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Former WWE wrestler James Harris was more than ‘Kamala’

by David Dennis Jr. — 

The name James Harris doesn’t mean anything to you, but the character he played for most of his career, Kamala, is an iconic name in wrestling, especially in the South.

He died Sunday at the age of 70 after complications from COVID-19 and diabetes.

During the ’80s and ’90s, Harris was one of the biggest wrestling stars in the country. His Kamala gimmick became associated with the racist and culturally insensitive characters embedded in the fabric of professional wrestling. But Harris was bigger than the racism that dictated the character that would make him famous. He was an athletic entertainer who transcended degradation and should be remembered as such.

I say “Harris” and not “Kamala,” because as successful as the gimmick would become at establishing the villain and being a draw, history has ignored the talent it took for the man to pull off the role. Harris was swift on his feet for his 300-pound size, performing jumping splashes on opponents and wrestling barefoot. He was a performance actor, never breaking character, even refusing to speak English in public settings. He was Kamala, twitching his neck, bulging his eyes while slapping his stomach, and every bit the charismatic showman as we’ve seen in wrestling, despite being hampered by a gimmick that didn’t allow him to speak.

That charisma and talent led him to wrestle the likes of Andre the Giant, even having the honor of body-slamming him during a match, something reserved for only the megastars. Eventually, Harris would find himself in the WWE (WWF at the time) wrestling against Hulk Hogan in 1986 and 1987 at Madison Square Garden in New York. To wrestle Hulk Hogan in Madison Square Garden at the height of Hulkamania was like being cast as Thanos in the Marvel movies — the biggest villain in the world of entertainment.

Harris’ career would peter out in the ’90s after a high-profile feud with The Undertaker in WWE. He was born in Senatobia, Mississippi, where he spent his later years living with little money to his name thanks to an industry that doesn’t offer retirement, health insurance or any security beyond what a body can provide in the ring. He’d lose both of his legs to diabetes. His legacy is important to the history of wrestling as a reminder of the depraved racism that is normalized in the profession and reinforced by how much money is made.

A couple of years ago, Jerry Lawler, who was the co-owner of Memphis Wrestling and invented the Kamala character, told Stone Cold Steve Austin on his podcast: “As soon as I saw [Harris], this painting came to my mind. … Where this beautiful girl is tied to a stake and these cannibals are about to burn her at the stake. They were doing this crazy war dance around this girl and that came to my mind … I could paint this guy and make him terrific.”

He equipped Harris with a spear, painted white lines on his face, stars above his nipples and a half-moon on his belly button. He put a loincloth on Harris and filmed vignettes teasing about a cannibal from Uganda coming to Memphis, Tennessee, as the territory’s next villain.

Lawler and the rest of the brain trust at Memphis Wrestling knew what they were doing. They were banking on Kamala stoking racist fears of white fans in the Deep South. They used words such as “savage beast” to describe him and based the storylines on the belief that Kamala was being let loose from cages to go wrestle before being confined again after the match was over. Fans would throw objects in the ring, yell obscenities and even cry whenever Kamala walked into the Mid-South Coliseum.

But it’s a disservice to Harris to make that his entire story. No, Harris was more than Kamala. He was the continuation of a history of Black entertainers hampered by racism and yet had the fortitude to use their God-given talents to entertain and find ways to make a living. He was Mantan Moreland, Ben Carter, Amos ‘n’ Andy. He was Black excellence wrapped in Black perseverance and too special for the shame placed on his greatness.

(David Dennis Jr. is a writer and adjunct professor of Journalism at Morehouse College. David’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Smoking Section, Uproxx, Playboy, The Atlantic, Complex.com and wherever people argue about things on the Internet.)

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