115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Shots of Basketball in Black and White: The Harlem Globetrotters, Japan, and Cold War Politics

Yu Sasaki, University of Tsukuba

This paper explores a story of American racial history and Cold War politics, through the prism of a U.S. State Department-arranged 1952 world tour by the Harlem Globetrotters. Through an analysis of a 1952 tour photo album, Japanese posters of the Globetrotters exhibition games, and Harlem Globetrotters: A Silver Anniversary (1952) published in Japan, I will track a different story on display that the Harlem Globetrotters created in Cold War Asia.

Proposal: 

In October 1952, the Harlem Globetrotters—an African American professional basketball team—launched their first globe-girdling tour, visiting Japan and other countries across four continents. Featuring superstars such as Reece “Goose” Tatum, known as the “clown prince of basketball” and an inventor of a hook shot, the Harlem Globetrotters changed the basketball court into a show combining the essence of athleticism and comedy or black minstrelsy in the United States.

It was not, however, a simple barnstorming to stage exhibition matches because the US State of Department sponsored this tour as part of Cold War cultural diplomacy. Celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversary and charging them with a political, diplomatic, and ideological mission, the US State of Department sent the Harlem Globetrotters for their first world basketball tour. Accompanying as a general manager of the Harlem Globetrotters, Dave Zinkoff officially recorded the tour, which was released in book form as Around the World with the Harlem Globetrotters (1953). It told the story of racial progress during Cold War America in which talented African American basketball players achieved success if in a segregated team.

In this light, this paper is interested in a different story of race that visual texts produced in Japan—a “colored” country that was under American occupation till April 1952—render legible. Through the closely analysis of a 1952 tour photo album in Springfield College Digital Collections, Japanese posters of the Harlem Globetrotters exhibition games, and Harlem Globetrotters: A Silver Anniversary (1952) published in Japan, I will track a different story on display that the Harlem Globetrotters created in Cold War Asia.