Article Thumbnail

The Contested Blackness of The Rock

A roundtable of Black wrestling fans debate race in America — as seen through the lens of Dwayne and Rocky Johnson

Most people aren’t likely to describe Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a Black superstar athlete or as a Black movie star. Like, it’s safe to say, The Rock doesn’t typically get included in many Black History Month video tributes. 

Instead, audiences and fans tend to think of The Rock as Samoan. In fact, when Kofi Kingston defeated Daniel Bryan at WrestleMania 35 in 2019, many fans considered him to be the first Black WWE champion. There had been other champions who were Black (Ron Simmons, Booker T, Mark Henry), but none were the WWE champion. Well, except for The Rock. But because, on his mom’s side, The Rock comes from a famous Samoan wrestling family (with his grandfather, “High Chief” Peter Maivia, serving as the paterfamilias), that’s primarily how he’s viewed — again, as Samoan.  

Yet, as his new NBC show Young Rock reminds us, The Rock’s father, Rocky Johnson, was a Black man from Canada whose family had escaped and then fled slavery in America and who grew up to be a flamboyant Black wrestler in the 1970s nicknamed “The Soul Man.” Now, most times, the son of that man, by American standards, is Black. But this isn’t the case with The Rock. 

The first question, of course, is why? Though it’s probably equally important to ask, in 2021, does The Rock’s Blackness even matter anymore? And: Should it have ever mattered? Moreover, does The Rock owe it to us to clear up his racial status? Until recently, he’s steered clear of discussions of race, preferring to cultivate an appeal that’s often described as “transcending race.” Which brings up questions of its own — namely, was his race-neutral stance ill-considered, or was he ahead-of-his-time?

To consider these questions, I gathered a roundtable of Black men, ranging in age from twentysomething to 70. Most all of them were long-time wrestling fans, but one was more a fan of The Rock as an action star. Either way, each of them had insightful things to say about race in America as seen through the lens of The Rock and his dad, Rocky Johnson. 

What do you recall or know about Rocky Johnson’s career, and where would you place him in the pantheon of wrestlers?

Dave Schilling, TV writer, podcast host, former WWE writer: Rocky was mostly a tag-team specialist at a time when wrestling was still an artform that focused on stereotypes and demographic pandering. He was a remarkable athlete with natural charisma, but unfortunately, the business didn’t know what to do with Black wrestlers back then.

Jameel Raeburn, writer and podcast host: There isn’t much that I know from Rocky Johnson’s career, considering that a lot of my wrestling fandom began in the late 1990s when he was far removed from being a fixture in the WWE. However, the things that I strongly recall regarding him are 1) he’s the father of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson; and 2) he’s one half of the first-ever African-American Tag Team Champions in WWE history (and I believe the first African-American champion overall in WWE, alongside Tony Atlas). 

Over the last 25 years, since The Rock’s debut in professional wrestling, those have been the two major talking points of Rocky Johnson’s career. In regards to the pantheon of wrestlers, I’d place him high amongst African Americans in the business — especially considering how tough it was to be an African American in wrestling during the 1970s and during its major boom period in the 1980s. He’s a pioneer above everything else.

Zeke Burnett, my pops and a writer: From 1961 to 1964, we lived in Meadville, Pennsylvania, which is 90 miles from Lake Erie. Up in that part of the country, from October to April, you were pretty much in the house unless you were outside ice skating or skiing. So there was a lot of TV watched. What you had was wrestling, roller derby, and then, movies on Saturday. 

The wrestling was the shit. The whole family could watch it. My mother liked Bobo Brazil. I never knew why, but she was crazy about him. My dad liked the West Indian wrestler, The Calypso Kid. And everybody liked Rocky Johnson because he came out of nowhere, and he was just a big, sculptured statue.

He had one move they called the Johnson Shuffle, where he would punch a person three times with the fake left jab, and then come across with the right cross and drop them. The announcers would say, “Uh oh! Uh oh! Looks like he’s setting up the Johnson Shuffle. Watch out! Watch out!” The fans would go crazy. Then he’d stand up over the other wrestler with his hands stretched up in the air like, “That’s right. That’s what happens when you fuck with me.”

Rocky Johnson was reluctant to bring The Rock into wrestling, but his son proved that he would endure the training, and so, Rocky Johnson helped him become a wrestler after all. How much is their father-and-son story known among wrestling fans?

Schilling: Most fans know little about this story, mostly because Rocky wasn’t a huge star during the boom periods of wrestling, and they weren’t particularly close for many years.

Raeburn: Their father-and-son story isn’t known outside of what WWE has shown us over the years. There was a brief moment they had at WrestleMania 13, but that didn’t materialize into anything major. It’s kind of known that The Rock is a third-generation superstar, grandson of “High Chief” Peter Maivia and son of Rocky Johnson and that was the point driven home (almost verbatim) for much of the early part of his career.

Carl Anka, English sportswriter: The Rock was famously a legacy wrestler when he first turned up. He wore light blue, talked about his father and came out as “Rocky Maivia” — and fans HATED HIM. They would chant “DIE ROCKY DIE,” such was the vitriol he got. He didn’t have much of a character other than “Hey look, I’m the son of someone who used to wrestle!” and it didn’t take.

Watch this clip of him at Wrestlemania 13. This Wrestlemania falls in what’s called the “New Generation Era” — roughly between 1993 and 1997 where Hulk Hogan has left as a regular, but before Stone Cold and The Rock as you know him happened. Everything is a bit hokey and out of step and unsure of itself. Rocky Mavia fights The Sultan (who you might know as Rikiski); it’s not a particularly great match. Then, at the end, Rocky Johnson turns up and they do a dance. It’s fine. 

Pop: The Rock creeped into my awareness from the side. I saw by accident a thing where they were teasing one of the wrestling matches, and he was on there, going, “Can you smell what The Rock is cooking?” He just tickled me. Not long after that, he was on Saturday Night Live. That’s when I realized who he was. I told Pearl [my pop’s wife and my stepmother], “I know his family. Of course he’s wrestling. That’s Rocky Johnson’s son and the Samoan Chieftain’s grandson. Shit.” It was really a pleasure to realize who he was.

Michael Collett, a designer and big action movie buff: What I do know is, being Black/mixed, I certainly remember feeling a sense of shared identity with Dwayne when I found out about his heritage. But then I immediately heard about some shit like his “equally proud” schtick.

When The Rock started, he was a member of the Nation of Domination, a very pro-Black, Nation of Islam, Black Panther-inspired gimmick. What do you remember of the Nation and that period of WWE?

Schilling: The Nation was another in a long line of wrestling gimmicks that played off of stereotypes under the guise of being “topical.” One of the longest running rivalries the Nation had was with a group called the Disciples of Apocalypse, or DOA. DOA was a biker gang that evoked all manner of racial anxiety, from their skinhead look to certain wrestlers actually sporting SS tattoos. That said, the Nation was a chance for some of the most talented Black wrestlers of the era to capture a bit of the spotlight, launching the careers of beloved 1990s era stars like D’Lo Brown, Mark Henry, The Godfather, and of course, The Rock.

Anka: I will never stop using this GIF of the Nation of Domination: 

Nation of Domination featuring: wimpy white kid

Key thing about the Nation: They were heels. Even though all their members had salient points and grievances (and the late, great Owen Hart was a member at one point), the Nation were baddies. You were supposed to boo them. 

Wrestling has often toyed with anti-America or “outside” gimmicks, and retrospectively, you can think of the Nation as this incendiary good force but here’s Triple H, doing blackface to impersonate The Rock, when D-Generation X was feuding with the Nation. That was 1998. You can find documentaries years later when people happily discuss this, as if it was funny and not shocking.

Raeburn: The Nation of Domination is beloved by Black wrestling fans, including myself. They were African Americans put in prominent roles, and while the group was promoted to be a bit radical in their beliefs and actions, it was one of the earliest times when Black people weren’t necessarily playing caricatures of what people thought they’d be most associated with. Instead, they were pro-Black athletes who were pushed to the front of the WWE, with the former world champion (although not in WWF) Faarooq, the veteran Kama, the up-and-coming D’Lo Brown, Olympic athlete Mark Henry and The Rock, who they began to see as the future of the WWE.

At one point, the Nation of Domination confronted Vince McMahon about racism in the WWE. The Rock was originally put forward as a race-conscious half-Black wrestler. Do you remember that exchange?

Schilling: Yes, I remember, even then, thinking it was incredibly crass and disingenuous.

Raeburn: I don’t remember watching it live, but this is nothing surprising to me. In the late 1990s, WWE was leaning more toward edgy entertainment that they would soon label the “Attitude Era,” and these kinds of segments that pushed the boundaries were becoming a lot more prevalent. Faarooq, however, struck me as the wrestler who got the racism points much further than The Rock did, as I believe The Rock was just trying to get over a character at the moment.

The Rock eventually found his gimmick as a cocky heel, then later as a cocky babyface. But by then, he was a Samoan wrestler. Did you still think of him as a Black wrestler who was half-Samoan? Or did he become a Samoan wrestler for you, too?

Raeburn: A lot of my childhood I saw The Rock as a Samoan wrestler. WWE is very high on the idea of family lineage when pushing their talent, especially among the Samoan family of wrestlers, and he was heavily referred to as Samoan on-air. There have been a lot of Samoan wrestlers from the Anoa’i family that have passed through the WWE, and The Rock was always grouped in with them. Nor was The Rock ever acknowledged during any Black History Moments as a Black wrestler (until a few years ago when there was a debate about having a Black WWE Champion and people chose not to acknowledge The Rock). 

Schilling: The Rock never lost his Blackness. His parentage was never something he shied away from, which is something I respect. Did WWE make much of his background outside of vague mentions of his father? No, but we all knew.

Pop: Well, back in the day, there was never any overt talk about Rocky Johnson being a Black wrestler. For us, he was a Canadian wrestler. He was from Nova Scotia. Nobody knew anybody from Nova Scotia, so that was the biggest news. “Man, he’s a black guy” — well, everyone I knew was. “Yeah, but this one’s from Nova Scotia.” “Oh Shit.” The white announcers were all focused on race, but we were all focused on the international nature of Rocky Johnson — and he was really a good looking guy. Better yet, he was out there fucking people up.

In 2019, fans discussed whether or not The Rock counts as a Black WWE champion. And it seemed like more of the fans, of all ethnicities, saw The Rock as a Samoan wrestler, based on how Dwayne Johnson identifies. But then, to clear things up, The Rock weighed in, tweeting: 

What are your thoughts on his answer? What do you think about the idea that he “transcended race in wrestling?”

Anka: This is a BIG question. It’s impossible to fully answer it in the space allotted, based on the fact that I’d have to explain 70 years of wrestling history to get to the point. Basically, the history of WWE and American wrestling is very much like the history of America. It’s rare as a Black man to succeed if they constantly wish to remind the audience of their Blackness. That the Rock understands he had to transcend race shows he acknowledges the history of racism that pervaded the wrestling business. He got to the top because he was so electrifying he made money. 

Schilling: The idea of transcending race is a popular one with Black celebrities. I understand the need, from a business perspective. Race is sadly something we can’t ever fully transcend, because it’s something we wear every place we go. Society places unrealistic expectations on multiracial people, though. We have to be both things all the time, when that’s simply not possible. You can’t fault The Rock for saying he “transcends race,” because his identity is fluid and made up of so many things. It’s a balancing act and a difficult thing to live with, so we have to give him the space to be who he is.

Raeburn: I’m happy that he’s equally proud of both his Black and Samoan heritage, but it never really felt like that came across in any of his time in professional wrestling outside of the obvious Nation of Domination group. I also believe that he became extremely popular in wrestling where his race was never really questioned. He was bigger than that, he was The Rock (and I guess Samoan) before he was a Black superstar. But the idea of transcending race — as if it’s something that if you work hard enough, you can break free from — shouldn’t really be looked at as an achievement. Especially considering the amount of racism that we’ve seen in professional wrestling in front of the camera and the even worse instances we’ve heard about behind the scenes. 

I don’t think it’s so much that he transcended race as he never wanted to define who he was, which is why a lot of fans don’t consider him a Black WWE champion. But considering how massive of a superstar he became, imagine if he did. I think the idea that he believes he transcends race is a major reason why a lot of fans never accepted him as a Black champion until recently, or maybe still don’t at all.

Being that he’s mixed, is it important that The Rock be seen as and thought of as a Black wrestler?

Collett: I can’t speak to the wrestling part of this question, but Dwayne has always struck me as the type of mulatto to want his cake, and to be a negro, too, if you will. So much of his presentation and personal brand (both inside and outside the ring) has been about how he’s Black-adjacent — brown and menacing on command but totally into America(TM) — but Definitely Not Black. As someone recently asked me, “Are you Black, or are you not?” To me, as someone who’s mixed, but has always been Black, I can’t really abide that kind of quibbling.

Schilling: Denying any part of The Rock’s background is wrong. He’s a Black wrestler, but he’s also a Samoan wrestler. He’s a unique person in this world, just like the rest of us.

Pop: The sooner we can stop noticing things like whether or not The Rock is a Black wrestler, the sooner everybody will be free. When people are looking at horses, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a palomino or a beige that pulls the wagon out of the ditch. It was a horse. I don’t care if it’s a Black person, a Samoan, a Filipino, a Chinese person. To me, that’s all one family of human beings. The fact that Stevie Wonder is the greatest musician, it wasn’t because he was born Black. He was born with all of that talent within him, and he acted on it and so there’s no relationship. But then people try to act like he’s the greatest Black musician ever. No, he’s one of the greatest musicians ever. The fact that he’s Black is no more significant than the fact that Frank Sinatra wasn’t. At some point, we have to stop counting the Black people because that’s all that counts. Nobody’s counting the Irish presence in baseball, but everybody’s counting how many Black folks are in baseball.

Raeburn: It’s incredibly important that The Rock be seen as and thought of as a Black wrestler. While a lot of the argument against it comes from his refusal to be defined by race in wrestling or entertainment (especially with the roles that he chooses in movies), it’s still important because it stops people from immediately dismissing the culture of those who they don’t believe are full Black. The history of African Americans is expansive coming from various backgrounds and intertwined with different races, and I do believe that one’s journey, culture or struggle shouldn’t be dismissed because they aren’t fully Black.

Same question, different industry: Is it important that The Rock be seen as and thought of as a Black actor/celebrity?

Collett: My response is again to flip it on its head: Does Dwayne think of himself as Black? Or as I tweeted years ago, “Can @therock say #BlackLivesMatter?” I’d say being that he’s mixed — and visibly Black enough that he’d be Black if he weren’t The Rock — it’s important that Dwayne think of himself as Black. But I don’t think he does. Him and Vin Diesel both, I feel like, need some race education. And like, as a nigga who could pass for either of them with a shaved head, I feel like I get to say that. Maybe my broad reaction to this has something to do with the fact that I’m not mixed with anything sexy like Samoan, or Japanese, or whatever. But don’t claim us if you don’t claim us, you know?

Raeburn: We should think of The Rock as a Black athlete and a Black actor/celebrity. It’s hard and extremely detrimental to dismiss the race of a person because we don’t feel like he represents us (which is a major issue for a lot of biracial people growing up), but I do think a lot of the power that comes from accepting The Rock as a Black athlete and Black actor/celebrity comes from himself truly incorporating it into his professional identity and perhaps his personal one as well.

Schilling: Yes, The Rock is absolutely a Black athlete and a Black celebrity, in the same way that Barack Obama and Kamala Harris are Black politicians, or that I’m a Black writer. It’s part of who you are.

Pop: It’s the same way that Alexander Hamilton was never thought of as a white scholar. I don’t think The Rock should be thought of as a Black wrestler. He’s one of the greatest wrestlers of all time and the fact that he’s Black, Samoan or anything else is just coincidental; because everybody’s something. His father’s family escaped slavery to go to Nova Scotia. You can’t get much Blacker than that. You don’t have to declare that he’s Black. He’s the ancestor of an escaped African slave. He is Black. So he doesn’t have to therefore make a declaration of his Blackness. That’s why I say Hamilton didn’t come out and say he was white, or jealous that anybody else said they were white, because it didn’t matter. What does matter is that The Rock is a free man, moving though the world as a free man, and honoring his family’s traditions.