To mark Black History Month, we are reprinting a version of this article originally published in July 2016.
You probably know Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for his six NBA titles with the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, six MVP awards, and the Skyhook, his unstoppable, inimitable shot that made him the league's all-time leading scorer. You might not know him as writer whose work spans commentary for CNN, TIME, and the Washington Post, as well as a recent memoir for young readers and a Sherlock Holmes adventure, among other titles. You might also not know that since his days as a transcendent center with John Wooden's legendary UCLA squads of the 1960s, Abdul-Jabbar has inserted himself into this country's most difficult conversations, standing with the likes of Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Bill Russell, athletes who leveraged--and often sacrificed--their success for the cause of social justice. He has witnessed five decades of American triumph and tumult from a rare perspective: a black man born to modest means in 1940s Harlem, thrust to the canonizing heights of professional sports.
While 2016's Writings on the Wall: Searching for a New Equality Beyond Black and White tackles race, Jabbar's concerns are far-ranging, veering in different directions to address fractures running through all facets of America—religion, gender discrimination, class, gun violence, poverty, education, etc.—as well as the political and media forces intent on widening the cracks.
These are polarizing issues, but this book is not a polemic. His aims are elucidation and discussion, not alienation and anger, and while not all readers will identify with him or agree with his solutions, Abdul-Jabbar addresses heavy topics with a straightforward, thoughtful, and entertaining touch. (He is a keen and enthusiastic observer of pop culture and often injects it into his opinions and observations, at one point citing scientist-philosopher Steven Pinker and Star Trek in a single passage.) Writings on the Wall is a measured attempt to take conversations from the mouths of those who shout the loudest and return them to all of us. As the book repeatedly asks: "Now what do we do to fix this thing?" He has an idea or two.
Here Abdul-Jabbar shares his list of books, new and old, for understanding our country's difficult history and relationship with race.
Books That Help Us Better Understand Race in America
by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Published in 1963 during the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, the two essays in this book address what was euphemistically referred to as “the Negro Problem.” Baldwin made it clear that nothing much had changed from the British idea championed by Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling that anyone not white was “white man’s burden” to civilize, which meant turn them into honorary whites. Baldwin’s confessions of what it feels like to live in America as a black person are at turns enraging and enlightening. His ruminations on the failure of religion to address the racial injustices is as much plea as condemnation.
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B Du Bois
What strikes me most today about Du Bois’ groundbreaking work of sociology and history of African-Americans is how little has changed since it appeared in 1903. Most of his points about voting rights, education, and religion are just as true over a hundred years later. While he wrote of the importance of voter rights for blacks, today we fight the voter registration laws that are being enacted as a means to restrain voter participation of people of color. I particularly enjoy how he uses African-American poetry, slave songs, and spirituals throughout the text as a celebration and validation of black art. By doing so, he elevated these works as legitimate expressions of the black experience, writing, “I know that these songs are the articulate message of the slave to the world.”
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Much has been made about Lee’s 2015 release of Go Set a Watchman because it revises what we thought we knew about the noble Atticus Finch. But none of that can affect the raw nerves that run through the novel’s portrayal of the Jim Crow mentality that made both blacks and whites miserable. What’s most uplifting is the struggle of characters trying to do the right thing even in the face of so much opposition. That’s the universal struggle of humanity throughout history.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley
Some books make you feel like you’ve just thrown open a window after a long sleep and can see the world as it is for the first time. This is such a book. Malcolm’s journey from petty criminal to social activist is as much an exploration of the American consciousness as Huck Finn’s trip down the Mississippi or Ishmael’s voyage in pursuit of Moby-Dick. His spiritual and political awakening is as inspiring to blacks as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was to American revolutionaries. For many readers, it was a wake-up call to how institutional racism imposes so many barriers to blacks, keeping them from ever reaching their full potential.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Coates borrows the format of addressing a young family member from Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, but his conclusions about racial disparity in America are much darker. Though I don’t share Coates’ pessimism about eventually overcoming our racial differences—at least, most days—I do appreciate the sincerity of his writing and the intellectual analysis of race in America. His voice will resonate deep within the African-American community for years to come.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Walker’s 1982 novel, written in the form of letters, will bring tears of sympathy and rage. The lives of these Southern black women in the 1930s offers rich alternative story to what is usually found in history books. The book’s brave and unbending exploration of, not just racial tensions between blacks and whites, but also gender stereotypes and intra-racial differences among blacks, is one of the reasons this book is one of the most banned in America. It is as insightful and moving as any novel you are likely to read.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Ellison’s novel’s premise that being black in America makes you invisible was meant to also comment on the degradation of class struggles throughout the world. His passion wasn’t just for racial parity but class parity, and that passion illuminates every page of this 1952 novel, whose truths have not flickered one bit since publication. What I find most interesting about the book is his style, which has the feeling of improvisational jazz.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
This 1970 novel takes Ellison’s idea of invisibility due to skin color another level, in which invisibility and crushing feelings of inferiority are the result of not just skin color but absurd notions of attractiveness. It also has one of my favorite passages in literature because it is so lightning bolt true: “Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another – physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought.” She unflinchingly presents how oppression—racial and gender—damages the African-American community.
Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire
This collection of poems by Shire, a Kenyan-born Somali poet, offers a harsh indictment of the effects of war and the violence against women. How the women learn to live with these tragedies is humbling, infuriating, and somehow inspiring. The final poem, only two lines, called “In Love and In War” captures the defiant tone: “To my daughter I will say/‘when the men come, set yourself on fire.’”
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