Ala Moana parking lot, summer of 1984. Back when Buttons could pull off anything, including this mid-afternoon photo, shot by Warren Bolster, which head-fakes toward the worst kind of racism, but is really just another riff in the nonstop improv comedy that was Buttons’ life at the time.
Yes? Am I more or less on track? There are thoughtful, sensible people out there, my parents likely included, who would say that you just don’t, under any circumstance, juxtapose a black man and an ape. But I think we have an exception here. Buttons flips this thing on its head. The guy holding the photo, for one thing, is Mark Liddell, Buttons’ second-in-command. That, plus the only thing Buttons liked as much as getting spit out of a Velzyland tube was flamenco dancing all over convention—even on something as dicey as race. Which is not to say the photo was supposed to be a political statement. But yeah, Buttons is in charge here. All the way. He owns the moment. Racism, right here, in this parking lot, is so far outside of Buttons’ realm that he will pose with a photo of an orangutan. Point a mocking finger at himself, even. Then get back to running the town.
I’ll go one step further. The shot works because surfing in general has never been an especially racist sport. Yes, we’ve had our moments. Gabriel Medina’s world title juggernaut in 2014, to take the most recent example, was egg-splattered again and again by comments that were usually just lightly scented in racism, but occasionally straight-up back-of-the-bus racist. As a rule, though—and I wouldn’t say the same with regard to sexism, homophobia or xenophobia—surfing is ahead of the curve on racial matters. Or slightly ahead of the curve, anyway.
Why? I think it’s because it was whitey who had to break surfing’s glass ceiling in terms of race, a hundred-plus years ago, in Hawaii. Dark-skinned people invented the sport. White surfers, for a long time, believed themselves to be congenitally incapable of riding waves. Yes, Southern California would eventually reinvent surfing in its own blue-eyed image, and white surf industry CEOs have run the game ever since. But Hawaii is always there in the back of our minds. Play the race card, in other words, and you answer to Duke Kahanamoku.