While his 20-season National Basketball Association career spanning the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers is certainly remarkable, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s impact on the American cultural landscape transcends sports. He has written several books—most recently the novel Mycroft Holmes with Anna Waterhouse in 2015—and lends his observations on race and society to numerous publications. In his forthcoming Writings on the Wall: Searching for a New Equality Beyond Black and White (Time Books, Aug.), Jabbar, through chapters covering such themes as politics, class, and aging, encourages readers to focus on commonalities and conquer long divisions.
The topics highlighted in Writings on the Wall have gripped the nation for decades. Why was now finally the time to write it?
I’ve been addressing these issues for many years in my columns for Esquire, Time.Com, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. The fact that they are still relevant despite the many years of discussion, protests, laws, and political promises motivated me to address them again, but with room for more reflection and depth. I wouldn’t say that any single incident was especially inspiring, but rather it was the rising tide of racial, religious, gender, and sexual orientation bigotry in this country. That is not who we want to be as Americans.
Do you see the book as an opportunity to change the conversation?
Every voice added changes the conversation, so I’m hoping mine will, in a positive direction. I’m relying on my experiences as an American, an African-American, a Muslim, a historian, a businessman, an educator, and an athlete to bring a fresh perspective to the issues that might be illuminating for some. Also, conversations must eventually lead to actions to make things better. I hope the book improves the conversation, but ultimately leads to real changes that improve people’s lives here and now.
How did being reared in the midst of the civil rights era inform the book?
When I was in high school, I had the opportunity as a student journalist to attend a press conference held by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I even got to ask him a question. I remember how impressed I was by his thoughtful demeanor, articulate speech, and passionate commitment. Not too long after that, I accidentally got caught up in a riot in Harlem in which I literally had to run for my life. Both of those incidents woke me up to see the world around me more clearly and with a more profound understanding of my place in it. More important, seeing so many people of all colors, faiths, and ages joining together to fight racism made me realize that you couldn’t be a bystander when there is social injustice. I hope that spirit made its way into the book.
What is one of the takeaways you would like for readers to embrace from Writings on the Wall?
That our Constitution is a guide for the most socially and politically progressive country in the world—if we just follow its spirit of inclusiveness. We all want to do the right thing. I hope the book helps us figure out how.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will be signing books today in the Time Books booth (2010, 2011), 2–3:30 p.m.
This article appeared in the May 12, 2016 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.