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UCLA

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Setting the Record Straight

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By Mary Daily

Published May 1, 2012 1:22 PM


At an early age, this Bruin determined to tell the stories of great African Americans who are mostly left out of history books.

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Abdul-Jabbar signed copies of his new book at UCLA Alumni Day. Photo courtesy of: The UCLA Alumni Association.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar '69 has a new book on the market, What Color is My World?: The Lost History of African American Inventors. It's his first children's book, but not his first history book.

The author and historian has been interested in American and African American history since high school, when he first noticed what he believes are deliberate omissions in the way history is taught. "I was amazed to discover all the world-shaking artists, writers, social activists and athletes who had been changing the face of American culture for years without us learning about them in school," he says. "I realized that history isn't just about facts; it's about making sure those facts are shared with everyone."

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Photo courtesy of: UCLA Athletics.

Right then he determined to do his part to rectify what he saw as "lying through omission." In coming years, when his basketball stardom, at UCLA and in the NBA, gave him a platform from which to be heard, he wanted to say something of significance.

So, in 2003, he wrote Black Profiles in Courage, followed by Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes in 2005, and On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance in 2010. These were all written for adults, though, and he still felt a responsibility to children.

He remembered the story of Lewis Latimer, one of the African Americans featured in Black Profiles in Courage. An inventor who worked for Thomas Edison, Latimer was the one who discovered a way to make the light bulb practical, transforming it from a futuristic curiosity to something truly useful. Yet, Edison always got full credit.

Latimer's story prompted Abdul-Jabbar to think about other overlooked African American inventors who had an important impact on our daily lives. It's their stories that he tells in What Color is My World?: The Lost History of African American Inventors. The book, which has already made the New York Times' Children's Best Sellers list, was co-authored with Raymond Obstfeld and offers an upbeat history lesson set within a fictional framework. It's recommended for readers ages 8 to 12.

"My hope is that when kids read about [these innovators] and the enormous obstacles they overcame to realize their dreams," says Abdul-Jabbar, "they will be inspired to see that they too can become scientists or inventors."

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