he winner of six NBA championships and just as many MVP Awards wanted to write a book of passable reflections on the Harlem Renaissance, and make it sound like a big deal when it wasn't, he could probably get away with it. Fortunately, that's not what Kareem Abdul-Jabbar chose to do in On the Shoulders of Giants. He took the opposite route by providing readers with a superior work of lively history, passionate memoir, keen social commentary, and entertaining musical appreciation.
Dozens of books on the Harlem Renaissance have hit the shelves since the 2003 publication of Facts On Files’ Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. Few (if any) have illustrated as precisely as On the Shoulders of Giants exactly why and how the Harlem Renaissance has come to remain such a vibrant cultural and spiritual force in the 21st century.
A Little Something More
Like other competent authors on the subject, Abdul-Jabbar provides literary snapshots of the major players and events that produced the Harlem Renaissance. Unlike other books, his gives us something more.
He includes chapters on how elements of the Harlem Renaissance, such as the extraordinary prowess of the Harlem Rens basketball team, directly impacted the development of his own life as a son of Harlem. Moreover, he examines how it empowered the lives of others who picked up where the Renaissance left off and kept it going in other forms.
The world knows Kareem Abdul-Jabbar mostly as a champion athlete. In On the Shoulders of Giants, we meet him as the teen-aged scholar Lew Alcindor working beside famed educator Dr. Henrik Clarke. With Dr. Clarke, Abdul-Jabbar helped publish a weekly journal on the New York City neighborhood Harlem and discovered how his birthplace earned the title "The Capitol of Black America."
We see the youth inspired by the world-famous Harlem Globetrotters give up his dream to play professional baseball in exchange for a plan to conquer basketball. We meet the great lover of classic black literature, the connoisseur of jazz, and the defender of his beloved community.
Embodiments of a Legacy
Aside from his individual highly informed observations of the Harlem Renaissance proper, Abdul-Jabbar also offers some daring interpretations of the movement. Take, for example, the following contention:
"The Harlem Renaissance didn't end... [it] pried open a lot of reluctant doors and those who came after learned how to shoulder those doors open even wider. The guiding principles of the Harlem Renaissance survived and flourished." -- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Towards that end, he cites both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. as products and embodiments of Harlem Renaissance ideologies. This writer agrees with that assessment.
As important as On the Shoulders of Giants is for what it says about the past, it's even more important for what it indicates about the present and the future.
© 23 January 2016
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
Supporter of principles advocated by PEN American Center and the Academy of American Poets, Aberjhani is also the Choice Academic Title Award-winning co-author of the world's first Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.