When men from a certain generation think Kamala, a giant from Uganda rather than a senator from California comes to mind. Our Kamala Harris sadly passed away this weekend.
“I know for a fact the first time he seen himself on TV he tore the whole set apart,” Classy Freddie Blassie informed the uninitiated about his charge. “He thought somebody was trying to emulate him…. The man is a cannibal, you know. He enjoys human flesh.”
When a younger brother was three, he used to call himself Kamala and jump off my mother’s dresser onto me to deliver the pin on a full-sized bed that I remember as a queen-sized bed. He slapped his stomach in imitation. He once painted stars and a moon on his torso in homage to Kamala, the Ugandan Giant, before partaking in bedroom wrestling (scripted affairs involving foreign objects and managers that morphed into tearful attacks featuring very real haymakers on the rare occasion when the outcome did not go the way of Kamala). His devotion to Kamala became so great that his nickname, used more often than his real name until the age of majority, stemmed from his mispronunciation of Kamala.
My three-year-old brother was not Kamala even if he believed himself so during impromptu matches on a bed. But Kamala was not really a Ugandan giant, or a bloodthirsty headhunter who served Idi Amin, either.
He was James Harris, a six-foot-seven, 380-pound guy from Mississippi who drove a truck when his wrestling career fizzled out. At about the age (four) of many of his biggest fans, Harris lost his father to a murderer at a dice game. He later lost a sister to violence. He earned money as a sharecropper and a petty criminal before effectively joining the circus of professional wrestling. By the end, he again knew financial hardship. He peddled an album online featuring “If I Had a Dollar,” in which, showcasing authenticity more than talent, he sang, “It’s so hard living this way / when bill collectors calling every day.”
This Kamala would have made a better running mate than the other Kamala. He exuded more personality and charisma even if his speaking skills fell short of the senator’s.
In his salad days (which, one suspects, witnessed very few actual salads), some kids in Massachusetts watched him on World Class Championship Wrestling, which, though based in Texas, somehow played on a local UHF channel on Saturdays, because he was a real-life cartoon character (no coincidence that wrestling generally followed Saturday morning cartoons and that kids graduated from Super Friends to WWF Superstars of Wrestling). Later, Kamala came to the promotion dominant in our region, the WWF, which ultimately overwhelmed the various regional outfits, whose existence heightened professional wrestling’s mythical quality. One often knew of regional stars not from live shows or taped broadcasts but through magazines that kept children and, let’s face it, very pathetic adults up-to-date, which during the 1980s meant several months behind, on the ongoings of the competing promotions. Kamala made stops in just about all of them. On Sunday, coronavirus stopped Harris, whose high blood pressure and diabetes resulted in the amputation of both legs several years back, at 70.
This Kamala would have made a better running mate than the other Kamala. He exuded more personality and charisma even if his speaking skills fell short of the senator’s. Unlike Mrs. Kamala Harris, Mr. Kamala Harris boasted experience as a chief executive; specifically, he served as the chief of his tribe. Skandor Akbar or Kim Chee or The Wizard or Mr. Fuji or Slick or Friday or any number of other qualified men with experience directing disparate personalities could have effectively managed his campaign. This clip, or better yet the one the internet did not save in which he ate a live chicken, could have served as an eye-grabbing campaign commercial. And as his reception everywhere from the Mid-South Coliseum to the Sportatorium to the old Boston Garden demonstrates, rallies would have popped for him more than they do for even Donald Trump. Kamala could pull a crowd.
Alas, the present looks down its nose at the past. It decries any buffoonery among actors of color as Uncle Tomism in the player and racism in the audience, forgetting that some forms of entertainment rely on caricature to captivate. We put African American performers at a disadvantage when we say that the white guys may act like Dusty Rhodes and Captain Lou Albano and George “The Animal” Steele and Jesse “The Body” Ventura, but that black guys who embrace an over-the-top persona necessarily act like Stepin Fetchit. The Great Kabuki blowing “Asian mist” in the faces of opponents, Canadian “Rowdy” Roddy Piper wearing a kilt and toting bag pipes, and the Iron Sheik saying, “Iran, number one; Russia, number one,” and then spitting after saying “USA” played on caricatures to cater to an audience who wanted something more vivid than mere characters. Must The Wild Samoans reinvent themselves as The Woke Samoans?
The people in the front row never seem to understand that when you sit in the cheap seats, you like it when the performers play for the cheap seats.
Fans, dumb enough to appreciate, were smart enough to differentiate real from pretend. Detractors, sophisticated enough to balk, are dumb enough to confuse real and pretend. The cancel culture imposing muted tones on the neon of professional wrestling says without irony and in unison, “It’s still real to me, dammit.” But even a three-year-old in suburban Boston was, I suspect, in on the joke.
Kamala, a Ugandan cannibal wearing a tribal mask and a loin cloth, died a long time before James Harris did.
Coronavirus killed the one. Political correctness got the other.