Drake just joined the game, but these celebrities have held down their beverage brand partnerships for years What You Got On My Drank?: Top 7 most Undefeated rapper/alcohol beverage partnerships

Now, I’m all for a good adult beverage when it comes to chillin’ at a good social outing or just winding the day down. One thing is certain, and that is the fact that my choice has never been influenced by a celebrity endorsement.

That’s why the news of rapper and actor Drake jumping into the whiskey game didn’t really move me. Everything Drizzy touches turns to gold, so I’m sure the venture will be a success, but will his partnership with Virginia Black Whiskey have staying power?

Perhaps.

In October of 2016, the $39.95 bottle of bourbon was the highest-selling liquor in Toronto. According to the Toronto Star, on Sept. 30, Virginia Black topped single-day sales at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario after “moving 1,779 bottles across 220 stores.”

Weeks after its launch in June 2016, 4,650 bottles were sold in the province, raking in $186,000 in retail sales. To put this into perspective, Ciroc sold 1,855 bottles in its first week. Virginia Black was launched with ex-financier Brent Hocking and company Proximo Spirits. According to Business Insider, the brand sold 30,000 cases globally in its first year.

The verdict is still out on the taste for me, but he’s already causing a buzz taking a shot at Dos Equis.

The liquor business and rappers go back as far as Snoop Dogg and Tupac and their St. Ides partnership. But, thanks to Drake, we’ve decided to break out my list of the Top 7 most Undefeated rapper/alcohol beverage partnerships.


#7 Roc-A-fella – Armadale Vodka

Armadale Vodka was Jay-Z’s first venture into the liquor game, but this one was with his Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam partner Damon Dash. It was 2002 when Jay-Z and Dash purchased Armadale Vodka. Dash said in a statement back then that “Roc-A-Fella has always respected quality vodkas, such as Belvedere and Grey Goose. Just like we do with our businesses, we wanted to present a vodka that represented the best. And we feel Armadale is of elite quality.” Although the two have parted ways, this wasn’t the last of either in the liquor business.

Hip-Hop mogul Damon Dash arrives at “A Night of Celebration” in honor of director Rob Minkoff and the completion of “The Haunted Mansion” at Minkoff’s home on Nov. 20, 2003, in Los Feliz, California.

Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

 

#6 Ludacris – Conjure Cognac

Being a big cognac drinker and fan of the rapper, I gave this a fair shot. Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Kim Birkedal Hartmann founded Conjure Cognac in 2009. With a decent taste and at $48 a bottle, it’s nice but not good enough to trade in my Hennessy.

#5 Rick Ross – Belaire Rose Champagne

Rozzay made being down with the “Black Bottle Boys” a real thing. I’m not a big champagne drinker, but I bought a couple of bottles once for the wife on our anniversary, not a bad sip. She was impressed. Luc Belaire is a brand of sparkling wine with two varieties: a Rare Rosé and a Rare Brut. The Maybach Music Group founder became the brand ambassador in 2013 and fused Luc Belaire and the rap game. Priced at $30 to $50 per bottle, it’s not a champagne that will break your pockets.

#4 Jay Z – Ace of Spades

This drink is the champagne of champions these days but is a bit overpriced at $300 a pop. Formally named Armand De Brignac, it got its street name from the label of the bottle and was acquired by Jay-Z on Nov. 5, 2014. So far it has three different blends. One contains grape varieties of pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay. One is a rosé and a chardonnay, and in 2015 under Jay-Z’s reign a demi-sec and pinot noir. It debuted in the video for “Show Me What You Got.”

Jay-Z poses with “Ace of spades” Magnum at his American History Inaugural Gala at Club Love on Jan. 16, 2009, in Washington, D.C.

Prince Williams/FilmMagic

#3 50 Cent – Effen

This is a good, affordable vodka with multiple flavors from Curtis Jackson. Kudos to 50 for working his drink into his show Power, but an even bigger salute for recently making $60M by selling his stake in July. In 2016 it was announced that the rapper, producer and actor was partnering with Effen Vodka. According to XXL, 50 Cent is still with the brand in some capacity. Effen issued a statement in July stating, “Contrary to any inaccurate media reports, EFFEN Vodka’s partnership with 50 Cent continues.”

Instagram Photo

#2 Jay Z – D’ussÈ

Jay-Z’s most recent brand venture is the fine French cognac D’ussè, and this will put you back about $45 a bottle. Aimed at a younger audience, Hov has infused the drink into his hip-hop empire and even sipped it from his award at the 2013 Grammys. Even rapper Lil Wayne has a song title “D’ussé” after the drink. Its round shape and gold double cross give it the appeal it needs to attract some buyers. Bacardi launched the VSOP cognac in June of 2012 in New York City, when it announced Jay would be the brand’s frontman.

#1 Diddy – Ciroc

Puff is an expert marketer, so it should come as no surprise that his vodka comes in at No. 1. When it comes to my vodka, I prefer Tito’s or Ketel One, but Ciroc is definitely the go-to when it comes to the club, lounge or house parties. The ladies and men seem to love its sweet taste, and whenever a new flavor drops the fam flocks immediately to the liquor store to cop the latest offering from Sean Combs.

Combs became the face of Ciroc in a joint venture with beverage company Diageo. Its growth has been consistent, and it keeps making noise on the scene. Combs told Fortune in 2014 he’s had challenges in diving into the liquor business but he keeps moving forward.

“With Ciroc, people may have thought that [the vodka] was for African-Americans. People wanted to put it in a box. So the biggest lesson I learned is that I had to work harder to overcome those perceptions and create a wonderful product regardless of my color, regardless of my celebrity. The reality is I have to work harder than other brands to do that.”

Professional wrestler Booker T’s raw life An orphan, a dropout, a felon – and now a famous, married father running for mayor of Houston

They came out bug-eyed and angry, just like the promoter had instructed. Real-life brothers in a phony sport, mean-mugging in lavender tuxedo jackets, bow ties and shades.

“Ebony Experience!” the announcer boomed.

Just like the pro wrestling gods of their youth — Ron Simmons, Junkyard Dog and all those thickly muscled black men who used to enrage fans at ringside — Booker and Lash Huffman ticked off the crowd that night, too.

The 300 or so fans in the mostly empty Sportatorium, a dilapidated Dallas bandbox built in 1934, bent their torsos over the railing as the fledgling tag team made their way to the ring. They contorted their faces and screamed every racial epithet they could think of for a black man.

“C—!”

“N—–!”

“Go back to Africa, you f—– j——s!”

Booker wanted to jump the barrier and throw haymakers. Lash, six years older, laughed, camouflaging his anger. These bigots “are everyday stuff in America to us,” he told himself, widening the ring ropes for his little brother to slip through.

It was 1992, less than three years after Lash had told Booker he needed to come up with $3,000 to attend a pro wrestling school in Houston. And now, for $100 each, they had a tryout with the Global Wrestling Federation. The script called for them to go out as heels (villains) against two beefcakes called Brute Forcz. They would then emerge as faces (good guys), aiming to win the crowd’s affection by the end of the match. If the Huffmans were entertaining, they’d get more work.

But when the promoter told them, “You have to make the guys you’re working with look good,” Lash shook his head and pulled his brother aside.

“It looks like the fix is in,” he said. “Let’s just go out there and make these guys look better than they’ve ever looked in their life.”

They played the heels to the hilt at first, scowling and grunting as the N-bombs cascaded from the stands. But then Booker began quarterbacking the match. “OK, throw me into the ropes,” he whispered to one of his opponents as the match was going on. “Now duck.”

Incredibly, the crowd began to turn. “Same dude that just called us all that awful s— is now going crazy for us,” Booker said.

When it ended, Booker went to the middle of the ring and began break dancing, ending with his shoulders on the mat and his legs twirling in the air, a move the ringside announcer christened “The Spinaroonie.”

Within a week, Ebony Experience was the Sportatorium’s main attraction. The Huffman brothers — Booker at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, Lash standing 6-5 and pushing 290 — a quarter-ton of bicep-flexin’, smack-talkin’ black ’tude, were packing all 4,500 seats.

After that night, the racist bile from one man’s mouth or an entire crowd wouldn’t faze Booker, because he came to understand an unsettling truth: The same people who N-bombed him were paying his rent, and some of them went on to become his most ardent fans. If he had to smell America’s bad breath, so what? It was the price of acceptance and ascendance in the squared-circle world, a world so much grander and greater than he had known before.


Twelve years later: Another arena, this one on Long Island, New York, another white opponent who needed to look good. Paul Michael Levesque, a stringy-haired behemoth known as Triple H, eyeballed Booker up and down within inches of his face, as if he had bought his opponent at auction.

By this time, Huffman, wrestling under the name Booker T, was no newbie. Propelled by a charismatic personality, the Spinaroonie and a trademark catchphrase purloined from the 1979 film The Warriors — “Can you dig it, sucka?” — he was one of the most popular figures on the pro circuit. That’s why it was so disturbing when, weeks before Triple H and Booker were to face off for the heavyweight championship at Wrestlemania XIX in Seattle, Levesque went to sinister places to sell the card.

“Somebody like you … doesn’t get to be a world champion,” Levesque told Booker at an event in the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, pausing between sneers for effect. “People like you don’t deserve it.”

People like you?

“You’re here to be an entertainer. … Go ahead, Book, why don’t ya entertain? Do a little dance for me, Book. Why don’t you give me one of them Spinaroonies? Come on, don’t be embarrassed. That’s your job, to make people like me laugh. You’re very good at it — with your nappy hair and your ‘suckas.’ ”

The payoff had to be revenge, right? Black good guy over white meanie? When faces absorb such abuse from heels, the story is supposed to end with the face getting vindication via pin — or something that felt like the karma gods had spoken.

In the match itself, Booker T nailed his routine, breaking out an arsenal of dropkicks and clotheslines. At one point, he flipped 360 degrees off one of the turnbuckles and landed perfectly flat, next to Triple H’s head, which he elbowed. It was a feat as skillful as anything Greg Louganis ever managed off a 3-meter diving platform.

When both men collapsed in exhaustion at the end, the crowd was waving handmade, pro-Booker T placards. But as Triple H feebly laid an arm on Booker T’s chest, the “referee” counted the face out instead of the heel.

Crestfallen adults and children could be seen in the crowd. These people had bought in. They were sure of the outcome, knowing it would be as sweet for Booker T. as for them.

And then … nothing. No silver lining.

Not that night.

“I found out about a week before the match that that’s how it was going to go down,” Huffman, 52, says now. “I had to make the crowd feel a certain way about a guy with a silver spoon in his mouth beating a guy who pretty much worked his way up from the trenches. I didn’t question it, argue it. I knew everyone wanted me to win. But I just went along with what they wanted.

“It was easier that way. If I didn’t go along, where would I really be now? Could I have done the things I’ve done, overcome the things I’ve overcome?”


Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

There are no victims here, only volunteers. This is a story about a professional wrestler who used an artificial sport to build a real life.

It’s about a kid who dropped out of high school before becoming a convicted felon, and the big brother who refused to let “Junior” throw his life away. He found a career and his second wife in the ring. And after vanquishing multiple fictional foes, he now wants to take on education and homelessness as the next mayor of Houston.

Booker T’s loss to Triple H that night crushed many fans because, perhaps more than anyone else in the wrestling business, his reality was so integrated with his ring character that it often was hard to distinguish between the man and the actor.

He grew up orphaned and poor. He caught no breaks early, got in his own way later and somehow still found a path to prosperity in a profession that mirrors and magnifies the best and worst in its heels, faces and audience.

His career blew up nearly 20 years ago after a seemingly innocuous visit with wrestler Diamond Dallas Page to a juvenile detention center. He debated that day whether to tell his actual life story or stick to clichés about hard work and keeping your head on straight. But when he noticed that some of the hard-knock kids were rolling their eyes at Page’s motivational speech, Huffman went all-in. He told those kids everything, down to the day he got out of prison.

Some teared up. Others sat there, wide-eyed. When he finished, they stood and applauded. Page was so moved he told Huffman he needed to tell his story through his character, that his odyssey was much better than anything wrestling’s scriptwriters could come up with.

“It’s funny, you know, they love to say how wrestling is so fake and made-up,” Lash Huffman said. “And the irony of the whole thing is, the best thing about my brother is his honesty. Junior is so honest.”

Booker T inside of the ring at his gym, Reality of Wrestling.

Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

The more his story was told, the more the lines blurred. Was this real or entertainment? Sport or theater? Is the scripted racism damaging or satire? Do the heels and faces of pro wrestling reflect the world, or are they a caricature of it?

In the end, those are false dichotomies: The answer is always yes.

It is sport and theater. It reflects society and is a caricature of it. The racism is harmless and hurtful.

Pro wrestling is entertainment and real — especially for a boy who lost his mom young.


Danny, Carolyn, Lula Gayle, Billie Jean, Donald, Lash, Bonita and the baby, Booker: Rosa Huffman had eight children by three different men. And every member of the family watched pro wrestling, including a 4-foot-6 grandmother who had an old mattress put in her backyard for her grandchildren to practice flapjack pins.

Booker’s father, said to be a serious man and a good provider, ran moonshine, gambled and worked legitimately at the local pool hall in Plain Dealing, Louisiana. Booker Jr. was just 10 months old when his father went to retrieve a block of ice for the pool hall and dropped dead of a stroke. He was 59.

Rosa Huffman couldn’t bear staying in Louisiana after her husband’s death. She moved the family to Houston, where she worked as a nurse and supported all eight children by herself.

But when she was just 49, Rosa fell through the ceiling onto her back and neck while trying to fix the kitchen fan. She kept telling her panicked children she would be OK. And she was, for a few months. But a second surgery to remove fluid from her spine left her in a coma.

After several weeks, she was taken off life support. Booker, 13, and Bonita, 16, lost the only responsible adult in their lives. The older siblings tried to play guardians for a while, but many were running the streets, bringing home drug people and others who left Booker and Bonita so afraid to go to sleep at night that they wedged a chair against the bedroom door handle. Lash, the third youngest, couldn’t take the madness. He moved to a friend’s house without telling his youngest siblings.

Soon, the chaos of their siblings’ lives scared Booker and Bonita into moving back into their mother’s crumbling apartment by themselves. When the water was shut off for lack of payment, they schlepped 5-gallon buckets to a service station up the street, filled them with water and lugged them back, the skin of both palms bloodied by the metal handles. Bonita says she and her brother used the water for drinking, bathing, dishwashing and “filling up the toilet so it would flush.”

“Lot of days we just ate one meal at school and went hungry at home,” Bonita recalled. “No social worker even knew we were there. I could see my brother upset about a lot of things at that point. He was angry.”

Booker took out his meager station in life on other neighborhood kids. Bonita never remembered her brother losing a fight. “He wasn’t a bully or anything like that. He just never backed down,” she said. “That was something I loved about him: You don’t run, you face it head-on.”

Booker T holds an old photo of himself and his brother Lash.

Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

At 17, he impregnated a 15-year-old girl, who kept the baby even though her high school beau stopped answering his phone when she called. Still, Booker got a job at Fiesta Mart to help support their boy and began lifting steaks and whatever else he could manage. He was fired soon after — not for stealing, but for trying to impersonate his sister Billie Jean, calling his manager in a comically high-pitched voice to say, “My brother isn’t feeling well and won’t be in today.”

Booker dropped out of school. Bonita had moved to Dallas for work, and none of his uncles or aunts wanted him staying with them. Every reservoir of familial goodwill had dried up, except for one.

He’d barely had a relationship with Lash in the four years since their mother had died. But Booker swallowed his pride and moved into the Willow Creek Apartments with his older brother, who told him he could stay if he got a job.

So working a mile and a half away, he began dropping frozen fries into hot oil, assembling burgers with cheese and filling cups of soft-serve ice cream. He didn’t exactly rock that red shirt and black cap. But with no diploma and a newborn son, Booker was happy to have a job at Wendy’s.


A few months later, he was transferred to a different Wendy’s across town, which meant he had to catch one bus, wait 30 minutes and transfer to another one to get to work each day. In no time, the job went from a needed employment opportunity to a dead-end gig.

Billie Jean hooked him up with her boyfriend, a prominent marijuana dealer, who routinely had pounds of cannabis on his dining room table. Booker began slinging $5 and $10 bags of marijuana on the side, often smoking most of his profit.

He saw less and less of Lash at home, falling in with a crew that included his childhood friend, Wendell Sylvester, and Zackery Claybourne, a streetwise brother who had been to prison for robbery. They began carousing the club scene, wearing matching Adidas suits and coming up with nicknames for themselves: Booker was Nature Boy (after wrestler Ric Flair), Zack was Z-Boy and Wendell became Mr. Big Stuff.

Booker and Zack both worked at the Gulfgate Mall Wendy’s off Telethon Road, where their manager kept riding them about overcooked fries, undercooked burgers and the need to scrub the rings of caked-on chili off the pots. Eventually, Zack quit and Booker was fired for not showing up.

One night as they all smoked up Booker’s sales, someone threw out an insane idea: “Why don’t we get some guns and rob Wendy’s?” It kept coming up over the next few weeks until they decided on the most wacked notion of all. Zack and Booker each had a few uniforms.

Let’s rob Wendy’s with our uniforms on.

Decades later, it’s still one of the city’s most brazen string of robberies. Pretty quickly, they stopped concealing their faces with stocking caps, walking into a restaurant with .38-caliber pistols and their work uniforms, often behind legitimate employees taking the trash out at closing time. Booker would wait outside in his aunt’s car.

Soon, the crime was less a rush than getting home in time to watch the local news — “Wendy’s Bandits Strike Again” at 11:01 p.m. Over the first three months of 1987, Booker and his friends had robbed 12 Wendy’s, stealing between $400 and $4,000 each time. In what would be their last holdup, Booker went into the restaurant with Zack and Wendell, pistols drawn.

Houston police issued a reward of $5,000 for information that would lead to their arrest. The ads began playing on a local “CrimeStoppers” segment, and one of the interested viewers was Zack’s girlfriend.

On what became his last day of freedom, Booker met Zack at McGregor Park, smoked and sold weed, and headed home around dusk. As he neared the front door of the unit he shared with Lash, he sensed an eerie quiet.

Police officers in SWAT gear had him on the ground and cuffed in seconds. Booker feigned ignorance at first, but he was picked from a police lineup by witnesses who remembered him from the night he went into the Wendy’s for the robbery.

Within months, Booker, Zack and Wendell were in separate 6-by-8-foot cells at the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville – Walls Unit. Named for its brick facade, Walls Unit was where all convicted felons were processed through the state’s penal system. It also housed the state’s execution chamber.

Huffman recalled something his mother once told him: “Junior, you know right from wrong. There’s no gray area in between. If you don’t stop, you’ll end up dead or in jail.”

At 22 years old, he was 1 for 2.


Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

Good behavior allowed Booker to serve just 19 months of consecutive five-year sentences for armed robbery and aggravated assault. Sylvester, by contrast, said he served 9½ years of a 22-year sentence.

Though Booker’s lying killed much of the trust Lash had in him, Lash knew his younger brother wasn’t a career criminal. He told Booker, “I’ll help you get back on your feet. But whatever you do — sweeping floors, washing dishes, digging ditches — you gotta pay your dues and walk a straight line.”

He got a job at American Mini Storage, completing his parole and getting custody of his son, Brandon, 6, who had been turned over to child protective services because his mother was unable to care for him. A part of him missed his old life: the partying, the chaos, the sense he could go buck wild at any moment. But that world couldn’t compare with microwaving Ramen noodles, adding chicken, cheese and crumbled-up crackers, and sharing dinner with his son.

As a lark one afternoon in 1989, Lash went by a small wrestling school in Houston owned by Ivan Putski, the bodybuilder/wrestler whose duels with the Iron Sheik and Jesse Ventura fueled the sport in the 1970s and ’80s. He simply then said to Booker, “Let’s start rasslin’.”

Booker thought he was joking at first, but Lash kept going. “Man, we’ve been fans for so long, and we both need something more in our lives. We’ve both got size, we’re athletic and we’ve got personality off the f— charts!”

Lash said it would cost $3,000, and Booker sulked. He didn’t have that kind of money anymore. But his boss at the storage company, Bruce Gasarch, gave Booker a $3,000 bonus and told him to make him proud.


“Cowboy” Scott Casey, a former World Wrestling Federation star, mentored Booker at Putski’s school. He also came up with his first character at the time the Gulf War had begun: “G.I. Bro, America’s greatest hero.”

Lash was given the character name “Stevie Ray,” and within two years they were on their way to Dallas and the Sportatorium for their first tag team match. Booker wrestled on the Texas Independent Circuit for two more years and kept the job at the storage company until Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling signed him for $70,000. Booker left for Atlanta and a life he’d dreamed about as a kid.

“It was an escape for me,” he said. “I had been in prison. I had lost my parents at a young age. I had no high school diploma.

“I finally found something that I really did very, very well. It was like, ‘Wow, I’m better than everybody else at this.’ I’m serious. It was like that. I knew I was better than everybody else. I had done theater and been a drum major for a while in high school. Then when I found wrestling, it was like déjà vu. Like, ‘Man, I’ve done this before in another life.’ ”

In 2000, wrestling’s once-dominant organization, World Championship Wrestling, was in a no-holds-barred battle royal with its rising competitor, the World Wrestling Federation. The WCW decided to pit its world heavyweight champion Jeff Jarrett against Booker T at the end of the season’s tour in Daytona Beach, Florida, in a card titled “Bash at the Beach.”

For the first time in his solo career, it was decided Booker T would emerge with the belt — the exact one (sans a few missing gemstones) that his childhood hero, Flair, had once worn. But in a bizarre turn of events, Hulk Hogan went off script. He had creative control written into his contract. And on the evening of the event, he told the WCW brass he wanted to be champion.

A poster of Booker T wearing the WCW World Championship belt inside of his home gym.

Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

Organizers were furious. But they created a storyline where Jarrett lay down in the ring with the belt at his side. Hogan, looking equally angry, circled the ring with a microphone and called the WCW a “bulls— organization” before half-heartedly climbing atop Jarrett. The referee counted to three for the pin and the lights went down. This was all part of the show, but it was followed by an unusual turn: WCW head writer Vince Russo coming to the ring and launching into a five-minute tirade aimed at Hogan, calling the wrestling legend a “god damn politician,” among other epithets.

Later in the evening, Booker T’s music began playing and everything restarted. Jarrett came out as if he was still champion, and he and Booker T performed the heel-face dance to perfection. For the first time in his individual ring career, Booker T was a heavyweight champion of the world.

No pro wrestler actually wins his title in the ring, of course. The decision is made backstage or weeks before by company presidents and scriptwriters. But once the belt is bestowed on you, it means your employer believes you are ready to be its most important ambassador. WCW believed an African-American with a backstory better than any they could write would sell. And Booker T sold.

Although promoters often wanted him to play a stereotype, he made a conscious decision to try for crossover appeal. He refused suggestions that his walk-up music be gangsta rap. He enunciated all his words. The only from-the-’hood line he used was his trademark slogan, “Can you dig it, sucka?”

“If I was wrestling a white guy and he was a good guy, they would cheer for him and boo me if I was a stereotypical black guy,” he said. “But me not being the stereotypical black guy, I can get away with it and be cheered just as much as him.

“They were cheering for Booker T — not the black guy coming out from the curtain.”

It wasn’t exactly “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” But for many people in the crowd, he seemed like a good guy with a remarkable backstory, and they were happy to cheer for this black man.

Booker realized how famous he had become one night in 1995 at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. He was eating a steak dinner when an older gentleman interrupted him. “Are you Booker T? My kids love you. You mind if I take a picture with you?”

Booker did a double take. Frankie Valli of the Four Seasons knows who I am?

“You know why the fans were sad [about the Triple H loss]?” he said. “Because I touched them. And that doesn’t happen very often in this business, where someone of color can make them feel that way. I always worked on emotion. On telling my real story. My goal was to make them cry.”

A year after he was made champion, the WCW was taken over by the WWF and rechristened World Wrestling Entertainment. Huffman signed on. More than a decade after Putski’s wrestling school, he was now contractually obligated to WWE CEO Vince McMahon.


Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

It’s been 14 years since his Wrestlemania loss to Triple H. You want Huffman to be angry, resentful even, that McMahon and his writers wouldn’t let his character win that night.

He’s not.

“I never lost a wink of sleep over that,” he said. “Let all the fans know because they ask me about it all the time. They wanted Booker T to win the title more than I wanted to win myself.”

Triple H, he said, “was just playing his part, however f—– up that part looked.” At the time, Triple H denied any bigotry on his part, saying, “Why would anybody think I am a racist? Did I ever mention the word ‘black’?

Asked for comment, a WWE spokesman responded with this statement: “WWE is committed to embracing and celebrating individuals from all backgrounds as demonstrated by the diversity of our employees, performers and fans worldwide. Just like other TV shows and movies, our entertainment programming features fictional characters who play the role of protagonists and antagonists. Over the years, WWE storytelling has evolved along with the social landscape, and today WWE offers family-friendly, PG-rated programming.”

“They used me and I used them — that’s how I looked at it,” Huffman says now. “I was never down with being the stereotypical brother, and I made sure of that as my career went on.

“But at some point, you also realize white guys invented the sport and still control it. If you want to work, you gotta play by their rules and sometimes be who they want you to be.”

Perhaps that’s how you last in an entertainment genre that routinely traffics in ugly stereotypes about African-Americans.

One in which Rowdy Roddy Piper once pretended to feed bananas to a poster of Mr. T, saying he would “whip him like a slave.” And Ventura used to refer to black wrestler Koko B. Ware (James Ware) as “Buckwheat.” Kamala (Jim Harris) was billed as an almost-mute African savage. Tony Atlas was remade into Saba Simba, replete with shield, spear, headdress and a cringe-inducing “tribal” dance.

When Lash and Booker came to the WCW in 1993, their storyline called for them to play two convicts, won in a card game by cigar-chomping, seersucker-wearing manager/plantation owner Col. Robert Parker. At some of their first shows, the Huffmans dressed in prison jumpsuits and leg shackles because that’s what their white bosses thought would sell. Naming a modern tag team composed of two African-Americans Cryme Tyme seems almost benign in comparison.

Moralizing about it, expecting cultural enrichment and organic diversity is like expecting NASCAR fans to lower those LDL numbers. It’s the world of the Tonga Kid, the Mad Hungarian and an Asian-American man with perfect diction called Mr. Fugi, who practiced speaking broken English. Every minority is crudely stereotyped in the squared circle.

“Understand the only thing that has ever been real for me with wrestling is the entertainment and the performance in front of the crowd,” Huffman said. “In the end, it was all a show. … If it was real, I would have been one-time heavyweight champion because I would have beat up everybody.”

Late in his career, as a heel named King Booker, Huffman won the now-retired WWE World Heavyweight Championship, a belt the company created in 2002 for its Smackdown and Raw brands. But since the WWE’s origin in 1963, through 50 champions and more than 130 belt changes, no African-American has won its highest-profile title, the WWE World Championship. John Cena had 13 title reigns. Triple H had nine. The Rock (Dwayne Johnson, whose mother is Samoan and whose father is African-Canadian) held the title nine times.

“It’s still the one title that no [African-American] has ever won,” Booker said as we ate lunch at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Houston, a few hundred yards from his Reality of Wrestling training gym. (He has another facility an hour south of town where wrestling shows are taped for TV, and he also promotes boxing and MMA cards.)

“Why I never won it? Look, it’s their company. It’s almost like, I went to play a pickup game at the park. The one kid who’s got the basketball, he may be an OK player but maybe not the best player. But he’s on the team. It’s his ball. If I’m not a big person about that, I’m going home.”

It’s worth noting that Booker still works for WWE, where Levesque is now an executive vice president, as an announcer on Monday Night Raw. Booker never slammed the WWE for its decades of race-baiting. But then, how could he when he never objected to playing his part in the wincing black-white bits?

He played Triple H’s victim during that racially loaded promo. A few years later, he and Sharmell, his stage partner and real-life wife, conveniently stood off to the side as McMahon called John Cena “my n—–.” (“Tell me … he didn’t just say that?” Booker responds in what he acknowledges is one of his worst acting jobs. “I got so much grief for that from the black community. Part of the show.”) One time, he used the N-word himself while talking about Hulk Hogan during a promo, although he later acknowledged it was a mistake.

He retired as a full-time wrestler in 2012 and officially in 2016. With distance comes perspective.

“Look at these poor cats, New Day,” he said, referring to a current black tag team, a three-person outfit allowed to keep the two-man title under the “Freebird rule.” (Because why wouldn’t you have three black men following a rule named for three whites who once showed up for a match at Comiskey Park in Chicago with their faces painted as Confederate flags?)

“They’re the new token black guys,” Huffman said. “It’s as racist as it’s always been, most black wrestlers still being put in the back seat. I just never spent too much energy on it, other than not getting my total just due as being a champion, which I deserved.

“I woulda been a great champion, great ambassador. I know I would have.”

Does he get to play both sides of this fence? On his way up, Booker permitted wrestling to use his race. Now that it’s over, he gets reflective.

Was he genuinely hurt by his profession’s racism or not? Again, it’s a false choice.

He cared and he didn’t care. He didn’t care what sold the product. But he did care that he had to play by rules that kept him in the box labeled “Black Guys.”


“I look forward to having a dialogue with the voters of Houston, and if I am so privileged to serve, I will fight for them as hard as I have fought for myself and my family over the last 30 years,

— Booker T. Huffman’s Twitter account, December 2016

“You’re a mess,” Booker says to his 6-year-old son, Kendrick.

“You’re a mess, Dad,” Kendrick says back.

“Yeah, Daddy, you’re a mess,” echoes his twin sister, Kennedy.

Booker never really retired from wrestling. He just went into business as a suburban father. His pectorals and arms are still Royal Rumble-ready. He does 400 pushups each morning, not out of vanity as much as to ensure a 52-year-old father of young twins remains on this side of the soil as long as possible. (Brandon, now 33, had his own trouble with the law growing up. He lives in Houston and works in marketing.)

Booker T speaks on the phone while his twins, Kennedy and Kendrick, play on his shoulders.

Todd Spoth for The Undefeated

The felony conviction from 30 years ago still follows him. When he began traveling for wrestling shows internationally, Booker was frequently questioned by immigration agents. He had trouble at first getting a liquor license for his venue that hosts wrestling shows and boxing cards. And he needs a pardon from the governor before he can legally be a candidate on the November 2019 ballot.

“The paperwork is already in,” Booker said. His three personal references: Stephanie McMahon, Vince’s daughter, Triple H’s wife and the chief brand officer of WWE; Joanne Herring, the Texas socialite who persuaded the U.S. government to train and arm the Afghan mujahedeen fighters during the Soviet war on U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson’s behalf; and Gasarch, his former boss who lent him the money for wrestling school.

Incumbent Sylvester Turner, an African-American Democrat, was a longtime member of the Texas Legislature before winning the mayor’s office in 2016 on his third attempt. Booker has yet to declare a political party, but he’s serious about his campaign. He’s hired an aide and an adviser to help formulate a platform.

Houston’s growing homeless problem, inspiring the city’s youth and fixing its educational system are his first priorities.

“You’ve got to go to the young people and look at it from their perspective,” he said. “We’ve heard forever, ‘Respect your elders,’ and it’s made us help little old ladies across the street and pay attention to our senior citizens. But I’ve never heard one time, throughout my 52 years, someone say, ‘Respect your young people.’

“We’ve got these classrooms of 40 kids, and it’s so disruptive the kids can’t learn anything. My mother-in-law works in the school district. She sees it daily. Something needs to be done about that. I’m not against public schooling, but I feel like the money that’s going into public schools needs to be appropriated properly.”

No Houston media outlet has taken the town’s temperature over the 2019 election, so it’s hard to say whether Booker’s candidacy will be received well. But he says with conviction, “I think I can win. I’ll get the young vote, the millennial vote.

“Sylvester Turner, Harvard [Law School] grad. He’s a very smart guy. But it’s not about him. It’s about my legacy, how many people I can help while I’m on this earth. Thing about it is, if I win I win, and if I lose I win. It’s not about just winning. It’s about getting off my couch and doing something.”

Maybe 20 years ago, the idea of a pro wrestler becoming mayor of a major American city might have been politically fraught. But we are in the post-Ventura, Arnold Schwarzenegger world now. A reality show host is our nation’s president. Why would we think Booker T can’t win? He’s already completed an apprenticeship of what it takes to move the masses in America.

“I pretty much made some dirt when I was a kid and made sure I got a big broom as an adult so I could sweep it,” he said, laughing. “I’m still sweeping to clean it up.”

Almost exactly 30 years after his robbery conviction, he still has nightmares of that swarm of police in riot gear. Strangely, there is also gratitude for those 19 months in prison, a reminder of the 336 months of freedom that followed.

A few years ago, he was contracted to give a speech to a group of wealthy Houston residents and wondered what he could say to motivate millionaires. “They’re already rich.”

He decided to tell the story of the Wendy’s Bandits feeling young and invincible before their fall. They gave him a standing ovation, unaware that Booker had a surprise for them.

“I want to introduce you to Wendell,” he said, pointing to a man immaculately dressed in fine Italian wool like many of the others in the room.

Booker had run into Sylvester at a gas station. He had no job, hadn’t shaved in weeks and looked hungry. Booker got him cleaned up and asked if he would accompany him to the speech.

Sylvester, who says he’s been straight since he got out of prison in 1995, now works as a driver for a trucking company. Although Booker says he wanted to keep helping him, the two men have since lost touch.

We want a world of bright lines. Heels and faces. But that’s not real life. It’s not the wrestling world, either. Both are messy. Complicated. Good and bad are mixed together, and both can be profitable for anyone willing to play their part.

Can you dig it, sucka?

‘Saturday Night Live’s’ Colin Jost and Michael Che aren’t mascots for the resistance ‘The Weekend Update’ hosts discuss real and fake news — and giving LaVar Ball a wedgie

Thanks to a never-ending presidential campaign and an even wackier Election Day aftermath, Saturday Night Live once again became the can’t-miss nexus of weekly political comedy that it hadn’t been since Sarah Palin was a candidate for vice president.

The show was rewarded with 22 Emmy nominations (tying HBO’s Westworld for most nods in 2017) and record ratings. It’s doing so well that NBC has spun off its Weekend Update segment into a stand-alone show, Weekend Update: Summer Edition, which premiered Aug. 10 and will continue airing Thursdays at 9 p.m. EST. SNL’s cast, including Update hosts Michael Che and Colin Jost, have become mascots for the Resistance. And while Kate McKinnon, Alec Baldwin, and Melissa McCarthy have embraced that role, it’s made Che and Jost uncomfortable. Neither of them got into comedy to change the world. That may seem odd, given that Che is a former Daily Show correspondent and Jost is a former journalist, both jobs that required a greater-than-average literacy about news and politics.

And yet, Che and Jost insist we’re taking them way more seriously than they take themselves. “If you had a joke they liked … now people are like, ‘Thank you, on a political level,’ or something, which is weird as a comedian,” Jost said. “That’s not really the point of what we’re doing. We’re not really doing political activism, we’re just trying to figure out what’s funny if we can.”

“It’s taken on different kind of importance that I don’t know that we’re emotionally capable of accepting,” Che said. “We want to piss off liberals too. I want to disappoint everybody, not just conservatives.”

What do you guys see your role as in democracy?

Colin: Class clown, probably.

Michael: Yeah, I think it’s just funny. It’s weird to get with so much news and so much coverage of politics and TV, that they’re still looking at comedians as the truth-tellers.

It’s all Jon Stewart’s fault.

Michael: It’s strange. You know what, you’re not wrong about that, either. It’s weird. It’s not really why I do comedy, you know. We always want to be funny. We want to be able to hit you from any angle and make fun of anybody. I feel like when people define your role, it’s easier to disappoint them, because they’re like, ‘Well, that’s, you’re not really on the right side,’ because you have to fit the consistency that they have already set for you, or the standards that they’ve already set for you, and I feel like with comedy, that should never be the case. You should never know where the ball is, to use a sports phrase. You should always be able to hide the ball.

Colin: Wow, you are a big sports fan.

Do you feel like there is anybody who is successfully managing to circumvent that without having to either face backlash or outrage from either side?

Michael: I think we do. I think we get written about for certain things that we’ve said, like making jokes about Hillary [Clinton]. I remember one time, we said in an interview, ‘Trump was smart.’ Before he won, it was like, ‘Well, you know he’s a smart guy,’ and people trashed us.

Colin: It was a whole headline, like, ‘They Think He’s Smart.’ How dare they?

Michael: They were so mad at us.

Colin: And first of all, we were saying both he and Hillary are clearly smart people, and the headline was, ‘Trump is Smart.’ He went to UPenn for college and is a billionaire. How many billionaires are idiots, you know? It’s tough.

Michael: I don’t know, maybe Floyd Mayweather? No, that’s a joke. Yeah, well I didn’t say [Trump] was the smartest, I just said he was — he’s smarter than me, that’s for sure.

If you got one gimme, one consequence-free opportunity to punch somebody out, who would it be?

Michael: That’s weird that she says it while LaVar Ball’s on TV. He’s just yelling at a lady.

Colin: Yelling at a lady for being out of shape, did you see that? Oh, my God.

Michael: I don’t know. Punching never gets you anywhere. I wouldn’t want to punch anybody like that, even LaVar Ball. Wedgie, yes. I would love to give him a wedgie. But he strikes me as the kind of guy that doesn’t wear any underwear.

Colin: You reach in, you’re like, ‘What?’ He looks back, like, ‘Yeah. Gotcha.’

Michael: Does that answer your question? LaVar Ball is pretty unlikable, but he’s getting the coverage, and people are entertained by him. I think people just need those outlets. You can yell at your TV at LaVar. It’s all entertainment. You kind of got to remember that and not take it too seriously.

Colin: Yeah, and if you’re a basketball player, you’re probably like, ‘What the hell is wrong with this? Why is he doing this?’ But then, if it helps basketball, and then you ultimately get paid more as a basketball player you’re probably going to —

Michael: Yeah, I mean when his son develops a rivalry with another player, and that adds a fold to the story and it makes people watch the game and it makes people excited. These kinds of characters is what makes rivalries important. That’s why I was telling people with sports teams, I think fans get that, because you see players and personalities that clash with … so like how mean were Boston fans to Derek Jeter, but when Derek Jeter left, everyone —

Colin: ‘He’s a good man.’ Welling up with tears.

Michael: Because he makes so many memories. You hated him, but you appreciate how fun he made the game, and how much fun it was to boo that guy. I think that’s also important too.

Colin: I was going to say I feel bad for his kids, but I don’t. I think they’re doing fine.

Michael: They’re great athletes, and you know what, even if they don’t make it, they’ve lived a great life. They’ve gotten a lot further than a lot of people, mostly because they look like they’re having fun. They seem to be enjoying it, and that’s cool, because at the end of the day, it is sports, and they could be digging ditches and tarring roofs.

Colin: That’s great, they enjoy it every time they’re on the court because there’s buffer from their dad.

Michael: You know they’re not going to get any fouls.

Colin: Think about that. That’s why they’re smiling on the court, they’re like, ‘We can’t hear him right now.’ That’s why they’re trying to get the crowd louder. They’re like, ‘Pump it up so that we can’t hear our dad yelling from the stands.’

Oh, no, you make them sound like the Jacksons.

Michael: Oh, I mean, yeah. I think Joe Jackson wears underwear though.

Colin: That’s the one difference.

A lot of comedians who predated social media complain about YouTube ruining the culture of stand-up.

Colin: I’m amazed people will write reviews of a show and quote every joke in it. I’m like, ‘Well, you just gave away all their material.’ You have to realize probably not so many are going to read that, but you just feel self-conscious as a comedian. If they quote your jokes, you’re like, ‘Oh, now I feel weird telling those jokes, because they’re already out there.’

Michael: Yeah, it kind of hurts the integrity of what you’re trying to do.

You guys grew up with the internet more than, say, someone like Chris Rock or Louis C.K.

Colin: Yeah, but when it’s on phones — you could record stuff when we were younger, or when we were starting out, but not everyone had a phone with a camera on it, so every single person in an audience has the ability to record your entire set.

Michael: There’s a company called Yondr. Do you ever use them?

Colin: Is that — they shut down phones?

Michael: They put a phone in a pouch, and they lock up your phone pretty much. [Dave] Chappelle does it. [Chris] Rock does it. Hannibal [Buress] does it. … I did it at Denver Comedy Works, and it’s amazing because your attention span, your sense of focus as an audience, is completely different. When the show starts, you’re looking at the stage. You’re not texting. You’re not trying to get a picture. You’re not trying to take a selfie. You’re not scrolling through Instagram one last time. The only thing going on is the stage, and the focus and the crowds are so much better and so much more attentive. It’s different. It’s night and day.

Did you work on your high school paper?

Colin: I did. I was the editor in chief of my high school newspaper, The Owl, no big deal. But then I worked at . . .

Michael: You’re right, that is no big deal.

Colin: . . . I worked at the Staten Island Advance, which is a newspaper on Staten Island. That was my first job.

How did you go from serious journalism to fake news?

Colin: I wrote, it’s so dumb, a humor column for my high school paper. You’ve got to start somewhere. And then for the real paper I worked at, I would just write things in my spare time, you know, Onion-style things at the time. I always wanted to do comedy. I just took a job because there was a job open, you know, like a journalism job. I’m shocked now, having … like it was a really good newspaper, even though it’s a small Staten Island newspaper. They have a really good staff and everything there, and I learned a lot about journalism while I was there, and when I see things now, like there’s so many factual errors in articles, and I’m like, ‘Where is any sense of integrity to it?’ That’s the strange thing to me. Certain things I get when people complain, like when politicians complain about the media and stuff, I see elements of it, because I’m like, yeah, when they get something wrong, or you just said something and then you’re misquoted or it’s changed or facts are wrong in the story and no one checked them. You’re like, you’re leaving yourself open to being criticized, you know?

The Daily Show built its brand on media criticism, and you guys have both spoken up about pointing out what we get wrong sometimes. Do you ever feel like that’s something you want to incorporate more into Weekend Update?

Michael: That’s sort of more of a Daily Show thing. We’re always kind of wary about doing what seems familiar, because as comedy fans, it’s a thing that we’ve seen.

And even at the show, we’re doing the job that Tina Fey did, and Amy Poehler, and Norm MacDonald, and Seth Meyers and all these people. They did it so well and at such a high level, and they’re so talented. We have to find a way to do that same thing and make it your own, you kind of don’t want to do the same thing as — it’s so easy to do what’s familiar because you’ve seen it done so well. You kind of just want to make it your own. So we started to make it a little bit more opinionated, a little bit more longer runs, a little bit more of the way that actual cable news is, as opposed to the way local news is, like how it started, where it was literally reading headlines. Now it’s a little bit more of a narrative.

Colin: It’s sometimes harder to get into some of the media stuff, because we don’t have so much time. Sometimes you have to get a little more in depth to explain, OK, this was the angle from that media source, and here’s why that’s wrong.

Michael: That’s why we’re really excited about doing these half-hour Updates, because we’ll have a little bit more time to kind of unravel that onion.

After Charlottesville violence, Virginia football players see a role to play on and off the field They present a model for different people to work as a team

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Steps from the Robert E. Lee statue downtown, two white people on a bench call out to a stranger. It’s been two months since the former Lee Park was renamed Emancipation Park, and 150 years of Confederate history again came up for debate. Two days since the latest reconsideration of Confederate totems had again ended in death.

“Who are you with?” the pair demand of a black reporter, and it seems an immediate proxy for more freighted questions of history and allegiance — What side are you on? and Are you with me?

Questions hang over the city, the South, the nation, since white nationalists at a Unite the Right rally Saturday clashed with counterprotesters and a Nazi sympathizer allegedly plowed into activists, killing one young woman and injuring 19 others. Two police officers monitoring the protests also died when a mechanical failure sent their helicopter crashing to the ground. Rallies have continued around the country, and demonstrators in Durham, North Carolina, toppled a Confederate soldier’s statue.

Here, flowers and candles mark the makeshift memorial where Heather Heyer, 32, was struck, and a crowd of mourners stand close by to pay homage. Others sit, silent and staring. “Forgive us, Rest in Power, Love Always Wins,” read the messages in chalk.

But like the questions from the people on the bench, they feel incomplete to the moment — like people reckoning with the immediate aftermath of trauma while everyday instances of racism and privilege exist in plain sight. On the first workday since the tragedy, black men in brown delivery truck uniforms are unloading boxes and white men in summer suits visit the growing dedications to the fallen over lunch hour. Then everyone returns to their separate understandings of the world and how something like this could happen.

The questions don’t stay downtown, of course. The University of Virginia football team was at practice when they heard about the violence a few miles away. Team members are grappling with their own conceptions of race and hatred. It’s a moment for them to set an example, they say, and especially for the myriad lessons of football to come into play.

Daniel Hamm, an African-American tailback raised in a predominantly white community near the Blue Ridge Mountains, says he was taught not to see color, but Saturday’s violence had widened his eyes. “As student-athletes we know that we have a voice, and I think it’s time for us to put out a strong united message from the football program,” Hamm said. Racial hatred “is not welcome here — not welcome in this university, in this community, and it shouldn’t be welcome in this nation.”

Daniel Hamm, Kirk Garner and Micah Kiser

Lonnae O'Neal/The Undefeated

That’s something “the ultimate team sport” teaches, he says. In football, “you can’t do anything without your brothers being right there, doing their job right beside you.” No matter your position, everyone plays a role. You have “different races, religions, different political beliefs, so you have all these different kinds of people. There’s so much diversity you have to learn to work with. You have to put that aside for one common goal, and it really allows you to see that everyone is equal, everyone is valuable to society.”

Kirk Garner, a cornerback from Baltimore, says his faith teaches him to treat hate with love. “If there’s one true message I can give out to the youth, it’s just to not always be angry at these type of situations. There’s always other ways to overcome.” Garner cites Colin Kaepernick: “He’s a man that’s been given a platform, and he used his position to bring up the problems that are going on in America. And not only has he continued, but he’s stayed true to his word. I really respect what he’s doing, using his power to make change in the world.”

Hamm and Garner credit All-American linebacker Micah Kiser, a team leader who is from Baltimore, for urging the team to come up with a display of unity after the unrest. This football team is one of the most diverse groups they’ll ever be part of, Kiser said. “There are Polynesian kids, Asian kids, black, white, Latino, and we want to show we can come together for one common goal, to set an example for the city.” They’re taking a picture to send out over social media and working on the message. “By staying together, we can show and we can prove that that is stronger than whatever hate might be out there.”

People have to talk across racial lines in a democracy, said Kiser. “We’ve talked a lot about removals of statues and what does it mean. From my understanding and how I see it, you can’t erase history. But, at the same time, there needs to be a conversation. … Well, what does slavery mean at UVA? What did the Civil War mean to the state of Virginia? How did that affect us? How does this connect us?”

They want to play hard because they’re not just representing the school, “we’re representing Charlottesville,” Kiser said. And that extends past the UVA grounds. “Once you go down Main Street a little bit past campus, [the city] becomes a lot more black, and a lot of times a lot of people in Charlottesville might not feel that connection to the University of Virginia,” Kiser said. And they can change that.

In the office of second-year head coach Bronco Mendenhall, there’s a book of quotations from the school’s founder and the nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder, who in his treatise Notes on the State of Virginia wrote that “blacks […] are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind.” Mendenhall notes the contradictions of Jefferson’s legacy.

“Growth does not happen when you’re comfortable, and the surface is not where growth is,” he said. “It’s only at the depths and in sincere dialogue.”

In the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s violence, the team focused on safety, routine and making sure players felt like they could talk about how they were feeling — some of the Nazi protesters were staying on the first two floors of their team hotel. Longer term, Mendenhall calls it an opportunity for character building.

Kids get messages about their physical gifts from a young age, he said, and “those are not lasting values in terms of contributing to society, making a living or giving of oneself to the community. I’m looking to creating amazing young people in their homes and communities and the world at large, rather than thinking of them only as football players. That to me is not enough of an identity to be lasting or sustainable.”

There may be a trial for the killing and injuries Saturday, and the white nationalists said they’ll return to Charlottesville, so the players will be contending with these crosscurrents for a long time.

“Here’s conflict and here’s hate and here are these other issues with free speech ironed in there somewhere, and here are these young people who really would like to do something. They don’t want to sit on their hands; they want to act appropriately, but also they want to make a difference,” Mendenhall said. They want to model unity and tolerance, something he said they’ve worked on as a team.

It’s hard to call what happened a blessing, but “the chance for outreach and a teachable moment in a program that’s new, under this backdrop, is almost perfect for the chance to do good,” said Mendenhall. And if they have success on the field, that will make their message all the more powerful.

Kiser calls the upcoming season and their mission on the football field a rallying point. “When you’re doing a lot of hard work together, nobody is worried about where you’re from. … I always say if the world could be more like a football team, we’d be better off.”

They have an opportunity to do something, Garner agrees. And if we “let this opportunity pass us, we’d be failing.”

From Charlottesville to Kaepernick, white anger is all too familiar to my grandmother A little black girl who dared drink from the wrong water fountain has seen this all before

The cries of white men with the burning torches in Charlottesville, Virginia, were familiar to her. Their anger was, too.

The continuous news coverage over the weekend prompted her own highlight reel of memories that included racial taunts, attacks and fears she’s lived with since she was born in the thick of the Great Depression. She couldn’t erase them if she wanted. “You never forget that feeling of being preyed upon,” said my grandmother, Clemmie. “It’s something I’ve been experiencing my entire life. I’m far from alone.”

Clemmie, 86, isn’t surprised by the white nationalist march that made the hometown of the University of Virginia (UVA) a murder scene this past weekend. Her pain is ever-present. Charlottesville; Ferguson, Missouri; Little Rock, Arkansas; Selma, Alabama; Greensboro, North Carolina; Detroit; Watts in Los Angeles — the scenes of prejudice, revolt and massacre stick with her. Racism has followed her since she was a little girl growing up in the Deep South, at the apex of Jim Crow segregation.

My great-grandmother, Juanita McCrowey.

There was 1956 in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, when a white convenience store owner wouldn’t allow the woman who would become my grandmother to heat up a bottle for her infant daughter — my mom. Clemmie, born in 1931, experienced run-ins with the Klan so frequently it’s impossible to remember life without them. Their presence was a fear tactic. Anyone who stepped them was met with violence. At best, bruises and cuts. At worst, death. At her segregated grade school, young Clemmie and her friends received “new” textbooks with “n—–” written on nearly every page: They were hand-me-downs from all-white schools. During family trips from Rock Hill, South Carolina, to Philadelphia, bathroom breaks meant pulling over and crouching in the woods, because they couldn’t use restroom facilities at gas stations along the route.

Clemmie once drank from a whites-only water fountain.

“I wanted to see if their water tasted different than the colored ones,” she said recently. “It didn’t.” But she harbors a particular memory more than others.

“You know how traumatizing that is? To be cleaning their house and find those sheets? But you needed that $2 a week job.”

My grandmother watched the hatred on the faces of the white nationalist and neo-Nazi Charlottesville protesters. She watched the graphic video of the car plowing into the crowd of counterprotesters (Heather Heyer, 32, was killed). Clemmie had, of course, seen that kind of venom up close before.

She, her older brother, Sonny, and her mother, Juanita, were walking into town in Rock Hill to go grocery shopping. The trip took an abrupt change when the three of them began being taunted by a group of white kids from a nearby house.

My grandmother, circa 1934.

“They just kept saying, ‘Look at the n—–s!’ ” she recalls. Clemmie’s mom, my great-grandmother, who died in 1972, told them to ignore the calls. But Clemmie had had enough. On previous grocery trips, she’d dodged rocks from these same kids. In a fit of rage, she broke away and sprinted after the girl in the group, chasing her into the house. Clemmie beat her up. “I definitely hit her,” my grandmother said of the moment, over 70 years later. “It was worth the beating my mama gave me that night, too.”

But the delivery of a first-round knockout came with an emotional toll. “I put my mother in a bad position,” she said. South Carolina was home to intense Ku Klux Klan terrorism.

“Thankfully, the girl’s parents weren’t home. They could have pressed charges against my mother. The Klan could’ve come to our house and burned it down with us in there. The system could’ve broken my family apart and made me an orphan. My mother, I guess, was just trying to protect me from what later happened to Emmett Till,” she said solemnly. “That’s the thing about racism. The side that’s pushed to the edge is always the one who suffers the most.”


This past weekend, while Charlottesville commandeered the country’s attention, Clemmie, who lives in Virginia, was busy being a part-time dog sitter. Jordan is her dog, as hyper a Yorkie as there is in America — with a penchant for running counterclockwise when excited. Riley is my Aunt Cynt’s dog, named after Cynt’s all-time favorite basketball coach, Pat Riley.

Walking up and down the steps to feed Jordan and Riley and put them outside is a reprieve from the endless onslaught of Charlottesville media coverage. Clemmie made an effort to sidestep the news at times because, as she says, it’s so hard to find good. She’s had Young & The Restless since 1982, and you’d never guess how much of a Pinterest expert she is on her iPad.

Some of the most enlightening conversations I’ve ever had with my grandmother happened when I used to drive her back to South Carolina shortly after receiving my driver’s license. This was years ago, when she was going to see her younger brother, Gilbert, at the nursing home where he lived before his death in 2014. On the road, my grandmother and I never listened to music. Instead, we talked about how she found love, lost it and came to find peace again afterward. We talked about how the death of her son (my uncle) when he was just 42 forever changed her outlook on life.

I mentioned these chats to her on Sunday, when Charlottesville is the talk of the town. She brings up Colin Kaepernick. As the widow of a Division II college football coach, mother of three football-crazed kids and grandmother of an annually depressed and maniacal Dallas Cowboys fan (guilty as charged), she’s familiar with the game and the polarizing characters it creates. “It’s sad what they’re doing to [Kaepernick],” she said. “He’s lost his job forever because he stood up for what he believed in. Him not standing for the anthem didn’t make him unpatriotic.” For context: The Baltimore Ravens signed quarterback Thad Lewis on Monday. He hasn’t played in a regular-season game since 2013.

She sees connections between the exiled former Super Bowl signal-caller and the carnage near UVA.

Clemmie doesn’t watch football as much as she used to. She gets updates from me on Monday mornings. But Clemmie knows the storyline. And she sees the connections between the exiled former Super Bowl signal-caller and the carnage near UVA. My grandmother is concerned for Marshawn Lynch, who sat for the national anthem this past weekend (although he’s been doing that for years). And she’s worried about players who will follow their leads, including the Seattle Seahawks’ outspoken defensive end Michael Bennett, who recently confirmed he’ll be seated for the national anthem the entire season. Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman said Monday on Twitter that more players will certainly follow suit — stemming from “league-wide outrage” over Charlottesville and President Donald Trump’s comments.

This isn’t Clemmie’s first rodeo. She remembers Muhammad Ali refusing induction into the Army in 1967, and how he lost the prime years of his career going toe-to-toe with the United States government. “I felt what he was saying,” she said. “All he was asking, ‘Why fight for a place that’s just gonna beat me up when I come back?’ ”

My grandmother is amazed but not shocked that this narrative is still playing out 50 years later. “If you love someone, or something, you tell them their flaws because you want to see them be the best person they can be. That’s all [Kaepernick] was doing for America. At least that’s how I saw it. And this country basically told him, ‘Shut up and stay in your place.’ They tried to do the same thing to Ali. Them speaking on America’s flaws doesn’t make them unpatriotic. America not living up to its promise — that’s unpatriotic. ”


Given all she’s seen, experienced and endured, Clemmie has never succumbed to hatred. Her heart goes out to the family of Heather Heyer, the legal assistant killed in Charlottesville whose last Facebook message read, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” And her heart still bleeds for James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, the three civil rights activists whose deaths made national news in 1964 when their bodies were found — murdered by the Klan — under an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Mississippi. My grandmother appreciates anyone with a heart because, as she says, she’s seen so many without one.

But she’s incensed about the president’s recent statement about “many sides” (which he awkwardly walked back). There’s just no debate, says my grandmother. For her, those tiki-torch-carrying protesters were a gut punch from the past. “The KKK would march on you in a minute,” she said. “You didn’t know who was under those sheets. It could be the mayor, or governor of South Carolina. Or it could be the people your parents work for. You know how traumatizing that is? To be cleaning their house and find those sheets? But you needed that $2 a week job. Everyone called you a n—–. We didn’t have any protection. We had to ignore it because if we fought back …” Her voice trails off.

It’s hard for Clemmie to hear “both sides” when hers has lost so much. The 1960s are difficult for her to speak about, even a half-century later. The thought of President John F. Kennedy’s murder still moves her to tears. His brother Robert’s, as well. Medgar Evers’ assassination was “proof we weren’t even safe in our own homes.” She recalls the fear that followed the death of Malcolm X, a man whose voice reflected the rage she and so many others were tormented with daily. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination ripped the soul of black America from its chest. And the countless other men and women who fought and ultimately lost their lives during the civil rights era who will never find their legacies in textbooks — this haunts my grandmother, a woman born just 66 years after Emancipation.

“You gotta understand. Every time we had someone, they took them from us. By the end of the ’60s, you were just mad. It seemed like we would be stuck behind the eight ball forever,” she said.

That fear and frustration, in part, didn’t allow her to enjoy the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency. She campaigned locally for him in 2008 and 2012. She cried both times he won. “I’ve never been prouder of a president than I was of him. He’s a black man. Michelle’s a black woman. But I was scared from the day he was walking down that street [during his 2009 inauguration]. I just knew somebody was gonna get him, because that’s all I knew. When he and Michelle left on the helicopter this year, I just said, ‘Thank you, God.’ ”

These thoughts and more race through her brain when she thinks of Charlottesville. It’s impossible for her to isolate Charlottesville because the pain, and the forces that cause it, span generations. Her parents and grandparents were terrorized. She was terrorized. Her children were terrorized. And now, she’s scared because what happened near UVA’s campus, what’s happening to Colin Kaepernick, and what could happen to me, are merely new shades of paint on the same car she’s dodged for 86 years.

Charlottesville, in context, is another painful affirmation of a reality she’ll never truly escape. “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” she said. “For some people, it’s nothing scarier than that.”

Karrueche Tran of ‘Claws’ talks independence, body image and thinking positive ‘It’s important to accept who you are’

Karrueche Tran, the 29-year-old Wilhelmina model-turned-actress, is more than just a pretty face. She has a hustler mentality that doesn’t get comfortable doing the same ol’ two-step. Tran’s early jobs, from a personal shopper at Nordstrom’s to studying graphic design in college to freelancing as a fashion assistant, illustrate the theme of her resume: “What’s next?”

Now starring alongside Niecy Nash in TNT’s comedy-drama Claws, Tran plays Virginia Loc, a stripper-turned-manicurist who is full of sass and immature attitude, which gets put in check time and time again.

But don’t let that description deter you. Yes, Virginia is unapologetic about getting that paper, but she’s a complex character with many layers that are peeled back for viewers to witness every Sunday night.

“I’m usually cast as the girl next door or girlfriend, but underneath the overly trendy Virginia, there’s an interesting backstory,” Tran said. “I saw so much potential playing Virginia. I was able to really craft her character as well as expand myself as an artist.”

Although known to many as singer Chris Brown’s ex-girlfriend, Tran has paved her own way. With any journey there are times when one can feel lost or face walls that need climbing. This has been the case for the Vietnamese/African-American actor.

“Like a rose, women are beautiful creations with strength that protects us like the thorns on a stem,” Tran wrote on Instagram to promote her most recent makeup collection, Fem Rosa, but it’s also a phrase that has meaning for how she goes about life.

At a workout session with her personal trainer Mario Guevara, the Los Angeles native talked about acting, overcoming insecurities, dealing with the pressures of Hollywood, and her favorite emoji.


How has it been working on Claws?

It’s the biggest production that I’ve been a part of, and I’m so excited that we’ve been renewed for a second season and I get to work with my girls [Nash, Jenn Lyon, Carrie Preston and Judy Reyes] again. I’ve been able to grow with my character and add what I know she would say or wouldn’t say.

How did you get into acting?

I was at a point of my life where I was like, ‘What’s next?’ My manager suggested that I try acting. I’m the kind of person who has to try it out first before making a decision to pursue it or not, so I tried it and I liked it. I felt something and continued at it. I got small roles here and there, and it finally got me to Claws.

What’s the meaning behind your favorite tattoos?

One of my favorite tattoos is [the one on my forearm that reads] ‘the past is practice.’ You can always learn from your past mistakes to help you move forward in life. But there is no explanation for my zipper tattoo [on the back of my leg]. It’s not zipping down my life or anything; I just wanted something down my leg and I thought it looked hot, ha!

Karrueche Tran attends the 2017 BET Awards at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on June 25.

Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

Have you ever played sports?

I tried out for softball once, and that was a disaster! I never was the athletic type, which made me more interested in working out. I’ve always been thin, so exercising helped me build muscle and tone up since I wasn’t able to do that from playing a sport.

How has your trainer personalized your workouts?

I want to stay fit, but I also want to gain weight. Mario helps me find that medium between trying to get thick and still staying fit. He does that by helping me build muscle in a way that keeps me lean and toned.

What are your favorite cheat foods?

I love carbs like pasta and breads. I’m a foodie, so I really love everything. I’ve been into burgers lately, and when I was in Miami, I went to Soho [Beach] House. They have the best dirty burger. It’s so good!

When I was in New Orleans shooting Claws, I had stopped eating pork and red meat. I wanted to eat a little cleaner and be healthier, but then I was getting a little too thin. I have a small frame, so I don’t want to be too skinny. I still want muscles, so I need the carbohydrates to give me energy to lift weights.

How have you dealt with the pressures of Hollywood to look a certain way?

With a lot of my followers being young women, I try to be very positive and empowering. At times, I feel people don’t know how to be nice and genuine. I’m 29, and I can only imagine how insecure I may have been if Instagram was around when I was growing up. There are so many gorgeous women posting perfect-life pictures. Some are real [moments], but some aren’t. They play into the perception of perfection that’s not always reality. It’s important to accept who you are.

What insecurities have you had to overcome?

My body. Being so small and seeing so many curvy women out there, I had to really look at my worth and realize that I’m OK with how I look and who I am. Nobody is perfect, and we all have insecurities. I reminded myself not to get too consumed and stuck within my insecurity of looking a certain way. If you allow it to take over your mind, you’ll possess those negative vibes. When you have that negativity, it weighs you down and then spills everywhere in your life. It’s not easy with social media, but we can overcome it.

What’s your advice to people who want to give up?

There were times I felt lost and wanted to give up, even with acting, but there would be something inside me pushing me to continue. So many times we want to give up because it becomes too stressful. Life is not meant to be easy [all of the time]. We’re supposed to go through these ups and downs to find that light at the end of the tunnel.

What’s the last show you’ve binge-watched?

Star on Fox.

What’s the first concert you went to?

A Beyoncé concert when I was in high school. I think it was for her Crazy in Love album.

What’s your favorite emoji?

The middle finger and the rolling eye emojis.

If we opened your refrigerator, what would we find?

Sparkling water, a carton of eggs and orange juice. That’s seriously all I have in there right now, ha!

The season finale of Claws aired Sunday on TNT.