Christopher Lee, Ornette Coleman, and Dusty Rhodes passed away on the same day last week, June 11, 2015.
Christopher Lee is one of film’s greatest actors. He will be honored around the world for his contribution to cinema. Ornette Coleman is one of jazz’s greatest musicians. He will be written about extensively and his legacy preserved. Jazz, as a community of musicians, scholars, and fans, is resolute in policing its borders and history. Dusty Rhodes is one of professional wrestling’s greatest performers. Both inside the ring, and on the microphone, he was a virtuoso. Fans of professional wrestling will sing the praises of Dusty Rhodes and deeply mourn his passing. However, while Lee and Coleman will be universally treated with seriousness and respect, Rhodes will likely be looked at as a curious sideshow by those who are not initiates into the world of professional wrestling, and therefore know little about his life.
This is unfortunate.
The character Dusty Rhodes was in fact the man Virgil Runnels Jr. Born in rural Texas, Runnels’ father was a plumber and the family lived in poverty. The man who would later become "The American Dream" came of age in a predominantly black and Latino neighborhood. He also attended services at a local black Southern Baptist Church, absorbing the cadence and verbal style of its preachers.
I first saw Dusty Rhodes on television during the early 1980s. My grandmother, a fan of roller derby and professional wrestling, would sit me down to watch the latter late at night and on the weekends. She, a black woman from rural North Carolina, had grown up watching all of the great wrestling in the Mid-Atlantic and National Wrestling Alliance “territories” (an industry term for the regional promotions that existed before the juggernaut now called the World Wrestling Entertainment gobbled them up). Watching with me then, my grandmother was extremely animated. She would yell at the television: “Look at that! That man Dusty Rhodes! He is a white soul brother! Beat up that Ric Flair and his phonies for the people, Dusty!”
I was six or seven years old at the time. I remember wondering who this strange white man was, and why my grandma was so drawn to him. However, a few minutes of watching him eliminated any shred of doubt: This was someone special.
As a working-class black kid from the broader New York and Connecticut area, and a product of the 1980s, my main childhood fixations were "Star Wars," video games, bowling, comic books, “freestyle” BMX, "Dungeons and Dragons," and a new musical genre called “rap music.” Now, thanks to my grandmother, I could add wrestling to that list.
All in all, I was a ghetto nerd. At the time I thought myself to be relatively alone and unique. Now, I see that we were legion, and everywhere.
In the 1980s, a child couldn't easily avoid the enchanting power of the WWF and its breakout star, Hulk Hogan. "Hulkamania" was everywhere. The WWF's "Saturday Night’s Main Event" was required viewing. And wrestling was near-religion. One of my fondest memories is watching Andre the Giant face off against Hogan in the "Wrestlemania III" main event at the Pontiac Silverdome. I wasn't there in person to see the iconic match; rather, I watched it on closed-circuit television, with thousands of other people in a sweaty, stinking, decrepit local sports arena. We all screamed in disbelief when Hogan did the impossible, body slamming the unbeatable Andre into the mat.
My friends and I loved Hulkamania. However, on a basic level, we knew that most of it was playacting. But wrestling was more than just the WWF. There was another wrestling promotion as well, this one down south, which featured a tough white guy “who talked black.” This was Dusty Rhodes.
Dusty had an atypical physique for a wrestler, more flab than muscle, but there was something compelling and even magnetic about him -- how he would fight, striking down foes with his patented move, “the bionic elbow”; how he would speak, delivering monologues like a southern preacher; how he would bleed, suffering horrific in-ring injuries and yet somehow persevering regardless. ("Blade jobs," the old-school wrestling practice wherein wrestlers would slice themselves with a concealed razor in order to induce bleeding -- for dramatic effect, of course -- were among Dusty's trademarks. By the end of his career, his forehead was a veritable roadmap of scars.)
We could watch Dusty late at night on TV, see him bleeding on the cover of wrestling magazines, and eventually even watch on ESPN and TBS. Even as I was beginning to figure out that professional wrestling may in fact be rigged, Dusty seemed to defy all of that. Everything about him screamed real.
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Popular culture is inherently political; it is a type of informal public opinion and a barometer for the public mood. Pop culture also reflects the struggles, values, and battles over identity in a given society, and channels topical matters of public concern. While there is a rich technical language used by academics and other professionals to discuss popular culture—e.g. "mass culture," "populism," "hegemony," "representation," "floating signifiers," "Power," "reception," "circulation," "genre," imaginaries," "audience," "the public"—popular culture ultimately “matters” because individuals have an emotional connection to it. It resonates because it is one of the primary ways that we tell stories about ourselves, and make sense of our place in the world.
Historically, professional wrestling has been one of the most authentic forms of “low culture.” It is real and sincere, a reflection of the authentic desires and feelings of the People. On a basic and fundamental level, the spectacle of wrestling -- whether offered by a huge corporation like the WWE, or smaller independent promotions like Ring of Honor -- is a morality play, one that uses physical storytelling not just to exhilarate but also to engage us emotionally. In its most basic and classic form, wrestling channels the grotesque and the spectacular. The heroes are especially heroic; the villains are hugely evil. Alignments can (and ultimately always will) change over time, but the conflict is always about good vs. bad (or, more accurately, "us vs. them") with little room for anything in between.
Philosopher and cultural critic Roland Barthes offered one of the best analyses of the logic and aesthetic of professional wrestling in his book "Mythologies," where he wrote:
"The wrestlers, men of great experience, know just how to inflect the spontaneous episodes of combat toward the image which the public creates out of the great marvelous themes of its mythology. A wrestler may irritate or disgust, he never disappoints, for he always ultimately achieves, by a gradual solidification of signs, what the public expects of him. In wrestling, nothing exists unless it exists totally, there is no symbol, no allusion, everything is given exhaustively; leaving nothing in shadow, the gesture severs every parasitical meaning and ceremonially presents the public with a pure and full signification, three-dimensional, like Nature. Such emphasis is nothing but the popular and ancestral image of the perfect intelligibility of reality. What is enacted by wrestling, then, is an ideal intelligence of things, a euphoria of humanity, raised for a while out of the constitutive ambiguity of everyday situations and installed in a panoramic vision of a univocal Nature, in which signs finally correspond to causes without obstacle, without evasion, and without contradiction."
While the lines of morality and the role of the anti-hero have shifted and grown in recent decades to reflect the nihilism and moral ambiguity of the present era, the sport still follows a basic script of larger-than-life figures in conflict with one another, archetypes summoned as if from classic mythology in order to exorcise the dissonance at the heart of America's cultural consciousness.
Race, and the colorline, in particular, are central to America's cultural history. Slavery and white supremacy are defects at the core of the founding of the United States and its Constitution. They cast a shadow over American life and society--one that continues even into the Age of Obama. In American professional wrestling, the color line is what I can only describe as a “beautiful ugly” thing.
Because racism is an ugly thing, its ugliness and evil has usually been outsized and exaggerated in professional wrestling. Black wrestlers were and are still often reduced to racial caricatures -- criminals, or savages, or political radicals, or mute manservants and butlers to rich white people. (Asians, Hispanics, Latinos, and First Nations brothers and sisters were also typecast as martial artists, devious “Hop Sings,” or various types of foreign Other.) These observations are not a comment on the work ethic, sincerity or personal values of those black folks forced into such stereotypical roles. Professional wrestling has historically reflected the values of a racist society that through the White Gaze, even today, still too often portrays black men and women as “bucks, mammies, or coons.”
And yet, professional wrestling could also be amazingly beautiful in how it negotiated the colorline in some surprising and transgressive ways. There were black professional wrestling stars such as Sweet Daddy Siki, Sailor Art Thomas, Bobo Brazil, Luther Lindsey, Norvell Austin, and others, who because of white racism would never be given the opportunity to grow beyond regional popularity. But they were still heroes to their largely black fan base in places like Detroit, Washington state, and the District of Columbia.
Because of Jim and Jane Crow, and its legacy even after the end of formal segregation, in many parts of the South and elsewhere it was illegal for white and black athletes to compete against one another in boxing or professional wrestling matches because of the supposed potential for “race riots.” But those tired traditions were shattered by African-American professional wrestlers such as the late Junkyard Dog and Ernie Ladd; by certain more progressive white booking agents, wrestlers, and territory owners such as Bill Watts and Sputnik Monroe; and by fans of all racial backgrounds.
In 1992, Ron Simmons became the first African-American to be recognized as world heavyweight champion in pro wrestling, 16 years before the United States elected Barack Obama as its President. A few years later, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson morphed from a generic “Samoan” wrestler into a Black Nationalist in a group called "The Nation of Domination," before soon thereafter becoming “The People’s Champion,” a character that eschewed limiting racial boundaries. He eventually crossed over into mainstream prominence in a way that no other wrestler in history, not even Hulk Hogan, ever has. Now "The Rock," makes the occasional cameo appearance on WWE television, where he's welcomed back as a conquering hero, a celebrated movie star, confident in his own type of black masculinity.
Race in the United States is a story of continuity and change. Professional wrestling is a near perfect reflection of that dynamic.
And, for all of the progress in terms of how contemporary professional wrestling represents people of color, there are still backwards and retrograde moments as well: In 1998, for example, a group called D-Generation X, one of the most celebrated wrestling stables in the history of the WWE, performed an in-ring skit in blackface. (Footage of the skit is still regularly featured -- approvingly! -- in WWE documentaries.) A current African-American tag team named “The New Day” -- originally "babyfaces," or heroes, and now much more successful in a “heel” role -- have vacillated between performing as “angry black men” resentful of society for holding them down and stereotypical African-American church preachers. And that's not even to mention another African-American tag-team duo, this one mercifully short-lived, named “Cryme Tyme.” As the name would suggest, they were caricatures of Black hyper-thug masculinity.
All of which is to say that, for a Black fan, watching professional wrestling has always been a deeply conflicting experience.
But Dusty was different.
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The deep power of popular culture in the best sense--not as distraction in the service of Power and elites--is demonstrated in those instances when it helps us to create a broader feeling of community and to learn more about our own life experiences.
I am the son of a janitor who was also a part-time musician, one of those folks who was always “20 feet from stardom,” in the company of greats such as James Brown, Harry Belafonte, and many others. I did not understand why my father worked such late hours. I was angry at him. I resented him. I did not have the wisdom then as a child to understand why I lacked for so few material things, even as I yearned for more of his time and attention.
I know I am not alone in such a childhood.
As such, I cried when I watched Dusty Rhodes explain during his WWE Hall of Fame induction speech in 2007, on a stage before many millions of viewers, that he too hurt from not being home for his family, but that he had worked so hard to make sure that the money was there — knowing that his sons would not understand why until many years later, in their adult lives. Is that perfect parenting, torn from a textbook written by the rich and the privileged? No, maybe not. But is it loving parenting, the type of care that so many of the children of the working class could not then understand, but as adults, now deeply comprehend? Absolutely.
I am not offering a hagiography for the late Dusty Rhodes. Rather, I am trying to speak to how popular culture resonates, how it teaches us about our politics, our relationships, and our lives.
Dusty was not an American original. He was an “everyman”. He was also a racial trickster of sorts, a white brother who talked “black.” But he did so in earnest, not in minstrelsy. He was, like so many of professional wrestling's great characters, simply being himself with “the volume turned up.”
The character Dusty Rhodes was a man out of a Mark Twain novel (perhaps the under-appreciated "Pudd’nhead Wilson"), and in that role not a con artist, but rather a man who could speak to both sides of the colorline, channeling the best hopes of black, white, and brown interracial intimacy, dreaming and sharing, as together we worked for the Common Good against those who only saw greed and money as their personal gods.
(Ric Flair and the Four Horseman were Rhodes’ antagonists, playing the part of greedy vulture capitalists and robber barons, men devoted always to profit over people.)
In 1985, Dusty Rhodes delivered what many students of professional wrestling consider to be the single greatest “promo” (another insider term for the act of monologuing to advance a storyline and develop a character’s persona) in the history of the craft. In it, he talked about the “hard times” that America's working class and poor were suffering under during the Reagan era with its anti-union hatred, deindustrialization, and globalization.
Looking straight at the camera, Dusty said:
"You don’t know what hard times are daddy. Hard times are when the textile workers around this country are out of work, they got 4 or 5 kids and can’t pay their wages, can’t buy their food. Hard times are when the autoworkers are out of work and they tell 'em to go home. And hard times are when a man has worked at a job for 30 years -- 30 YEARS -- and they give him a watch, kick him in the butt and say, 'Hey a computer took your place daddy.' That’s hard times! That’s hard times! And Ric Flair you put hard times on this country by takin’ Dusty Rhodes out, that’s hard times. And we all had hard times together."
In a recent interview with "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, Dusty explained his persona and speaking style. “I wanted [the audience] believing, if you were an attorney, you could sit down and eat with me in a fancy restaurant," he said. "If you were a black person, you could invite me over and I would eat in your living room. If you were white, I would do this in your living room.”
Of course, the "Hard Times" promo was superficial, pathos filled entertainment. Rhodes was not an expert in political economy. But if politics is popular culture and popular culture is politics, Dusty Rhodes, in that and many other moments, offered up a blueprint for a type of interracial populism that could have changed American history for the better. Through that one monologue, Dusty Rhodes communicated the lived experience of being a member of the working class with more honesty and insight than many policy experts or academics ever could.
That was the genius of his speaking style, a sincere ability to channel the hurt, pain, and sense of loss experienced by any decent person who did their job and believed in the hope of America but was still marked as “redundant” or “unnecessary” and “downsized” by Reaganism and the neoliberal nightmare.
Dusty Rhodes, while he may be under-appreciated in his passing by those who are not devotees of the action inside "the squared circle," is a genius lens through which to understand race and the colorline in the United States, with all of its complexities and contradictions.
Was he perfect in this regard? Of course not. His “white negro” style, however authentic and personal, could be used by booking agents to give him opportunities denied to black wrestlers. To cite just one example: While he was in the then WWF near the end of his career as an in-ring performer, Dusty, wearing unbelievably unattractive yellow polka dots and a black singlet, was paired up with a black woman referred to by the grossly racist name of “Sapphire.” A longtime fan of Dusty Rhodes’ in-ring work, she was now his personal mascot and dance partner in a minstrel-like “shuck and buck” dance routine. The segment reduced one of the greatest wresters of the era to a comedy sideshow.
(In his defense, Dusty suspected that the horrible gimmick was a type of punishment, used by the owner and management of the WWF to humiliate him for his years spent working for a rival organization.)
For many contemporary interlopers into the world of pro wrestling, the magic of the spectacle is gone. We now live in the era of "sports entertainment" (the WWE's preferred nomenclature, which conspicuously avoids using the word "wrestling" at all). The institutional mythology of “kayfabe” -- the idea, put forward by “old school” professional wrestling, that the competition is real and spontaneous -- is now more suggestion than decree. And the profession has been rocked by a series of scandals; wrestlers lost to tragic accidents, suicide, drugs, alcohol abuse, or worse. Amidst all this, it can be difficult for outsiders to understand the impact of somebody like Dusty Rhodes. But, understand it or no, it was there.
Professional wrestling may not be “real” as a sport -- but it is most certainly not “fake.” The emotional highs and lows that the great professional wrestlers such as Dusty Rhodes delivered to his fans are absolutely real and authentic. Dusty was a master performer because he understood that fact. He lived his moniker, "The American Dream." He was good and bad, imperfect and great.
He is irreplaceable.