Q+A: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

by June 20, 2012

by Jeff Min

In the 23 years since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retired, the Hall-of-Famer has reinvented himself multiple times, leading to successful ventures as an actor, filmmaker, historian and author. His latest project—which falls under the latter category—has him teaming up with Ray Obstfeld for the children’s book What Color is My World? The Lost History of African-American Inventors.

“Too many young men want to be the next LeBron James or Jay-Z,” Abdul-Jabbar tells SLAM. “There’s too much of that, so for these kids at an early age, it’s important for them to learn about scientists, engineers, chemists and mathematicians—how they did something significant.”

Through the eyes of 13-year-old twins Herbie and Ella, What Color Is My World? informs readers about African-American inventors, engineers and intellectuals. Pioneers like Daniel Hale Williams (one of the first doctors to perform open-heart surgery) and Dr. Henry T. Sampson (gamma- electric cell) are spotlighted in the book.

What Color Is My World? is an easy read, one that’s worth revisiting a couple times over, but what makes it successful is its ability to reach both children and adults alike. Nothing is sugarcoated yet everything about the book is engaging—from the vibrant illustrations and witty narration to the design and functionality. “If we could get kids to read my books, and in some instances parents, they could be made aware of something in terms of how valuable education is,” Kareem says. “If you can get there andtheir interests when they’re still in grade school, it makes a big difference.”

SLAMIn What Color is My World you team up again with Raymond Obstfeld, whom you worked with on the book On the Shoulders of Giants. How did you guys come to the decision to write a children’s book?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: We just thought that the information that I had would work good in a children’s book. It didn’t lend itself then to a full-length adult’s book, but it was just about the right size for a children’s book. I thought it was a crucial subject for the inner city. For these kids at an early age, it’s important for them to learn about scientists and engineers and chemists and mathematicians—how they were able to do something significant. It’s a whole different take on where to find success and how to do it. We all can’t play centerfield for the Dodgers.

SLAMAt one point in the book Roger Mital says to Ella and Herbie “There’s more to our history than slavery, jazz, sports and civil rights marches.” That’s a pretty progressive statement. Why do you suppose African American history has for so long been boxed in by those tropes?

KAJ: I think it has a lot to do with accepting stereotypes both by people in minority communities and by society at large. They accept stereotypes and what their potential is. And there’s a lot more than just picking up a guitar or being out there on the football field. Denzel Washington should not be the role model for everybody.

SLAMIt’s hard to get the youth interested, in not only history, but education in general. Where in your opinion does this disconnect towards education happen? Because it’s one thing to tell a kid that math and science is important and it’s another to get them to actually care.

KAJ: Yeah, I don’t know how that took root, but certainly the whole history of lack of educational opportunities for people in poor circumstances. It’s not just African Americans, for example that one movie about those kids from West Virginia, they were expected to either dig coal or play football. It was the same thing. They weren’t African Americans, but they were put in a box and we got to break those boxes down. If we can get young people in the inner city to study the periodic table, to think about what it means to build a house we can change a whole lot. And tapping into their intellectual potential is something that has just not been done.

SLAMThe historical identity of America is multiracial and yet minority representation in history is inconsistent. Do you think that in the school system African American history needs to be synthesized even more with American History?

KAJ: What you’re saying is so true and obvious. It’s something that we just walk right around and it’s so obvious. African American history is actually American history and that’s gone unrecognized or neglected. It’s American history.

SLAMI wanted to talk about your documentary On the Shoulders of Giants. The Harlem Rens were pioneers. In doing your research and discovering who the Rens were did it reveal anything about yourself and the history that you are a part of that you might not have seen otherwise?

KAJ: It just brought some things to the forefront for me. I was born in Harlem. When I was growing up some of the older guys that I started playing basketball with had been coached by people connected to the Rens. But just in a generation that did not come across to me when I was learning the game. And it was interesting, John Isaacs told me he had heard about me when I was still in grade school. He came over to my neighborhood and watched me out in the park play one day. Being connected to them and being aware of it was really important to me.

SLAMThe presence of the Rens on the court made a huge statement about race and politics in America. Does pro basketball today in your opinion have room for those types of statements?

KAJ: I think social political awareness in the Black community really has gone somewhere. It does not have any prominence. People think maybe, possibly that there’s not anything to struggle for. There’s so much to struggle for. The success of the civil rights movement should have been the beginning of really meaningful changes in the Black community; Black Americans being able to do the job and educational gains and economic strengths, political strength. And that hasn’t happened to any meaningful degree, and again that’s really unfortunate.