Black Wrestler Of The Month Vol 2.: Papa Shango

The story of Charles Wright is the story of how wrestling treats Black wrestlers

I’m a wrestling fan. I’m Black. This presents a conflict: Wrestling is massively racist and always has been. The older I get and the more I understand this, the more I appreciate the Black talent that persevered despite the obstacles in their way. These are the people who captured my imagination and made me fall in love with the genre; their accomplishments are only amplified by what it took for them to succeed. Sadly, the same things that held them back also often lessened their respective impacts — so I want to give these Black wrestlers their flowers.

Papa Shango’s most famous wrestling moment doesn’t even feature Papa Shango. Instead, it’s a video of Ultimate Warrior, wrestling’s biggest non-Hulk Hogan star in the early ’90s, being interviewed by Mean Gene Okerlund. Suddenly a green-black ooze starts leaking from Warrior’s head; he starts shaking as only the Warrior could before screaming to the heavens. It’s a microcosm of early ’90s wrestling camp. The story was part of a feud between Warrior and Papa Shango, a voodoo priest character. That’s right. Papa Shango was a voodoo priest.

And it was racist as hell.

Charles Wright was discovered in the late ’80s as a bartender and bouncer at a popular nightclub where wrestlers were hanging out. He had a few runs in some of the independent territories before arriving in the WWE in 1991 testing out a character called “Sir Charles.” Yes, it was a play off of Charles Barkley because somebody white probably thought they looked alike. The character died in copyright infringement hell.

That opened the door for another character for Wright to play. This time it was Papa Shango, a witchdoctor based on nothing but horrible stereotypes. He gyrated. He had bone necklaces. He [deep sigh] put curses on people. However, he was memorable for how terrifying he was; as a kid, I remember covering my eyes when he would end his matches with some feat of Black magic.

That’s where the Ultimate Warrior thing comes in. The two were set for a feud that never materialized, partially because Papa Shango missed a cue to run into the ring and essentially screwed up the ending to Hulk Hogan vs. Sid Justice at WrestleMania VIII. The botch was pretty much the death knell for the Papa Shango character.

Even though Shango only lasted a year or so, he remains an unforgettable character among ’90s wrestling fans. He marked the era of absurdity. He also is a reminder of how Black characters get typecast as whatever outdated stereotype Vince McMahon can conjure. But much like Black entertainers often have to do, Wright did his best as Papa Shango and fully embraced the character. He was naturally charismatic and athletic for his size though he never quite got to show it.

Charles Wright would go on to try a few other gimmicks, all of which melted into one another—until he finally got his chance to shine in the late ’90s Attitude Era as another character born of the WWE’s problematic-ass imagination. It was a pimp.

But we’ll get to that later.

Level Sr. Writer covering Race, Culture, Politics, TV, Music. Previously: The Undefeated, The Atlantic, Washington Post. Forthcoming book: The Movement Made Us

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