No relation to the senator from California, James Harris played a stereotype of an African "savage" for white wrestling audiences.
James Harris, better known by the ring name "Kamala," passed away on Sunday at the age of 70, after contracting COVID-19.
Harris was a professional wrestler for over 30 years for both the WWF and WWE. At 6'7" and around 400 pounds, Harris was referred to as "the Ugandan Giant" or even "the Ugandan Headhunter"—though he was in fact born in the small town of Senatobia, Mississippi in 1950.
For a man of his size, he was remarkable for his agility and athleticism, leaping and dodging around the ring with speed that made him thrilling to watch in arena matches through the 80s and 90s, against the likes of superstars like Hulk Hogan, Jake "The Snake" Roberts, Andre the Giant, and the Undertaker.
He has since faded from cultural memory—like a lot of Black wrestlers, organizations like WWE (formerly the WWF) haven't done much to acknowledge his contributions. But even at the peak of his fame—during a six-month stint of matches with Hogan—Harris was getting into character in the janitor's closet at Madison Square Garden.
Harris has noted that this sort of situation was frequently the case, with the white wrestlers he was facing off against taking the choice locker rooms while he would be forced to get into costume in a closet, or behind a makeshift curtain strung up by his manager.
Not long after that 1986 program with Hogan, Kamala left the WWF over a dispute regarding his pay—which was reportedly around half of what his opponents in the ring were earning (possibly much less in some cases).
The Rise and Fall of the Ugandan Giant, Kamala (B/R Studios) www.youtube.com
On some level a pay gap between himself and bigger stars was inevitable. "Babyfaces" like Hulk Hogan were beloved by fans and thought of as the real stars, while "heels" like Kamala were largely there to make their opponents look good and give the (mostly white) audience a thrill of fear and scorn. But of course, this brings up the larger issue of why a man like James Harris had to be a heel to begin with.
The Making of a Legendary Wrestling Heel
It was common at the time for non-white wrestlers—or white wrestlers pretending to be non-white—to embody an offensive stereotype that could be scorned by white wrestling fans and shown to use unfair tactics before they were ultimately defeated. Wrestlers like The Iron Sheik, Mr. Fuji, and Chief Jay Strongbow—AKA Luke Joseph Scarpa, who wore an elaborate feather headdress and was said to "go on the warpath" in the ring—were emblematic of the era.
In Harris' case, he had tried to make a career under names like "Sugar Bear" and "The Mississippi Mauler" before a white wrestler named Frankie Cain—who wrestled wearing an Arabian Keffiyeh under the ring name "The Great Mephisto—suggested an African tribal gimmick, which two other white wrestlers—Jerry "The King" Lawler and Jerry Jarret—developed into Kamala.
It was a shift that helped launch Harris's career in the early 80s and allowed him to start making some real money—though, again, not nearly as much as his white opponents. As Kamala, Harris wore black and white faux-tribal face paint and a leopard-print loincloth, and he was led around by a masked "handler" with a pith helmet and a riding crop.
He would approach the ring wearing an "African" mask and wielding a spear. His signature moves largely involve hand chops, which wrestlers like Hulk Hogan liked because they were entirely performative and didn't really hurt. His opponents would often prey on his supposed superstitious fears to gain the upper hand in sequences that were played up for comic effect.
His absurd background story was that he had been scouted as a bodyguard for Despotic Ugandan president Idi Amin—known as "the butcher of Uganda." Maintaining "kayfabe"—the almost method-acting approach of wrestlers staying in character outside the ring—Harris wore robes and didn't speak English when he was in public.
The Heartland of American Apartheid
Despite his stature and athleticism, he was not seen as a viable pro wrestler without this gimmick. And he was still paid a fraction of what other prominent wrestlers were making…
After several years away, Harris returned to the WWF in 1992, and he said of the company's owner, Vince MacMahon "I have no beef with Vince. Vince always was nice and kind to me." While he still noted that the pay disparity was "disgusting," he chalked some of that up to his lack of formal education, saying, "If I had been a better talker, if I'd have known how to negotiate, that probably would've helped me."
Of course, the options for a young Black boy to get a proper education in 1950s Mississippi were not exactly plentiful. Historian Neil R. McMillen has referred to Mississippi in that era as "the heartland of American apartheid," and it's hard to argue with that assessment.
While 1954 marked the historic Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education—which established school segregation as illegal—it would be decades before real efforts were made to desegregate Mississippi's schools. In many places in the state, those efforts still have yet to take place.
As a result, Black students received markedly worse educations than their white peers in schools that were severely underfunded. As a result, a hard worker like Harris—who often slept in rental cars while on the road to save money for his family and spent his Hulk Hogan earnings on semi-trucks so he could work as a long-haul trucker when he retired from wrestling—didn't feel equipped to advocate for himself.
A Tale of Two Kamalas
It's an odd coincidence that James Harris's ring name is a real name—not in Uganda, but in India, where it comes from the Sanskrit word for lotus. It's an even odder coincidence that in 1964—2,000 miles from Senatobia—another Harris would be born and named Kamala.
Sen. Kamala Harris and Joe Biden spar over record on race www.youtube.com
It's just a coincidence, but it's worth looking at how their early lives differed. At a young age, James Harris's father was murdered, and James was forced to work as a sharecropper to help support his family. No doubt this complicated his schooling—at a segregated, underfunded public school—and he ended up dropping out in ninth grade.
Harris soon discovered that burglary was a more effective way to earn a living for his family, and before he turned 18 he had been run out of town by the local police. As he later put it, "Back then if you didn't leave like they said, you would be found dead somewhere."
As problematic as the wrestling world was, Harris was lucky to find it and lucky that he found a niche that worked with his talents as an athlete and a performer. Things could evidently have turned out much worse.
On the other side of the country, Kamala Harris was the daughter of a doctor and a professor, and she was part of a busing program that allowed her to join the second integrated class at her grade school in 1969.The fact that busing programs were wildly unpopular among white voters at the time—and railed against by the likes of young Joe Biden—speaks to the fact that those programs were actually effective in correcting some of the imbalance between white and Black students.
No doubt Kamala Harris had a lot of advantages that James Harris didn't, but the benefits of desegregation—attending school in a wealthy white area—were undoubtedly significant.
Those early life experiences reverberated into their adult years. James Harris never felt able to advocate for fair pay and had a tumultuous career as a wrestler. Like a disproportionate number of Black Americans, he developed type 2 diabetes in his 40s and had to have both his legs amputated below the knee in his 60s. And, like a disproportionate number of Black Americans, James Harris died this year as a result of COVID-19.
A message from Kamala www.youtube.com
As for Kamala Harris, today she is a senator and on the short list to serve as Joe Biden's vice presidential nominee.
What people mean when they talk about systemic racism is not just factors like school segregation—though the death of busing has led to schools that are nearly as segregated and unequal as they ever were.. Nor is it just police brutality—though that's still going strong too.
It's about the confluence of issues with schooling, policing, generational wealth, employment discrimination, and how those factors combine to result in Black Americans having a tiny fraction of the wealth of their white peers, having to play according to the rules and the whims of white employers, and taking the brunt of every public health crisis.
So while it's nice that someone like Kamala Harris can approach the heights of success in American politics, it's important to remember that stories like James "Kamala" Harris's are much more common.
There's an entire genre of YouTube videos that consists of nothing but news bloopers, and they're equal parts hilarious and panic-inducing.
"Right after the break, we're going to interview Erik Weihenmayer, who climbed the highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest, but he's gay—I mean, he's gay, excuse me, he's blind."
Back in the early 2000's a young news anchor in New Mexico had a slip of the tongue on live TV that has enterred the annals of news blooper history.
Gay Mount Everest www.youtube.com
Cynthia Izaguirre had just gotten done reporting on a separate story discussing activism for gay rights, and was setting up a segment with the first blind man to climb Mount Everest, and her thoughts got twisted on the way to her mouth, resulting in a 14-second clip that would live on in infamy.
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