As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar walked out onto the Chapel stage at 8:15 p.m. Tuesday night, he offered a gesture of deference.
“I would like to ask for a minute of silence for Coretta Scott King,” he said. The audience bowed their heads in respect and then waited patiently for him to begin his speech.
Abdul-Jabbar appeared on Tuesday as Colgate’s keynote speaker for Black History Month 2006. Sponsored by Brothers, he was asked to come and speak about his book, Black Profiles in Courage.
Abdul-Jabbar spent several hours in the Colgate Bookstore Tuesday afternoon, signing copies of his featured book.
Published in 1996 and co-authored by Alan Steinberg, Black Profiles in Courage chronicles the significant contributions of many African-American individuals to American history. Abdul-Jabbar addressed a few hundred Colgate students and faculty on this topic.
The NBA’s all-time leader in points scored was introduced by senior and Brothers figurehead Jonathan Lopez. In his introduction, Lopez said that Abdul-Jabbar’s multi-dimensional success was a model for students.
“Many people tend to believe athletes are one-dimensional,” Lopez said. “But athletes of color are not one-dimensional; there is such a thing as a student athlete.”
Abdul-Jabbar, Lopez added, is exactly the kind of multi-talented and intelligent athlete who helps destroy stereotypes.
“Black history is still unappreciated these days,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “It is the part of American history that has been overlooked and marginalized … and for something that happened three or four hundred years ago.”
Abdul-Jabbar launched into a brief history and explanation of the institution of slavery in the New World. He reminded listeners that African slaves were brought en masse not only to North America, but to places like the silver mines of Peru and the plantations of the Caribbean island, and how a marginalized people begot a marginalized history.
“Any contributions made by slave classes were explained away,” he said. “This phenomenon has taken a big chunk out of American history. As a young person, I was infused with an American history with the perspective of the slave master. I always felt my presence was marginal. It took quite an event to change that.”
Speaking about his childhood in the 1950’s and 1960’s in Harlem, Abdul-Jabbar said his life was forever changed through the efforts of famed civil rights activist, Kenneth B. Clark. Dr. Clark’s research in the early 1960’s found that the youth of Harlem had no “knowledge of self.” After much lobbying, the government granted Clark and others the money to establish a social program designed to educate and involve members of the community. The young Abdul-Jabbar joined a journalism workshop and, at the suggestion of the project director, delved into the culture and history of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s.
“A whole new world opened up for me,” Abdul-Jabbar said. His studies of the Harlem Renaissance changed his old ideas and gave the him new appreciation for black history and culture. Learning about the period was a redefinition of self for the future basketball Hall-of-Famer.
“I speak of Langston Hughes,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I speak of the writings of Claude McKay and Wallace Thurman. I speak of the music of Duke Ellington and countless others. All of a sudden, black people saw themselves in a different light, learning about this set a fire underneath me.”
Abdul-Jabbar went on to cite hearing Martin Luther King Jr. as a formative experience. He said that it is the duty of people today to carry the torch and honor these past leaders by telling of the role African-Americans have played in the history of this country.
Abdul-Jabbar mentioned the names of several important figures forgotten over the course of history. Among these were Louis Lattimer, a scientist and colleague of Thomas Edison; an unnamed black bugle boy who saved the life of famed Revolutionary War commander William Washington and thereby helped save the day at the Battle of Cowpens; and another black hero of the Revolutionary War who shot the British leader at Bunker Hill and helped to win that pivotal battle.
“These things need to be included in our history,” Abdul-Jabbar said.
Though he did have to request that no one ask basketball questions at one point, Abdul-Jabbar spoke about his ability to influence and interest past teammates, such as James Worthy and Magic Johnson, in the subject of black history.
As the Brothers’ acting “Wise Man,” or senior advisor, Lopez characterized the event as a success.
“I thought the attendance could have been higher, but I definitely think it went well,” he said. “It was what the Brothers needed it to be.”
Some students had an opportunity to meet Abdul-Jabbar.
“At dinner, Kareem showed us a lot of different moments and milestones from black history,” Lopez said. “It really is a part of a greater American history.”
Abdul-Jabbar admitted his distaste for Black History Month as an institution. Black history, he explained, should become a part of every American education all year round. Lopez echoed his comments.
“I think [Black History Month] is important because it’s not yet incorporated into American History,” Lopez said. “If it’s incorporated into our history as well as the world wars and the achievements of other leaders are, there will be no need for the month.”