Although the title of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s book, On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance, allows one to think of the very high shoulders of the author, the focus of the book is on how contemporary people benefit from the extraordinary accomplishments in the arts—literature, social criticism, and, especially, music—and sports of people associated with the Harlem neighborhood of New York City during earlier times. In this semi-autobiographical book, Mr. Abdul-Jabbar and his co-author Raymond Obstfeld take readers through the slice of history that centered around Harlem in the first half of the 20th century, examining roots that go back into the 19th century and consequences that will echo long into the 21st century.
As he develops it, much of the book is predicated on Mr. Abdul-Jabbar’s passions. He writes that the book draws on his personals passions: his concern about improving the prospects of others in the black community, the camaraderie and purpose he found in basketball, his love for jazz, and his urge to communicate with others.
This book focuses on those passions by tracing their origins in the Harlem Renaissance that so inspired me. “‘Some Technicolor Bazaar’: How Harlem Became the Center of the Universe” details the rise of Harlem as the Black Mecca. Millions of blacks migrated from the South and West Indies to live in what they saw as a new and attainable Promised Land. “Master Intellects and Creative Giants’: The ‘Talented Tenth’ Paint the World Black” presented the brilliant minds behind the Harlem Renaissance, from the intellects that formulated its philosophy to the writers who embodied its spirit. Through their works of literature, they made white American see black Americans in a whole new light. “‘Fairness Creeps out of the Soul’: Basketball Comes to Harlem” recounts the exploits of one of the greatest basketball teams ever to play, the Renaissance Big Five, commonly known as the Rens. Despite relentless racism, they defeated the best black and white teams in the country, amassing one of the most astounding records in the history of the game. There is no doubt that they made it possible for me to be as successful as I was. “‘Musical Fireworks’: Jazz Lights up the Heavens of Harlem” follows the evolution of jazz from its modest birth in the slave songs of the South to its adoption as the music of choice of the Jazz Age.
The authors of On the Shoulders of Giants arranged an enlightening tour through an important combination of time and place in American history. It’s a worthwhile read, not just for the basketball angle that is inevitably connected with anything Mr. Abdul-Jabbar touches nor just the jazz feature that may attract others to the title, but also for the clarity of the connections among the intellectual, artistic, and athletic examples of excellence and achievement that it reveals.
This title fits well with Mr. Abdul-Jabbar’s work on the history of African-Americans. Other relevant titles, Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement and Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII’s Forgotten Heroes, show that he is developing an impressive body of work. His historical writings may not (yet?) be on a par with his superlative basketball performances, but they represent a valuable contribution to understanding where America has been and what factors will contribute to where it goes. These contributions may have greater long-term effects on our culture than Mr. Abdul-Jabbar’s remarkable athletic accomplishments.
Now, I need to watch the video version. That should have some fine performances in it.
- Mr. Abdul-Jabbar’s Web site (currently devoted to OtSoG; this link takes one directly to the purchase page, which is where I bought my copy, though they appear to be no longer available);
- Mr. Obstfeld’s Web site;
- Amazon pages about the book.