Let’s start with this:
1. Wrestling is racist. Incredibly racist. We’ve seen mexicans on lawnmowers, choppy the pee pee and Ugandan giants since we were kids and have known that we’re watching something that perpetuates the most basic stereotypes of other cultures and genders. Still, we watch it, (mostly) blowing off racist images because we love all the other stuff so much. I guess we watch wrestling despite its racism in the same way we wear shoes that we know a toddler made and drive cars that are going to make us wear gas masks one day. We could boycott these things but we just don’t f*cking want to. But we all still see it and at the very least take note. So, Brandon and I came up with this idea to highlight some of these racist gimmicks and angles (before a certain Atlantic article was written I SWEAR) for your viewing pleasure.
2. Yes, the title is an homage to the Godfather of hipster wrestling writing, David Shoemaker who had the Dead Wrestler Of The Week Column forever and ever.
3. This column will have about 10% as much research as Shoemaker’s.
4. It won’t be weekly. The name is just catchy.
Now on to the ‘cism!
Let’s start at the beginning. If you thought there was something problematic about the latter Harlem Heat years, then holy sh*t just take a look at some facts about their genesis:
1. They went by these tag team names before Harlem Heat: The Ebony Experience and The Ghetto Blasters. Making them the only tag team to be named after movies found at the top and bottom shelf of Kinky Midnight’s 24/7 Videos.
2. The original plan for the Harlem Heat in WCW was for them to appear in shackles and be a tag team that Colonel Rob Parker won. in. a. f*cking. card. game. Why do I watch wrestling, again?
Eventually, Booker T and Stevie Ray would come into their own as one of the top teams in WCW through the Monday Night War era.
Harlem Heat is one of the great tag teams of the 90s. I’d never thought this growing up because they were smarmy heels and I was a child so I hated them. But as I’ve been going back and watching the PPVs from 1996, I’ve come to appreciate them. It’s insane how talented Booker T was and that it seemed like a surprise that he’d become a top singles star. Stevie Ray wasn’t ever, ever a good wrestler but he added muscle and attitude. All culminating in them probably being a top three team that year.
Of course, they were boosted by the presence of Sensational Sherri, who makes literally everyone look top tier next to her. Then, naturally they had a slave owner as a manager because wrestling just couldn’t resist it. Still, the team should go down as a top-level all-time tag team who I can thank for two of the most awkward moments of my wrestling-watching life:
1. Booker T calling Hulk Hogan the N-word. This is probably the most famous wrestling video on Youtube and has crossed over into mainstream.
2. Hog Wild 1996. I didn’t watch this or caught on to the racist crowd going crazy on Harlem Heat because Black thugs are getting their daughters pregnant or whatever, but here’s an excerpt from my Vintage recap:
Basically, the whole match devolved into a glorified Klan rally. Now would be a perfect time to talk about the stereotypes of Black wrestlers through the years and how it perpetuates racism in the same way some portrayals of women contribute to sexism. But I’m not convinced this crowd has watched enough wrestling to have been programmed that any Black character not shucking and/or jiving is a heel. No, these f*cks are just racist all on their own.
Eventually, Booker T would have to go solo after Stevie Ray took some time off. During that time, Book had a best-of-seven series with Benoit and became and legitimate singles contender, obviously going on to main event success in WCW and WWF.
But you can’t have a singles career as a former tag team without a feud with your former partner. And this, kids, is where things get out of hand.
The Harlem Heat break-up angle happened in two stages. The first one, happened when Stevie Ray joined the NWO Black & White in 1998. He returned to WCW to see his brother had “forgotten where he came from” and not “doing things like we do back in Harlem,” because he was winning matches now and that goes against “the street code” or whatever dialogue from Shaft Stevie Ray was using at the time.
For some reason, that break-up angle was abandoned so Booker T could focus on the TV title and Steve Ray could feud with Vincent over leadership of NWO Black & White.
Interlude: Stevie Ray and Vincent Feud For Leadership of NWO Black & White
Want to know why the NWO became the most trite gimmick in wrestling in the 90s? Because Stevie Ray and Vincent were feuding for leadership of NWO Black & White. At some point along his wrestling career, Vincent became “from the hood” and the angle reverted to Chapter Three of the Wrestling Ethnic Feud Manual: “Fight Over Who’s ‘Keeping It The Realest.’
Here are a few quotes from their pre-match vignette at Uncensored ’99:
“I LOVE to fight in the jungle…the projects!”
“I’m gonna beat you from one project to the next project”
“One guy really upsetting the apple cart” Wait, that was Hulk Hogan.
“I don’t want this bald-headed roody poo fruit booty getting in my face”
They also end with competing can-you-dig-thats.
Also, why are we talking about the projects?! This is a feud about who’s going to lead a bunch of white guys in wrestling. Where did the projects come from? Why are we talking about Harlem? I don’t understand these things. It’s at this point that you realize Stevie Ray is Unironic Black Dynamite and it’s the saddest.
As for the match. It sucks. And ends with a run-in by Horace Hogan.
WCW Souled Out 2000 – You Never Go Full Tyler Perry
After the NWO dissolved, Stevie Ray rejoined Booker T to bring the Harlem Heat back together. They even won the tag titles one last time at Road Wild ’99 in front of a less racist crowd. Then, they added an Amazon lady who’s name is *drumroll* Midnight. Get it? Because she’ll knock your lights out. HAHAHAHA sike it’s because she’s Black.
Stevie Ray then becomes upset that Booker T was paying more attention to Midnight than the team and was costing them matches. This is a pretty solid reason for a feud that makes sense. But guess what happens next: the feud then becomes about Booker T forgetting the streets. All of this is complete with a video montage from Stevie Ray that’s everything racist ever. The video is Stevie Ray in “Harlem” hanging out with his guys in the hood that Booker T abandoned.
Apparently, Stevie Ray and Booker T’s “hood” consists of 100% homeless people. Huddled along a garbage fire. In the middle of the day. We start the video at the conclusion of their reunion where I guess they talked about things like bologna sandwiches and how awesome crack is. Or whatever it is “people from the hood” are supposed to be doing during the day.
The match ends when this guy shows up and distracts Booker T, allowing Big T to get the pin. I don’t know who he is and I don’t think we ever get an explanation.
Uncensored 2000 – Blind Sided
So somehow, Billy Kidman gets involved and he and Torrie Wilson take Booker in, teach him to read and help him with his struggles. In the end, he beats Harlem Heat 2000, gets his music back and becomes an NFL player. It’s a riveting tale and Torrie Wilson gets an Academy Award for her performance. It’s how all of America’s feel-good stories end.
In The End…
Stevie Ray’s career basically ended after his last Harlem Heat run as he went on to open a wrestling academy with his brother, Booker.
Booker T would go on to overcome even more racist gimmicks of G.I. Bro, Kurt Angle calling his wife a safari animal, and being too uneducated to beat HHH. Through that time, he became five-time WCW champ and World Heavyweight champion. He also became a top five character all-time when he came up with the King Booker gimmick. It’s possibly the most underrated great heel work of the century and I’d take a whole documentary of just that era thank you very much, WWE. Eventually he was inducted into the WWE Hall Of Fame by his brother Stevie Ray.
Despite the inauspicious beginnings and wrestling’s reliance on racist ass stories, Harlem Heat stands as one of my favorite tag teams. While Booker’s athleticism and in-ring skill carried the team, Stevie Ray’s attitude and charisma helped steer the team’s character. And I can’t say enough how much Sensational Sherri helped them out in the early days, too. So we can all make fun of this ridiculous angle, but it doesn’t take away from the fact these guys are legends.
And always remember: we coming for you, [redacted].