Echoes of an Era: the Jazz and Blackface

(Ed. note – SLC Dunk first reported the blackface mishap Sunday afternoon)

photo courtesy of Adabo! (Flickr)

photo courtesy of Adabo! (Flickr)

Since Halloween fell on a crummy Thursday this year, Americans in the Hallow’s Eve spirit dressed up on Saturday night for parties. One particular costume caused a bit of embarrassment for the Utah Jazz. Deadspin has the relevant information and images.

Basically, two white men decided to go as John Stockton and Karl Malone. No skin-altering application was done for “Stockton”, but the “Malone” character slapped on some paint to tan his skin to a darker shade of brown. Chromatically speaking this process didn’t constitute “blackface” since the white man did not actually become as dark as the night.  But in a cultural sense, it definitely constituted blackface.

As Deadspin noted, the Jazz apologized for the tweet, since ” it may be insensitive.”

We have no idea if the two Jazz men directly intended to disparage, humiliate, or mock African-Americans. In fact, my own sense is that they probably didn’t have that type of animus at the moment. Nonetheless, the process of a white man “becoming” a black man by applying paint is a racially charged act.

For the Utah Jazz to understand why the act “may be insensitive” one need look no further than “The Jazz Singer”:



That’s the historical anchor weighing down any white person in 2013 trying to transform their self into a black person.

It was considered entertaining for a white performer to smear themselves in shoe polish, paint a wide-bright ring around their mouth to simulate over-sized lips, and sing old songs about “mammies” to all-white crowds. Mammies, of course, were enslaved black women who had the task of raising the children of their white owners. There are deep, anguished layers of racism, discrimination, and abuse that can’t be disenthralled so easily.

There are far worse examples to cite of blackface in action (Birth of a Nation anyone?), but The Jazz Singer suffices. Nothing more needs to be said on this topic , except NBA team twitter accounts should probably employ people with a larger sense of cultural perspective, so that embarrassments like this don’t happen.


PS – Echoes of an Era is a great all-star jazz ensemble fronted by Chaka Khan in the early 80s. Check it out!

Curtis Harris

Curtis Harris is a historian and subscribes to the following ethos espoused by Abraham Lincoln in 1858: "I have always wanted to deal with everyone I meet candidly and honestly. If I have made any assertion not warranted by facts, and it is pointed out to me, I will withdraw it cheerfully."

  • From my Jane Goodall distance from this entire event, it appears though apologists of this type of behavior do not intend for it to be offensive, and as a result, do not understand why someone would ‘take it the wrong way’ and get offended. I have no doubt these two 20 year old guys weren’t trying to piss people off and become internet famous. From the comment section of our blog many people felt like our author who got the story first was being too PC.

    Sadly, as the years go by we grow farther away from the origins of hurtful behaviors like this. Many people within that Utah bubble did not see anything wrong with this.

    Clearly, the Jazz PR department did when they deleted the tweet and apologized. Of course, the Jazz PR dept may not have initially seen why this could be offensive to other people. And that’s the rub — most people think only how their actions affect themselves, and not on the effect their actions may have on others.