Last night, the pro wrestler Big E tweeted a picture of himself, Xavier Woods, Kofi Kingston, Sasha Banks and Rich Swann holding their respective WWE championship belts with the caption, “#BlackExcellence.” While wrestling is staged, having this many black champions at once is still an accomplishment, and marking the occasion with a photo is appropriate. But to some fans the hashtag, and the idea of celebrating something along racial lines, was a problem.
Big E, Woods and Kingston are the current WWE tag team champions as the group New Day, and they just broke a record for the longest reign of any tag team in WWE history. Banks and the newly crowned Swann, are also the champions in their respective classes—Raw Women’s and Cruiserweight. They’re also all black, and black wrestlers have had an unpleasant history in the WWE. In our profile of Woods, who is also a gaming YouTuber, we noted that personas of black wrestlers are often steeped in racial cliches.
Black wrestlers are rarely given a fair shake in professional wrestling. Being black is often their only gimmick, and it manifests itself in humiliating ways. Kamala was a cannibal from Uganda. Cryme Time were street hoodlums who stole things. The New Day, as first conceived, was a gospel praise group. The trio were booed, vociferously, for all the wrong reasons. It wasn’t because they were taken seriously, but because they were not.
But New Day would transition from being a church group to a bunch of joyous nerds, gaining popularity and success with each sidelong reference to their geeky interests. As someone who isn’t a fan of wrestling, it’s something I can enjoy without diving into the fandom. And that is because their success is already an expression of the idea of Black Excellence.
If you check the #BlackExcellence tag on Twitter, you’ll probably see a lot of pictures of young black men and women graduating from college. You’ll also see some bomb ass selfies, black celebrities winning awards and more often than not, recordings of Nina Simone’s, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” It’s a space for positivity, a place to cheer on your peers and celebrate their successes. As Kingston would later say about the motivations behind the picture and caption Big E posted, “It does not come from a place of malice, spite, or gloating. It comes from a place of joy and a place of happiness. … It is important for people of all races, but particularly people of color, and especially the youth, to see that it is entirely possible to achieve your dreams and aspirations regardless of your race.”
There is something refreshing about seeing blackness portrayed as being fun or something one should have pride in. In video games this year there were two major black protagonists—Lincoln Clay from Mafia III and Marcus Holloway from Watch Dogs 2. While Lincoln gets to shoot up the KKK in 1960s New Orleans, which frankly sounds fun as hell, I skipped that game in favor of playing as Marcus in modern San Francisco. Watch Dogs 2 exists in a world where race and racism is real, and the game acknowledges that Marcus is a black man. When Marcus rolls up to the headquarters of the hacker group he just joined, Horatio, a fellow hacker and another black man, daps him and says, “It’s good to see another brother.” Where Lincoln opens the game by being shot in the head and goes on a roaring rampage of revenge, Marcus gets to play with drones and take selfies. He gets to be a young black man who can hold it down and enjoy himself without adversity primarily defining his story. It isn’t to say that this is a realer or truer experience of being black in America than the narrative of Lincoln Clay’s more explicit racial struggle—it’s just one that also exists. Seeing irreverence and accomplishment is just as valuable as seeing a journey from bondage to freedom and is part of what those WWE wrestlers were celebrating. Black lives don’t need to be defined by oppression, and the idea of celebrating Black Excellence is one rooted in showing black lives as more than just one thing.
But to some, the notion of talking about race at all is divisive. The very first response to Big E’s tweet is Twitter user @Badlandz saying, “if it was #WhiteExcellence you would see it as being racist,” and they were far from the only one to react that way.
I understand the instinct of thinking that it’s hypocritical to point out Black Excellence and not white successes, but that line of thought falls apart under further scrutiny. Do you want to see some examples of white successes? You can look at the President-Elect of the United States, most of the Senate and the House, almost all actors and recording artists, and the majority of the staffers of the website at which I am currently employed. Black successes are worth pointing out because fewer of them are lifted up in the first place. As Kingston says about the significance of five concurrent black champions in the WWE, “Historically in our nation, there was period in time where this would not have happened, followed by a long period of time where it became possible, but had not actually materialized. Now, we are in the time in which the possibility has become a reality.”