Crusaders of Social Justice
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar makes me feel like an underachiever. One reviewer of his books called him “a novel in himself.” How true! If you tried to base a fictional character on his life – star basketball player, movie actor, political commentator, social activist, author – people would tell you to maybe tone it down a bit.
He has written many books; I’m going to call out a couple, then move on to books that address the theme of his latest, that of social reform. Abdul-Jabbar wants America to turn its ship around. I’m going to highlight a couple of books about people who did just that in their own place and time. It wasn’t easy.
Being a Sherlock Holmes devotee, I loved the fact that Kareem based his first novel on the character of Sherlock Holmes’ brainy brother, Mycroft.
In his book Mycroft Holmes, co-written with Anna Waterhouse, he creates a character based on Mycroft as a young man. Mycroft is looking forward to marrying and raising a family, leading a quiet life (that would make for a pretty boring book!).
Then he hears about a series of child killings in Trinidad. Disturbing detail – the children’s bodies have been drained of blood. Are vampires or some other occult presence to blame? This being Mycroft, he’s not going to accept a supernatural explanation.
One intriguing character in this story is Mycroft’s friend Cyrus Douglas, his partner in crime-solving (Mycroft’s Watson, if you will). Cyrus is a black man with his own business who, because of the racism of the time, has to hide his identity and play Mycroft’s valet. This novel was also adapted into a graphic novel edition. Sounds like a perfect way to introduce readers new to the Sherlock saga to the weird and wonderful Victorian era.
Kareem has written several works of history – here’s one that’s a great story and one that needed telling.
Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII’s Forgotten Heroes taps into Kareem’s love of history. This 2004 book, written with Anthony Walton, tells the story of an all-black tank battalion in Patton’s Third Army. These men spent 183 days on the front lines of the Battle of the Bulge in one of the worst fighting of World War II, and participated in the liberation of the Mauthausen concentration camp They suffered a casualty rate of almost 50%, and endured the chronic racism of the time.
Jackie Robinson, the baseball star, was part of this group for a time, and there’s a side story concerning his refusal to move to the back of a Louisiana bus during training that will make you seethe. To think that these men served so bravely a country that was denying them the rights of full citizenship really makes you think hard about the nature of sacrifice.
On to three books about people who worked hard to change society, who, like Abdul-Jabbar, were not content to stick with the status quo.. Turning the ship around isn’t easy. Here are three books about visionaries who tried:
Historian Adam Hochschild has been one of my favorite Well Read guests. His great book Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves tells the story of a band of English activists who, in the late 18th century, battled the special interests of the slavery trade in England – and won.
It started with one MP, Wilbur Wilberforce, though eventually the cause was taken up by the British Parliament. It was a bitter fight – slaves were essential to the production of sugar cane, a key product of Britain’s colonial empire. More than 2 million captured Africans were shipped to the Caribbean during this dark time.
Musicians and freed slaves, schoolteachers and aristocrats – They all worked tirelessly to end slavery. Finally, in 1833, the British parliament passed an emancipation bill, the first step in a decades-long effort to end this pernicious practice. These were brave people – if they hadn’t refused to back down, who knows where we would be today?
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar read The Autobiography of Malcolm X in high school, and he says it changed his life – he converted to Islam and changed his name.
The Autobiography tells the story from the subject’s perspective, but I want to mention an actual biography of Malcolm X that came out a couple of years ago – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable.
Published in 2011, this book was a lifetime project for Marable, a Columbia University historian. It tells the story of Malcolm X, a largely self-taught intellectual who rose to lead the Black Muslim movement, until he was assassinated by rivals at age 39.
This biography does not whitewash Malcolm X’s life, and it’s all the richer for it. And it’s a beautiful portrayal of Harlem during the time that Malcom X made it his home.
Malcolm X died too soon to see his message of black empowerment take full hold. Marable, the author, died on the eve of the book’s publication. It won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for history.
Finally, I want to mention Bryan Stevenson, another Well Read guest. His book Just Mercy, is the true story of his work defending the poor and indigent in the rural South, where the legal system is often severely stacked against poor people, especially blacks. It has become a staple of the best seller lists.
Stevenson is one of those rare people who is both an activist and an author. He went to work on his lifetime project right out of Harvard University law school. His book has the ring of absolute conviction and truth, which I think is why it’s so widely read. It seems like the best of possible combinations – a person with the courage and convictions to change things, and the talent and ability to spread the word – through a book.