Up Close and Personal
Very few wrestlers leave an impact on my life as much as Kamala. The first time I saw him, I just thought, oh another savage wrestler. I had already seen the Wild Samoans, and a few other “savage” gimmicks, so adding Kamala to the mix wasn’t anything shocking to me. He sort of checked off all the boxes: bare feet, check; long stick/spear, check; skirt/dress like cloth, check; bonus, he had face paint. Yep, watching Kamala as a young boy, I thought he was just another monster who my hero can pin. Then he did something I never saw coming. It still sticks to me as I look back…
Kamala gives Undertaker his Big Splash
Never had I seen a big man jump off the rope and squash someone. Yeah Jimmy Snuka flew through the air, and so did Randy Savage, but Kamala was over 400 pounds. He moved like no other big man of that era. I truly believed this was a man capable of beating Hulk Hogan. Just my luck, Kamala vs. Hulk Hogan was coming to Los Angeles and tickets are on sale! So I did what all kids do when they want something, I bugged my dad until he said yes. It was not a hard sell. My Godfather promise to buy the tickets if my dad drove us to the LA Sports Arena (home of Wrestlemania 2 and 7).
My first ever WWF event, and I had a great view of the ring. I remember very little of that night now, but this memory sticks out. When it looked like Kamala was going to win, I covered my eyes. The thought that I was live in the crowd when Hulk Hogan lost the title scared me. I don’t remember the end because I couldn’t bear to watch. It wasn’t until the announcer said it was a DQ finish that I opened my eyes. I could hear Hulk Hogan’s music played and he was poising. Man, what a night.
James Harris, who was given the role of Kamala, sadly he passed away a month ago. Harris joined one of over 180,000 American lives lost to CoVID-19. He suffered from multiple health issues and the virus sadly dealt the final blow. But it is not the end that people should talk about, but his whole life’s work. The wrestlers who spoke of Harris say he was a very gentle person, generous and easy to work with. Bret Hart said working with him was like a night off. It comes as no surprise that many wrestlers came out and talked about the Mighty Kamala. Very few big men moved as fast or could slam Andre with the ease which Harris could. He was a very special talent.
Before I get to what I were I want to go in this column, I want to say that James Harris proved over and over again why he was in that main event spot. He was a big man who could move, do leap frogs, slam giants and work his gimmick so well people didn’t know if it was real or not. I have watched many Kamala matches, and I can tell you his ability to stay in gimmick was up there with many greats. Harris deserved all the fame he received, and he deserved more money than he earned. Kamala was entertaining, and I have spent hours down the YouTube rabbit hole watching his matches. And that’s because of the special talent that is James Harris.
Let’s Talk About It
When you listen to Harris, his complaints about pay were not unique to just his experience as a Black man. Harris rightfully questioned the equity of pay scale between Black wrestlers and White wrestlers. Also, Black wrestlers had limited opportunity for main event spots at the top of the card. Harris would get his opportunity headlining matches with Hulk Hogan across the nation. But everything always comes back to pay. This led to his departure in 1987,
Because of his era, Harris would have to battle a lot of racial stereotypes, both in the ring and out. From pay offs for Black wrestlers, to a gimmick deep in racism, Harris still pushed through and made a name for himself in the wrestling world. The gimmick of Kamala is one part racial stereotype and one part a Black man making chicken salad out of chicken shit. In Memphis, Jerry Lawler wanted to use the big man. Seeing a racist picture, Lawler had the idea of casting Harris as a savage, which would help cover up how green Harris was at the time. Harris would take that gimmick and run with it, touring the world.
The racist picture which inspired Kamala
Entertainment Just Was Different in the 80’s
Like the Wild Samoans, Kamala came in not speaking English, and still stuck in their ways. Now anyone who has immigrated to this country will tell you, you eventually learn English. I guarantee you that Charlotte Flair isn’t learning Spanish to speak with Andrade. She may have learned a few words, but when in the US, you are speaking English. Instead of showing growth, the Kamala character stayed a character for many, many years. And this was just, accepted. The WWF did do a bit of character development in 1993 during Kamala’s brief face turn. Thought in re-watching the matches, it’s surprising to see Kamala forget how to finish a match. But seeing the crowd interact with Kamala was very much in-tune with entertainment in the era of Home Alone and Hocus Pocus.
Today, a gimmick like Kamala wouldn’t fly. In the 80’s, you just knew entertainment had a certain level of racism. And maybe some of you want to go back to that era; I personally wouldn’t. And well we can all look back at how outdated the gimmick has become, there is no denying that even in the 80’s that the origin had a racist story. Yes, the Wild Samoans were doing their gimmick, but they were at least, you know, Samoan. Kamala had never been to Uganda, let along Africa prior to his wrestling career.
Now this is not a whole column about the evils of the Kamala gimmick. I want to make this point very clear; James Harris took a gimmick and created a living off of it. For 20 years, Kamala could arrive in a WWF/E arena and get a huge pop from the crowd. Kamala was not the only racist stereotype act which a Black entertainer had to deal with in the 80’s. Black entertainers had, and continue to have, to overcome racial stereotypes in-order to perform their art. James Harris was doing just that. He made chicken salad out of chicken shit so that he could feed his family and provide for them. I admire the job James Harris did in making Kamala work, as well as shack my head at the racism of the gimmick.
Harris was a man who knew his role in the wrestling business and played it well. He became Kamala in the ring and out. He always looked unsure in the ring, and used either Friday, Kim Chee, or Slick for guidance. When WCW created the Dungeon of Doom, Kamala fit right in simply because he could keep his gimmick. By all accounts, Harris was very giving in the ring, knowing his job was to be the monster heel who gets sympathy for the babyfaces. James Harris was truly a Hall of Fame talent and his presents in the wrestling world will be missed. For fun, here is Kamala slamming Andre the Giant.