Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Basketball Legend and Kids' Book Author

Have you ever wondered who invented the ice cream scoop? Or performed the first open-heart surgeries?  In What Color is My World? basketball legend and author Kareem Abdul-Jabbar introduces kids ages 8 and up to the lost history of African-American inventors responsible for a host of things we take for granted every day.

Ella and Herbie are twins who are helping their mother fix up their new house, along with a very special handy man, Mr. Mital, who gets them to see the history in their everyday world through stories of inventors the twins had never heard of.  The book is fun and endlessly interesting for adults and kids, with big side flaps that give brief fun facts and then more in-depth detail for each inventor without interrupting the flow of the book. 

In 2011 Abdul-Jabbar was awarded the Abraham Lincoln Medal, an honor bestowed on those individuals who exemplify President Lincoln’s commitment to equality, and we had the chance to send the new medal-winner some questions that he was kind enough to answer.  Here is a peek at this exclusive Q&A, and you can read the whole thing here. --Seira

Question: When did you first become interested in learning about African-American inventors?

Abdul-Jabbar: I first became interested in African-American inventors when I wrote Black Profiles in Courage in 1996. During that time I was immersed in black history and the many courageous African-Americans that history books had overlooked. I was surprised at how many inventors that affected our everyday life had been left out of what we learned in school. I knew at that time that I would someday want to do something about that inequity.

Q: Super Soaker or Illusion Transmitter? Of the many inventions you talk about in the book, which is your favorite?

Abdul-Jabbar: My favorite invention in the book is the foil-electret microphone invented by James West because it has made cell phone communication possible. The cell phone has completely changed our world. Today’s kids can’t imagine a time before there were cell phones or iPods or iPads. But all that was possible, in part, thanks to one black man who had to struggle against great odds to achieve his dream. Those are the kind of men and women we should be exposing our children to.

Q: What was your favorite class in school?

Abdul-Jabbar: I don’t think it will be any surprise that my favorite class was history. I’ve said many times that if I hadn’t become a professional basketball player, I would have become a history teacher. There’s so much to learn from history. The saying, “Those that don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it” doesn’t just apply to politicians and world leaders, it applies to all of us on a daily basis. We can learn from mistakes of others, whether they’re kings or our parents. When we do learn those lessons, we’re better equipped to make our own dreams come true.

Q: What do you most want kids to know about you outside of your legendary basketball career?

Abdul-Jabbar: I love basketball, but playing basketball doesn’t fully define who I am. I was always a good student, too. Sure, I could have skated by as an athlete, but the world is so much bigger and more interesting than any one thing. I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as just a jock. I’m also an author, a student of history, and I collect memorabilia from the Wild West. I’m also a son, a father, and a friend.

Q: Did you read a lot as a kid? Did you have any favorite books growing up?

Abdul-Jabbar: I read a lot as a kid. Some of my favorite books were The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas and The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling. Reading opened up the world like nothing else. One day I might be sword fighting in 17th Century France, the next I might be fighting off crazed assassins in 19th Century India. Video games just can’t compare with the variety and intensity of reading.

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