Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Beyond black and white: searching for a new equality

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar / A great American thinker.

Growing up in the valley suburbs of Los Angeles in the 1960s, one of my childhood heroes was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Back then, as Lew Alcindor (his birth name before he changed it after converting to Islam), he was the dominating force in men's collegiate basketball in leading UCLA to three consecutive NCAA championships. I've always been fascinated by Kareem, not only as an athlete but as a human being because he's shown himself to be so much more than a basketball player. He's also a great American thinker.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's new book
focuses on many paramount issues
facing our society, including:
racism, war, death, love, hope
My current reading project is Abdul-Jabbar's latest book, Writings On the Wall: Searching For a New Equality Beyond Black and White. Co-authored with Raymond Obstfeld and published this fall, it's an insightful book that's full of wisdom and conviction and a must read as we transition from eight years of steady and thoughtful leadership by Barack Obama to the chaos-induced "post-truth" presidency of Donald Trump. In Writings On the Wall, Abdul-Jabbar explores how today's America "is a fractured society, sharply divided along the lines of race, gender, religion, political party and economic class." The book is filled with plenty of fresh reporting and serious thinking.

Writings On the Wall focuses on many paramount issues facing our society: racism, abuse of women, why politicians attack the media, war, growing old, death, love, hope. He approaches these issues with both insight and passion and draws upon his life experiences not only as superstar athlete but also as a scholar, celebrity, parent, education advocate, journalist, charity organizer, African-American and a Muslim.

U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, himself a former NBA basketball player, Rhodes Scholar and author, wrote that Abdul-Jabbar "brings his unusual and unique life story to bear on the issues of our day and adds insight for all of us in the process."

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar used his trademark
"sky hook" shot to help win six NBA
championships during his 20-year
Hall of Fame career. 
Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA's all-time leading scorer and a Basketball Hall of Fame inductee. In retirement, he has been an activist and an in-demand speaker, a basketball coach and the author of nine books for adults and three for children, including What Color Is My World?, which garnered the author the NAACP Image Award for Best Children's Book.

As an essayist for such publications as the Washington Post and TIME magazine, Abdul-Jabbar has written on a wide range of subjects, including race, politics, aging and popular culture.

In 2012, he was selected as a U.S. Cultural Ambassador. Last month, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a White House ceremony.

"My real passion for history is in using it as a critical guide to our future, both personal and cultural," writes Abdul-Jabbar.

"History illuminates the safest path in front of us by revealing the pitfalls of the past. It is a secular bible of cautionary and inspiring stories that distills the wisdom of thousands of years of human endeavor into practical lessons about humanity's morals, politics and personal relationships. It is the ultimate self-help book. And right now, given the political and social turmoil in America, we need all the help we can get."

Abdul-Jabbar integrates a lot of popular-culture references in illustrating his ideas. He's a fan of the many artistic ways that our society chooses to communicate both its darkest fears and its brightest hopes. "Pop culture visualizes the public discourse in myriad ways: through music, movies, TV shows, poetry, comic books, literary novels, plays, YouTube, graffiti and new forms of expression that come along every day," he writes. "It provides the embraceable melody of our cultural song – it doesn't matter how profound the words of the song are if no one wants to listen. Whether Tarantino or Truffaut, all points of view and creative presentations have a place. Popular culture is a language that bridges generations, economic statuses and ethnic backgrounds. It provides a common heritage-in-the-making that brings our diverse community closer."

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar spoke during the 2016
Democratic National Convention.
Why did he write this book? "For me, there would be no point in writing a book like this unless I had some hope that it might help improve life for Americans," writes Abdul-Jabbar. "I don't imagine anything grand, just that some contentious issues might be clarified, that some people might hear a reasonable voice that isn't from the same background as others they listen to.

"Maybe they will become a little more understanding. Mostly, I hope to expand the discussion about what America is and what it means to be an American. Not with waving flags and sentimental speeches but with a return to exploring the document that defines who we are and what we stand for: the U.S. Constitution."

With his book, Writings on the Wall, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
hopes "to shine a flashlight on the path back to the
Age of Reason and the ideals of the U.S. Constitution."
What does he hope to gain? "Many Americans, as evidenced by the 2016 presidential campaign, abandoned these founding principles of reason to voice their fear, anger, frustration and rage. They openly and proudly expressed their racial bigotry, religious intolerance and misogyny as if the past 100 years of history of incremental social progress had never happened.

"Without even knowing it, they have dragged the American flag through the mud by rejecting all the principles it represents. As cartoonist Walt Kelly said in Pogo: 'We have met the enemy and he is us.' With this book, I hope to shine a flashlight on the path back to the Age of Reason and the ideals of the U.S. Constitution."

Will it work? Abdul-Jabbar is hopeful. "Each generation has to confront these challenging ideas and find ways to incorporate them into their personal belief systems as they go about their daily lives. ... I hope people choose to answer the call and together we ring about the miracle and wonder."

That, I believe, is an American dream worth dreaming.

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