Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tells Kalamazoo history can show us the work that needs to be done

The evening began as it would end — with an standing ovation for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The basketball legend — NBA’s all-time leading scorer and six-time NBA champion — drew a full house of at least 3,250 to Western Michigan University’s Miller Auditorium not only for his athletic prowess but for his views on how history can be a critical guide to the nation’s future.

In his book, “Writings on the Wall: Searching for a New Equality Beyond Black and White,” Abdul-Jabbar writes that if he had not been a star athlete he probably would have chosen to be a history teacher. “History illuminates the safest path in front of us by revealing the pitfalls of the past,” he writes.

And as he points out in his book, he’s been writing about social issues longer than he played basketball. The video that introduced the evening said only the number on the 70-year-old’s jersey has been retired. As an American father, businessman, education advocate, journalist, charity organizer, history buff, filmmaker, novelist, former Cultural Ambassador for the United States, political activist and Muslim, he has a lot to say.

With his own blend of politics and pop culture references — the book’s title is from a Stevie Wonder song — he promotes coming together around the campfire of society to cherish what we have in common and figure out ways to make happier lives for everyone.

“Writings on the Wall” was chosen as the book for Reading Together, the 15th annual event sponsored by the Kalamazoo Public Library to “build a stronger community with deeper connections through the common experience of reading the same book and exploring its themes together.” Besides reading the book together, the community also is invited to multiple events to discuss it and related topics.

In an interview format with questions asked by Tim Terrentine, WMU's vice president for development and alumni relations, Abdul-Jabbar talked about the book developed from columns he and his  co-author Raymond Obstfeld have contributed to The Washington Post and Time Magazine.

Terrentine told Abdul-Jabbar that he was “blown away” by the number of taboo topics that are tackled in the book. Racism, gender, class struggle, sports, the news media, seniors and “unsolicited advice for America’s youth” all have their own chapters in “Writings on the Wall.”

Abdul-Jabbar says these topics are what have to be talked about. “Unless we talk about them what we are dealing with will never get solved.” He encouraged people to meet someone from a different religious or ethnic community and introduce themselves. “Have the courage to up and say, ‘Hi. I’m so-and-so.’ It’s important because that is what America is all about.”

Specifically, Terrentine asked Abdul-Jabbar how to have productive conversations about race.

“What we have to understand is that what race really means with regard to someone’s character — it has no impact whatsover.” It was one of many moments throughout the night greeted with approving applause. 

“Whoever has the knowledge, time, and ability to solve the problems — that is what we have to look for, because the problems have to be dealt with.” 

The way the United States has dealt with blacks historically has left the country with an abiding guilt, Abdul-Jabbar says. He points out that if cotton plantation owners had paid the blacks they employed in their fields the costs could have been passed on to those who purchased the cotton and we would not have had the stain on the nation that we are still dealing with. 

“To escape that guilt, damage has been done. Destroying our family structure, wanting us to be ignorant, are burdens on blacks put there by the dominant  society. It’s done deliberately and needs to be understood. Black Americans want to see change and want to achieve the American Dream like anyone else.”

Pursuing the American Dream is difficult if you haven’t been properly educated, Abdul-Jabbar continues. “American schools are failing. Our high school students are in the middle of that. We didn’t keep the standards up and our students’ scores have slid backward.”

Within our communities there are solutions for such problems, he contends. “We have forgotten that we can rely on each other. During World War II, all groups in America came together to defeat Nazism. We have to remember that and get back to that.”

Abdul-Jabbar got more enthusiastic applause when he responded to a question posed by Terrentine on how to empower teachers who seem to be constantly attacked. 

“Pay them well. Give them facilities to do their jobs. When they have the means to do their jobs they will. When we focus on what we want to get done we get stuff done in America.”

One answer Abdul-Jabbar has found is a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) program he offers through his Skyhook Foundation. Children from the inner-city spend four nights and five days in an outdoor experience at Angeles National Forest that also exposes them to STEM education. He points out that without STEM education before the sixth grade young people will have more difficulty getting jobs. This year, 60,000 youngsters will have gone through the program. 

“It opens up their eyes,” Abdul-Jabbar says. They learn there are more options than pursuing careers such as those of celebrities like Beyonce, LeBron James, and Denzel Washington.

In response to a question from Terrentine on the value of learning critical thinking vs. memorization “to get the grade and move on,” Abdul-Jabbar laid out the case for learning critical thinking this way: “You have to be prepared to be able to tell when someone is lying or you’re going to get fooled at some point.”

Abdul-Jabbar says he is hopeful about the future of the United States for a number of reasons. One is that the nation has come a long way in race relations over the years. “I know how bad it has been and I didn’t think it would ever change.”

He also believes in the spirit of the U.S. Constitution. As he says in “Writings”, the “genius of the document is that it was written by men who acknowledged their own frailties and biases. Some owned slaves; they marginalized women; they protected some immigrants but not others. … But realizing that they were creatures of their times and that history can be a harsh judge of that narrow thinking, the Founding Fathers made provisions for changing the document as the country became more enlightened.” It has been changed to abolish slavery, recognize women’s rights, and establish equal justice for rich and poor. 

As he told the crowd at Miller, “There are a lot of people who want to make America a better place. They believe in the Constitution. Together we can finish the work of the Founding Fathers. We have work to do.”

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan’s Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.

Photos courtesy of Kalamazoo Public Library
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