On the Shoulders of Giants

By Kareem-Abdul Jabbar w/ Raymond Obstfeld
Updated: January 17, 2007

My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance

In his inspiring and enlightening new book, ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance (Simon & Schuster; February 2, 2007; $26.00), basketball legend and New York Times best-selling author Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, writing with Raymond Obstfeld, chronicles this seminal period in African-American history and how its literary, musical, and sports achievements shaped his own destiny. Both a meticulously researched account of the most important events and central figures of the Harlem Renaissance, and a thoughtful personal narrative, this lively history underscores the unsurpassed accomplishments of an extraordinary group of African-American writers, artists, athletes, and musicians in the years between 1920 and 1940 – and beyond.

“The Harlem Renaissance was like a tidal wave washing through history, especially African-American history, and as a teenager, I was caught up in that massive wave,” writes Kareem. “It swept me along, as it did many other black men and women, and made us what we are today: proud and successful African-Americans who, because we know exactly where we came from, also know exactly where we want to go. We proudly and humbly acknowledge the shoulders we have stood upon to see our future road, and we now stand ready to be those same strong shoulders for others. Hopefully, this book will act as a set of tall and mighty shoulders.”

ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS is arranged in four sections, each of which brings to life a different aspect of the Renaissance. Each section is then followed by a personal essay in which Kareem reflects on how that contribution – Harlem’s history, writers, basketball, and jazz – influenced his own life as an African-American athlete, writer, and historian. “The Harlem Renaissance contributed to the man I am today – and the man I hope to be tomorrow,” says Kareem. “Opening the door to that period of history opened many subsequent doors to guide me.”

Harlem was the unofficial capital of Black America in the twentieth century, and later became the Mecca of African-American culture, the place that many aspired to be and the home of many of the most important voices in Black history. The book highlights the legacies of such indomitable political and cultural leaders as W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Malcolm X, as well as Charles S. Johnson and Alain Locke. Among the finest writers America has ever produced, the “Great Eight” that Kareem writes about includes James Weldon Johnson, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, Wallace Thurman, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes. Most of these geniuses experienced hardship and fought for acceptance, not only among the white establishment, but within the black community as well, but their struggles only served to accentuate their achievements.

Basketball, the sport that came to be synonymous with the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, came to Harlem through the efforts of a Caribbean immigrant called “Smilin’ Bob Douglas” and his Spartan Braves. Later renamed the Renaissance Big Five, the “Harlem Rens”, as they were affectionately known, would become an unbeatable force, but when the country’s first professional basketball league, the American Basketball League, was formed, the Rens were denied membership because of the color of the players’ skin. Seeing the Rens’ archrivals, the Harlem Globetrotters, play would prove a turning point for a young baseball fan who we would come to know as basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The other great Harlem product that shaped Kareem was jazz. “Jazz’s impact on me has been monumental,” he writes. “Jazz stands as a series of mileposts that chronicle my maturation from childhood to manhood [and] ….jazz connects me to African-American history.” Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughn, Billy Eckstine, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn – Harlem’s history would be incomplete without these and countless other jazz greats.

As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar leads readers through his personal tour of Harlem’s storied past, he hopes to inspire the next generation of African Americans to embrace their heritage and come to recognize how it has shaped them, too. “Kareem has offered his own unique perspective to the story of the Harlem Renaissance,” says Muhammad Ali. “By doing so, he has provided a moving history of a cultural place and time that can be experienced by our children and grandchildren. As the saying goes, to know where you are going, you must know from whence you came. We came on the shoulders of giants.”

ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS ™ is also the source material for a forthcoming documentary, co-produced by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Deborah Morales, directed by Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee as executive producer.

About the Authors

Recognized as one of the greatest basketball players in history (the NBA’s all-time leading scorer), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is also the author of several New York Times bestsellers. His books include Giant Steps, Kareem, Black Profiles in Courage, A Season in the Reservation, and Brothers in Arms. Since retiring as a player, he has also been active in the entertainment industry and worked as a coach of professional basketball teams as well as volunteer coach for Apache children on the reservation. He is currently an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Lakers.

An associate professor at Orange Coast College, Raymond Obstfeld is also the author of over forty books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, including studies of the Renaissance, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Moby-Dick.


My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance

By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with Raymond Obstfeld

Published by Simon & Schuster

February 2, 2007


ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-3488-4; ISBN-10: 1-4165-3488-4

A Conversation with

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar


My Personal Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance

ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANT Sis both a history of the Harlem Renaissance and a thoughtful exploration of how that great period in Black history has influenced and changed you throughout life. Why is this a book you wanted to write?

I felt that by explaining the Harlem Renaissance that people would get a perspective on my point of view about various subjects that were discussed during the HR and are still important today. For most people, the degree of success they achieve in life is based on the role models they choose to emulate. Those who choose money-hungry athletes or fame-hungry movie stars will soon discover a hollowness at the core of their quest. I was fortunate enough to discover the intellectual and athletic giants of the Harlem Renaissance when I was only seventeen. Their writings on politics, race, and the arts inspired me to become the man I did—a man interested in pursuing professional success, but just as interested in seeking social justice, creating a harmonious community, and celebrating my cultural heritage.

This book is my way of showing young people that history is anything but a boring recounting of the past, it’s a powerful tool to help shape our futures. My hope is that this book will present the Harlem Renaissance in such a way as to inspire them, too.

Were you born and raised in Harlem?

I was born and raised in Harlem. The Harlem of the post-war years was a place of high hopes and great expectations due to the fact that the Civil Rights movement was just beginning.

You came along after the glory days of the Harlem Renaissance. What was the Harlem of your youth like?

Turbulent and inspiring. The great engine of social change launched by the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance came steaming through the Harlem of my youth, inspiring leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Rev. Powell, who had known many of the prominent leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, was motivated by his predecessors to lead a boycott of stores that discriminated against blacks. It was into this atmosphere of unrest and growing self-determination that I was born and raised. The general feeling in Harlem during my youth was that, as long as we stood together, African-Americans were a powerful community. That gave me the confidence—and commitment—I needed as an individual and as a member of that community.

What do you mean when you write about the “Harlem within” you?

Because Black Americans are seen as separate, it’s always as if all Black Americans are part of one community when that isn’t the case. Black people in Florida have different ideas than Black people in Chicago or San Francisco, but the rest of America always sees any individual Black person as part of every other Black person.

Who are some of your personal favorites among the great writers of the Harlem Renaissance, and how has their work influenced your life?

Two of my favorite writers from the Harlem Renaissance are W.E.B Dubois and Langston Hughes. They have influenced my life by showing the potential the Black community has to produce to great thinkers. Especially Dr. Dubois’ personally journey. His struggle through the various parts of his life is a great example of how difficult it is to cause meaningful change. I admire his persistence.

Why were certain writers of the Harlem Renaissance whom we now consider great – writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and Countee Cullen – ignored, dismissed, and even criticized by the wider black community during their lifetimes?

The great debate of the time was how much of the dark side (no pun intended) of Harlem life should be shown to white America. Some of the younger writers, such as Hurston and Hughes, put the integrity of their art above all else. But some of the older writers, such as DuBois and Johnson, put the integrity of their cause above all else. Both sides fought the same war: to show white America the depths of what black Americans were capable of achieving. They just had different strategies of how to win the war.

You write that jazz’s impact on you has been monumental. How so?

Jazz personally inspired me as a teenager. The intensity of the music somehow empowered me in the way that gospel music can empower certain congregations. Yet, it wasn’t just the sound of the music that I found so inspiring, it was also that the musical form was an original form created by African-Americans. Listening to it made me feel like I was part of, not just a Black community, but also the endless stream of Black culture reaching back to Africa. I’m especially proud of the prominence and popularity that jazz has achieved worldwide.

As a child you were a self-described “egghead,” far more interested in baseball than basketball. How did the sports legacy of the Harlem Renaissance influence your decision to pursue the game that you came to own?

I did not understand directly the influence HR basketball had on me although that influence was there. Many of the older players in my neighborhood had been coached by players who had played for the Harlem Renaissance. One of the referees that officiated many of my high school games was Dolly King, a star player for the Rens in the ‘40’s.

You say that the unique structure of ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS is an acknowledgement and homage to African-American history. How so?

The structure of the book itself is a unique homage to the call-and-response form that started in Africa and is still popular in the Black community today. This form is common in jazz, in Black churches, and even in audience participation in Black theaters. Beyond that, the book details how many of our most beloved art forms of today—including stand-up comedy and rock ‘n’ roll—are directly linked to the black artists of the Harlem Renaissance.

You are a retired athlete, with a legacy as one of the most successful basketball players of all time. You could be resting on your well-earned laurels. Why have you turned to writing in your post-basketball years?

If you stopped half a dozen people on the street and asked them what their jobs were, then asked them what they did in their spare time, you’d find lawyers who are novelists, doctors who are musicians, teachers who are painters, waitresses who are poets. We are all much more than any one thing. Basketball was and always will be one of my passions. But not the only one. Retiring from active play does not mean I’ve retired from my community. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Retiring as something of a role model means I have a responsibility to do something positive with that gift. Because I have always been a devoted student of literature and history, writing books seemed like a natural way for me to fulfill my duty of my community and to my own interests.

In our fast-paced age of mass media and technology, why is it important for the next generation of African-Americans to learn about a long-dead group of writers, athletes and musicians from a time that must see like ancient history to them?

The benefits of the HR inspired more than one generation of Americans to excel and participate in American life. They were people who had been denied that opportunity. So as an inspiration I think it is very fresh and certainly has not been part of everyone’s education in America. There are many people who can find out about the HR and learn a lot and be inspired. Everybody that

I share this information with seem to get a lift from it.