Sports fans in Salt Lake City know about basketball player Karl Malone, the star forward for the NBA's Utah Jazz. Nicknamed "The Mailman," Malone can be counted on to deliver plenty of points per game, usually with a flamboyant style of play that fans love to talk about.
But last December a different kind of Karl Malone story was buzzing around town. While it inspired a local sportswriter to jokingly suggest that we re-name him "The Skycap," the story made others in this predominantely white community realize how prevalent racist stereotypes still are.Malone, a 6-foot-9, 256-pound black athlete, was at Salt Lake International Airport waiting in the baggage claim area for his brother to arrive. A white woman approached him, and, as Malone was quoted by the sportswriter, "She said she needed a porter-boy. You know, someone to help her with her bags."
On the spur of the moment Malone decided to play along and not inform the woman of her mistake. He picked up the woman's bags, and in chatting with her learned that they both originally came from Louisiana. When asked about how he made his living, Malone said he told her that "I drove a truck during the day and did this at night, for a few extra bucks."
When they reached the woman's car - a blue Mercedes - she offered him a tip, but Malone refused it saying, "It's OK. I really play pro basketball." Observing her shocked reaction, Malone told the sportswriter, "It was really funny . . . . I was having a good time."
As the story of the Mailman working as a skycap circulated orally and in the media for the next few days I heard varying details about where Malone was waiting, what the woman said to him, where she was from, the kind of car she had and whether her husband was at the wheel and had recognized her helper.
After telling the story, some people commented that similar mistaken identities must be fairly common and that they must be particularly galling for blacks - that "having a good time" while making light of such incidents must be soured by the obvious taint of racism that's implicit in such situations.
You can't miss this point when you reread the story and choke on the term "porter-boy."
One Salt Lake resident wrote a letter to the editor of a local newspaper, branding the story "a dramatic, sad commentary on the state of European-American images of African-Americans."
"Racism and Blacks Who've `Made It,' " an article by Douglas C. Lyons in the October 1989 issue of Ebony magazine, recounted experiences of several prominent blacks that were similar to those of Karl Malone and made the point that "You're never too famous, too rich or too accomplished to escape racial prejudice."
Lyons told a story about how the Rev. Jesse Jackson was waiting in front of a New York City hotel for his ride to several important engagements when an elderly white woman approached, thinking he was the bellhop who had assisted her.
She thanked Jackson for helping her with her baggage on the elevator, and tipped him a dollar.
According to the article, Jackson "took the dollar, thanked the woman and climbed into his waiting stretch limousine, which was driven by a white chauffeur."
There's no reason to doubt the truth of this story, but as a folklorist I wonder if it was "improved" slightly in multiple retellings so as to emphasize the age of the woman, the small size of her tip, and the perfect on-cue arrival of the limo with its white driver.
Another mistaken identity story in Lyons' article illustrates a different strategy that some blacks adopt in dealing with mistaken identities. This time the subject was David Wilmot, the dean of admissions at Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C.
"Wilmot was standing in front of a posh Washington hotel, waiting for the parking attendant to bring him his car. Suddenly a white man rushed out of the hotel and asked Wilmot to fetch his car.
"Did Wilmot get mad? No, he got even. `The little boy came out in me,' he says.
" `I took his claim ticket and told him that I would be right with him. When my car arrived, I drove off with his claim ticket. I must have smiled all the way back to campus.' "
Humor is certainly a component in all three stories, but there's no escaping the fact that the assumptions behind the real-life mistaken identities are racist ones. And that's no laughing matter.- "Curses! Broiled Again," Jan Harold Brunvand's fourth collection of urban legends, is now available in paperback from Norton. Send your questions and urban legends to him in care of the Deseret News.