They have made the same strides that America has made to become a place where a black man can be elected president. … We live in a time where DJ Khaled has become an A-list celebrity. His name is Khaled Khaled, and he’s a Muslim Palestinian. And people love him.”
On that hot July day, New Day took on Rob Zombie cosplayer Bray Wyatt and his evil swamp-dwelling followers in a six-man tag team match. Our protagonists lose at the end but retained their tag team championships. Days earlier, the WWE held its first brand extension draft since 2011 to split the roster into its two flagship shows: Raw and Smackdown. New Day are chosen by Raw, the longest running weekly episodic show in America, which has long been WWE’s most prized broadcast. But, in the main event of Battleground that evening, WWE champion and Smackdown draftee Dean Ambrose retained his title against two Raw picks, Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns, meaning the elusive title will stay on that show until at least next year’s draft.
With only two black male wrestlers on Smackdown, neither of whom are ready for the main-event stage, we’ll have to wait at least another year for a black WWE champion. But New Day are just fine with where they’re at right now, seeing as they worked against all odds to get to this point.
“At some point,” said Big E, “we will be very high in the history books.”