Q & A with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

April 27, 2012

By Bill Bennett

UCLA and NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has had a busy 2012. His latest endeavors have included serving as a U.S. Global Cultural Ambassador, working as a columnist for ESPN, guest-starring on the Fox sitcom "The New Girl", and writing a children's book, What Color is My World, The Lost History of African-American Inventors, which has been on the New York Times current Children's Best-Sellers list. Abdul-Jabbar will be appearing at the UCLA Store/BookZone in Ackerman Union on Saturday, May 5 from 11:30am-1:30pm for a book signing.

Additionally, this week, Abdul-Jabbar will be attending the annual FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Championship with inventor Dean Kamen in St. Louis as they host 12,000 students from 32 countries and their custom-built robots. Kamen founded FIRST in 1989 to inspire young people's interest in science and technology. FIRST Championship is a culmination of youth robotics and science-challenge teams that won regional FIRST competitions held across the world, beginning last fall. At the St. Louis competition, students put their custom-built robots to the test with the help of mentors and coaches. Abdul-Jabbar will sign books, meet teams, operate a robot and speak at ceremonies.

Abdul-Jabbar, who celebrated his 65th birthday on April 16, took some time from his busy schedule for a question and answer session with UCLABruins.com.

Q: What Color is My World, The Lost History of African-American Inventors, which you will be signing at the UCLA Store/BookZone on May 5, is your most recent book, a children's story about African-American inventors throughout U. S. history, past and present. What was your inspiration for writing this book?

Abdul-Jabbar: My inspiration for What Color is My World can be traced back to my first history book Black Profiles in Courage. That book featured a chapter about Lewis Latimer, an extraordinary inventor who, while working for Thomas Edison, discovered a way to make the light bulb more practical. His genius was responsible for transforming the light bulb from a futuristic curiosity to something that could be used in the home. All schoolchildren are quick to say Edison invented the light bulb, without ever knowing the name of the black man who put that bulb in their homes. That made me think about all the other overlooked African-American inventors that have had such an impact on our daily lives whose names are never mentioned in schools. This book is meant to preserve their names as well as their legacies. My hope is that when kids read about them and the enormous obstacles they overcame to realize their dreams, they will be inspired to see that they, too, can become scientists or inventors.

Q: You're a New York Times best-selling author and have written seven books based on the contributions of African-Americans to American culture and history, including Black Profiles in Courage (a legacy of African-American achievement); Brothers in Arms (the first all-Black U. S. Army tank battalion in WWII) and On the Shoulders of Giants (about the Harlem Rens, an African-American basketball team in the 1930s playing during the Harlem Renaissance's cultural contribution to jazz and art). At what point in your life did you know that once your basketball career was completed, your next move would be to become one of this country's foremost experts on African-American history?

Abdul-Jabbar: I've been interested in American history and African-American history since high school. At that time, I was part of a program that studied the Harlem Renaissance. As a teenager, I was amazed to discover all the world-shaking artists, writers, social activists, and athletes that had been changing the face of American culture for years without us learning about them in school. That's when I realized that history isn't just about facts, it's about making sure those facts are shared with everyone.

When the truth about history is deliberately hidden, especially regarding a particular ethnic group or gender, that's a form of intellectual enslavement. This lying through omission teaches the world that a particular group has no worthwhile achievements and that the children in that group are incapable of making any notable contributions. That flaw in how we teach history and its detrimental effect on our children and culture has bothered me since then. I always knew that part of my role in life would be to bring to light the many forgotten and overlooked heroes in history in order to show the next generation what they, too, could accomplish. Basketball gave me the platform to be heard. I just wanted to make sure that when I used that platform, I had something of significance to say.

Q: In winter 2011, On the Shoulders of Giants was released as a film documentary and recently was highlighted for two weeks on Showtime. It has been shown throughout the U.S. and met with overwhelming critical acclaim. Please describe the process of making such a documentary, from book to film version.

Abdul-Jabbar: I originally wanted to do OSG as a documentary movie, but there was such a lack of knowledge about the period of the Harlem Renaissance; I saw that I would have to do a book on the subject to give potential movie partners what the story was about. After writing the book, it was possible to raise the money to produce the film. There were only 40 seconds of footage of the Rens, but we were able to tell the story by using special graphic tricks and interviews. It was difficult, but we got it done and are very pleased with the outcome. Director Stanley Kubrick once said, "A film is - or should be - more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings." That's pretty much how we approached making the movie. We started with the mood and feelings that I experienced when, as a teenager, I first heard about the Harlem Rens, the first team to win the world championship. I remember feeling such pride that this all-black team (the only black-owned team) had defeated the best white teams in the country, despite facing a daily onslaught of racism that sometimes threatened their lives. My other feeling was outrage that I'd never heard of them before, even though I was a black basketball player who hung out in Harlem. Their inspiring achievement had been downplayed out of existence. I couldn't decide which bothered me more: the fact that their achievement was ignored, or that I had been ignorant of it.

Fast forward a few decades later, and I was now ready to take on this injustice. But there were a couple major of obstacles: only forty seconds of footage existed of the Rens playing, and there was a general ignorance about the era. I decided that the best way to gather support for the project was to write a book about the entire Harlem Renaissance. In it, I covered the politics, art, literature, music, and sports that literally changed the entire American culture. The book was critically well-received, which encouraged our movie partners to become passionate about the project. We were able to overcome the technical difficulties by using state-of-the-art graphics and presenting revealing interviews. In the end, the film was able to reflect my passion for the Rens, which is why it's been so successful.

Q: On Jan. 18, the U. S. State Department named you a U. S. Global Cultural Ambassador. Your appointment is part of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's vision of "Smart Power" that combines diplomacy, defense and development to "bridge the gap in a tense world through young people." Was this a position you had previously expressed an interest in, or were you surprised when you were informed of the appointment? Please explain what your duties are as a U. S. Global Cultural Ambassador and how was your January trip to Brazil?

Abdul-Jabbar: I was totally surprised by the appointment because I wasn't aware I was being considered. However, I was aware of the significance of the position because it had once been filled by one of my personal heroes, Louis Armstrong. My role is to visit various countries, meet with locals, especially children, and help give them an honest perspective on the U.S. I think I was chosen because I'm a role model of both athletic achievement and scholastic accomplishment. Sure, I can put a ball through a hoop, but I can also talk about how America has produced countless success stories of individuals in worse circumstances than they are in. Our history inspires the world. Yes, part of that history involves racism and economic suppression, but more important it involves us righting those wrongs when we uncover them. This country is hungry for truth and justice and I try to instill a little of that spirit in the countries I visit.

My first assignment to Brazil went really well, and I think that I will do a good job in many of my other assignments. I basically got a chance to talk to groups of young people about educational issues, and I answered their questions about life in America. Brazil was a good place for me to visit because their history of slavery is quite similar to that of the U.S. They are trying to make their nation whole by a focused effort to include Afro-Brazilians into the mainstream of Brazilian life. Serious political effort and financial resources are being devoted to this effort.

Q: In 2010, you founded the Skyhook Foundation, with a mission "to motivate today's youth to pursue higher education by using sports to celebrate social and racial justice." What are the goals of the Skyhook Foundation, and how can an individual contribute to it?

Abdul-Jabbar: The Skyhook Foundation's main focus is to positively mentor young people to pursue higher education and focus on finding ways to improve their communities.

The Foundation strives to inspire today's youth to exercise their minds and realize the power of knowledge. We do this by introducing them to mentors who inspire them to pursue careers as innovators the same way they envision being athletes and entertainers.

The title of my book and film, On the Shoulder of Giants, comes from a quote by Sir Isaac Newton: "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." He meant that his achievements as a physicist were the result of all he'd learned from the "giants" in his field before him. Every successful person I've ever known or read about, myself included, has had help. That's what my Skyhook Foundation is all about. We want to provide those broad, sturdy shoulders of mentors to help our children see farther and go farther than they could on their own. We do this in two ways. First, we inspire today's youth to exercise their minds and realize the power of knowledge in transforming their lives. By introducing them to successful mentors in various fields, we encourage them to pursue careers as innovators in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in the same way that they might dream of being pro athletes or entertainers. Second, by supplying books, educational materials, and sponsoring events, the Foundation tries to make available the educational tools to help them fulfill their goals.

Q: On your official website, kareemabduljabbar.com, there is a link to "KAJ Heroes." Your list includes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and UCLA's Jackie Robinson, along with jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. These are men and women who have influenced your life from the time you were a child. What are the key elements needed to become a "KAJ Hero?"

Abdul-Jabbar: My heroes are people who have made a stand for excellence and inclusion with their lives. I have admired the way all of them were able to make a statement to the world at large and how they made Black Americans proud of their achievements. Heroes inspire people to become more than they are. Although my heroes run a broad spectrum of athletes, authors, activists, and musicians, they all share certain characteristics. They have a passion to be the best, the dedication and work ethic to accomplish their dreams, the courage to speak their minds, and a desire to improve their communities. Many of my heroes were able to do this in the face of the harshest economic and social obstacles. I've gotten to know them so well that now I can just look at their photo and I'm inspired to be a better person. There's nothing more heroic than that.

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