By Raymond Obstfeld
Read by Ben Adduchio
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Format:Audiobook Download (Unabridged)
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Since retiring from professional basketball as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, six-time MVP, and Hall of Fame inductee, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has become a lauded observer of culture and society, a New York Times bestselling author, and a regular contributor to The Washington Post, TIME magazine and TIME.com.
He now brings that keen insight to the fore in Writings on the Wall: Searching for a New Equality Beyond Black and White, his most incisive and important work of non-fiction in years. He uses his unique blend of erudition, street smarts and authentic experience in essays on the country’s seemingly irreconcilable partisan divide-both racial and political, parenthood, and his own experiences as an athlete, African-American, and a Muslim. The audiobook is not just a collection of expositions; he also offers keen assessments of and solutions to problems such as racism in sports while speaking candidly about his experiences on the court and off.
Timed for publication as the nation debates whom to send to the White House, the combination of plain talk on issues, life lessons, and personal stories places Writings on the Wall squarely in the middle of the conversation, as many of Abdul-Jabbar’s topics are at the top of the national agenda. Whether it is sparring with Donald Trump, within the pages of TIME magazine, of full-length features in The New York Times Magazine, writers, critics, and readers have come to agree on what The Washington Post observed: Abdul-Jabbar “has become a vital, dynamic and unorthodox cultural voice.”
Very superstitious, writings on the wall,
Very superstitious, ladders ’bout to fall . . .
When you believe in things that you don’t understand,
Then you suffer—
Superstition ain’t the way.
—STEVIE WONDER, “SUPERSTITION”
Bridging Troubled Waters
“Is a danger to be trusting one another
One will seldom want to do what other wishes
But unless someday somebody trust somebody
There’ll be nothing left on earth excepting fishes.”
—“A PUZZLEMENT,” THE KING AND I
I’VE BEEN ASKED MANY TIMES OVER THE YEARS WHAT PROFESSION I would have chosen had I not become a basketball player. My answer surprises many people: I probably would have become a history teacher. Not just so I could amaze kids with cool historical trivia, like the fact that when Thomas Jefferson was president, he had the bones of a prehistoric mastodon shipped to the White House so he could assemble the skeleton in the East Room. Or that Ben Franklin not only invented the rocking chair but in 1752 helped found one of the Colonies’ first insurance companies: the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insuring of Houses from Loss by Fire. Or that George Washington bred hound dogs, which he treated like family, giving them adorable names like True Love and Sweet Lips.
Although I do appreciate History McNuggets like those, my real passion for history is in using it as a critical guide to our future, both personal and cultural. History illuminates the safest path in front of us by revealing the pitfalls of the past. It is a secular bible of cautionary and inspiring stories that distills the wisdom of thousands of years of human endeavor into practical lessons about humanity’s morals, politics and personal relationships. It is the ultimate self-help book. And right now, given the political and social turmoil in America, we need all the help we can get.
However, in the hands of the greedy, the power-hungry and the unscrupulous, history is also a powerful tool of mass manipulation. It can be used to herd the unaware into self-destructive choices. History is open to interpretation, of course, but why do so many people fail to recognize the basic patterns, like the fact that oppression leads to revolutions or that war almost always has unintended consequences? Lots of reasons: the negligence of educators failing to teach properly, the malice of politicians anxious to force-feed corrupted versions of the past, the ignorance of individuals too lazy or fearful to seek the truth. Whatever the cause, the result is the same: enslavement without awareness of it.
The consequences of this manipulation can be devastating. For example, before America’s decision to engage in a second war with Iraq, many opponents warned that although such a war could be easily won in the short run, the aftermath would take a heavy toll on America in terms of lost lives, staggering financial costs and bad blood throughout the Middle East that would radicalize many Muslims. These were the costly lessons that could have been learned from our experience in Vietnam. Stanton S. Coerr, a Marine officer and a veteran of the war in Iraq who holds degrees from Duke, Harvard and the Naval War College, wrote on the website The Federalist in 2015, “We are losing the war in Iraq for the same reason we lost the war in Vietnam: we are fighting one war, while the insurgents fight another.” He explained, “The Americans want to leave. The insurgent is staying until he dies or wins. This makes him unstoppable.” The question is: How can we make the same mistake only a few decades after the previous one?
I think it’s because we prefer to ignore our past mistakes rather than learn from them. That’s why so many Americans rejected the comparison between the Vietnam and Iraq invasions and embraced a romanticized revenge-movie mentality in which ass-kicking somehow equals victory. This was a case of pride, politics and ignorance getting the better of reason. It’s ignoring history that allows leaders to persuade us to keep repeating such colossal mistakes that our future generations must pay for. One of my favorite movies, The History Boys (2006), is about a group of high school history students in the early 1980s in England. One of their teachers, Mr. Irwin, takes them to a World Wars I and II memorial, a cenotaph, which is an empty monument honoring people whose remains are buried elsewhere. He tells them a startling truth about how war memorials exist not to honor the dead but to make us forget we are responsible for their unnecessary deaths:
“The truth was, in 1914, Germany doesn’t want war. Yeah, there’s an arms race, but it’s Britain who’s leading it. So why does no one admit this? That’s why. [Nodding to war memorial.] The dead. The body count. We still don’t like to admit the war was even partly our fault ’cause so many of our people died. And all the mourning’s veiled the truth. It’s not ‘lest we forget,’ it’s ‘lest we remember.’ You see, that’s what all this is about—the memorials, the cenotaph, the two minutes’ silence. Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.”
The teacher’s point is that we often settle for a glorified falsehood in order not to face the harsh truths and then have to do something about them. It’s just easier to go with the flow, even if the flow is a current of lies. The unwanted lesson here: most people choose to feel good rather than do good.
What makes some people feel good during times of economic struggle, terrorism and political discord is to be told that their problems can be attributed to particular groups who want to take their jobs, rip them off or attack them. And that the world can be made better and safer by keeping those other people down or keeping them out or keeping closer watch on them. The problem with that kind of thinking is that America was built of waves of those other people struggling for their place in society. Buying into falsehoods and simplistic assumptions about people not like ourselves creates fractures in our society and weakens us. We have too many continental divides today: left versus right, wealthy versus working-class, black versus white, men versus women, young versus old, religion versus religion. With this book, my purpose is to show how many of these conflicts are the result of fear and misunderstanding, often propagated by those looking for political or financial gain. If there is one lesson of history that we would be wise to remember today, it’s what Abe Lincoln said about a house divided against itself.
Despite Abe’s warning, we have never been more divided. One reason for this is the insidious ways history is manipulated to marginalize people based on race, creed, gender or other differences, binding them to false versions of themselves and discouraging them from seeing any other possibilities for their future. When I was growing up, my school textbooks were mostly devoid of African Americans in any positive role. They were portrayed as society’s pathetic victims or happy-go-lucky simpletons, grateful for whatever scraps they were given, with a smile that said, “I got plenty of nuthin’, and nuthin’s plenty for me.” The news media weren’t much kinder. Civil rights leaders were often characterized as well-meaning but misguided because they didn’t understand how to be patient and wait their turn. Or, if they were more aggressive in demanding equal rights, they were portrayed as subversives or thugs.
My experiences as a youth growing up in that atmosphere, in which there were few role models deemed acceptable by the general white population, made me examine history much more closely. I wondered why we keep making the same mistakes over and over when we have plenty of voices from the past screaming warnings. That was my main motivation for writing history books that celebrated the achievements and influence of African Americans: On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance, which details the influence that black artists, writers, musicians and political leaders had in reshaping American culture; Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII’s Forgotten Heroes, which is a history of an all-black armored unit that served with distinction in Europe; and What Color Is My World? The Lost History of African-American Inventors, which introduces to children the many African-American inventors responsible for the devices they use on a daily basis. This last book was especially rewarding for me because I traveled around the country visiting elementary and middle schools to promote STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math), often meeting various children of color who said, “I never thought someone like me could become a scientist, but now I think I can.” It doesn’t matter whether they actually do—just that they know it’s an option.
In preparation for an interview show I was scheduled to do in early 2016, the George Mason University professor Tyler Cowen asked his Internet followers to post some questions they would like him to ask me. One of the first responses was “Who cares what the old, big guy has to say about anything?” I wasn’t offended. Believe me, I’ve asked that same question a lot more than the general public has. And some of them have asked it with significant anger, resentment and colorful expletives. After all, to many folks I’m only a former basketball player, someone whose business attire consisted of jockstraps and sweat socks. Successful, sure, but still just a pituitary freak who jammed an orange ball through a red hoop.
Despite the fact that I’ve been writing about social issues longer than I played basketball, many of my critics on social media begin their comments with “Stick to basketball, Kareem.” However, aside from having played basketball a couple of decades ago, I am also an American, a father, a businessman, an education advocate, a journalist, a charity organizer, a history buff, a filmmaker, a novelist, a former global Cultural Ambassador for the U.S., a political activist and a Muslim. I began my lifetime of writing back in high school when I was given a chance to participate in a press conference with Martin Luther King Jr. and have since written hundreds of articles, several history books, autobiographies, children’s books and novels.
Yet some people can’t think past the stereotype of the dumb jock who is too busy stuffing kids into lockers to know anything about the world around him. Nor are they aware that by dismissing someone’s opinions based only on his profession, they are also scorning pretty much everyone else’s opinions, including their own (“Stick to plumbing!” “Stick to real estate!” “Stick to proctology!”).
Very few people’s vocation or avocation makes them an expert on all social or political matters. Ben Franklin was a printer; Theodore Roosevelt studied birds; Ronald Reagan acted with a chimpanzee. It was passion and commitment that persuaded them to step out onto the political stage and suffer the slings and arrows of outrage with the hope that by doing so, as the song from Norma Rae very purely wishes, “maybe what’s good gets a little bit better and maybe what’s bad gets gone.”
In my best moments, I like to think I contribute to making the good get better and the bad get gone. In my moments of doubt, I feel more like the King of Siam in The King and I: “There are times I almost think / I am not sure of what I absolutely know / Very often find confusion / In conclusion, I concluded long ago.” While those conflicting moments may seem contradictory, I believe it is the combination of those two elements—hope and self-doubt—that motivates me to also step onto that political stage. Hope, because as a father, as an American, as a black man and as a Muslim, I am committed to at least trying to add my “old, big guy” voice to the public discourse. Self-doubt, because the world is constantly changing, and so damn quickly, with new information bombarding us 24/7, that I realize that it’s best not to cling too tightly to conclusions we concluded long ago. We have to be mentally agile in adapting our opinions based on this new information and not arrogantly defend opinions only because they are part of a tradition that makes us comfortable.
It may surprise some people, especially those who have disagreed with my columns for TIME and the Washington Post, that I don’t start with a knee-jerk opinion about major issues. I’ve always been an avid reader, even as a young boy. Riding the New York City subway, I had a book in front of my face. During all the flights to away games when I played college and pro basketball, I could always be found in my seat reading a book, mostly about history. One thing all that history has taught me is the dangers of the uninformed, quickly formed and ill-informed opinion. Passionate defense of bad logic is the main cause of most of the world’s misery. So when I find myself starting to lean toward an opinion on an issue about which I’m not well informed, I assume my opinion to be faulty, based on some internal bias. Before I write a column, I read as much as I can from credible authorities on both sides in order to gather facts and statistics that illuminate the topic for me. It’s only then that I’m ready to work my way toward an opinion that I am confident to hold and comfortable to share.
Facts, statistics and the opinions of authorities aren’t enough to form solid opinions, though. One also has to filter that information through the insights gained from reflecting on personal experiences. Although this book has a much broader focus than just race, my experience as an African American and as a sports celebrity has given me access to a broadly diverse array of Americans and their assumptions about me. Being conspicuously different has helped forge a unique perspective. Whether I wanted it or not, being both black and famous thrust me into the uncomfortable position of role model in which all African Americans would be judged by my behavior. This started for me in high school when a coach chided me during halftime not to be lazy on the court by saying, “You’re acting just like a nigger!” At first I was hurt and angry, but I also realized the great burden of how my actions reflected on others.
Since those days of my youth, we’ve had many admirable black role models in every walk of life: President Barack Obama, Serena and Venus Williams, Misty Copeland, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Colin Powell, Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, Toni Morrison, Oprah Winfrey and many more. It’s a testament to African-American achievement that there are too many wonderful role models to list here.
But being a black role model is a double-edged sword of inspiration and frustration.
Yes, you are an inspiration to children of color, living proof that even though you face a lot of closed doors, that doesn’t mean they’re all locked. As a black kid from Hawaii, Barack Obama faced a double dose of closed and locked doors: no black person had ever been president, and no one from Hawaii had ever been president. As a black girl from California, Misty Copeland also encountered double doors: she started ballet at 13, whereas most ballerinas start practically in utero, and was rejected from a ballet academy for having the wrong body type. Yet somehow the ballerina and the president both rolled the Sisyphean rock of being black to the top of the mountain and it stayed right where they planted it.
The frustration for the black role model is knowing that although you are proof it can be done, like a happy lottery winner waving a million-dollar ticket, the odds are so astronomically against others that it sometimes feels as if you’re more the source of false hope and crushed dreams, a casino shill they let win so the suckers will keep playing the slots. At every opportunity, rousing million-to-one success stories are trotted out in history textbooks and popular media to bedazzle the American dream.
Unfortunately, the dream has lost a lot of luster in recent years. Rather than shining like a bright beacon of hope to optimists everywhere, it flickers like a winking flashlight on the verge of a complete battery drain in a horror movie. Only 64 percent of Americans surveyed in a 2014 New York Times poll agreed that they still believed in the American dream, the lowest result in nearly 20 years. Loss of faith is even more pronounced among America’s youth. A 2015 Harvard Institute of Politics poll found that among millennials (which it defined as ages 18 through 29), 48 percent considered the American dream to be “dead.” As Bruce Springsteen said, “I have spent my life judging the distance between American reality and the American dream.”
For Americans of color, bridging that distance may seem a bridge too far. Having successful ethnic role models is great because it affirms the country’s commitment to the principle of equal opportunity. But at the same time, we see so many messages to the contrary: police killing unarmed African Americans, voter ID laws keeping poor minorities from voting, the federal government slashing programs that offer critical food and medical care, assaults on affirmative action, and an inferior education for poorer children that will keep them from competing in higher education and for better-paying jobs. Doors not just closed and locked but boarded, nailed and cemented.
So when we hold up the wildly successful role model, we’re telling those who can’t overcome the towering obstacles blocking their progress that they are to blame for their failure. They didn’t try hard enough, weren’t clever enough, just didn’t have the fortitude. That’s like blaming rape victims for not running fast enough.
Role models of color face a unique form of judgment. If you’re black and you fail, many will assume you failed because you’re black and that proves blacks aren’t up to the task. But if you’re black and you succeed, they will then claim that you succeeded because you’re black and were somehow given an advantage. You are not allowed to succeed or fail on your own merits. Yet if George W. Bush is judged to be a bad president, no one says, “Well, we tried a white guy and it didn’t work, so no more white presidents.” Or Southerners. Or Texans. Or painters of dogs.
The irony is that despite facing closed doors for generations, it is people of color who have the most faith in the American dream. In a 2015 CNN/Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 55 percent of blacks and 52 percent of Hispanics said they believed it was easier for them to attain the American dream than it was for their parents. Only 35 percent of whites believed that. This brazenly optimistic attitude, in the face of systemic racism, is in large part due to pioneering role models like Misty Copeland and President Obama.
In Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63, a man time-travels to the past to prevent the assassination of President Kennedy. But his attempts to change history are met with supernatural resistance because, as a character tells him, the past doesn’t want to be changed, so “the past pushes back.” That’s how it is in American culture. We fear change so much that we fight it, even when the change makes the country more in line with our founding principles. The past pushes back.
We just have to push back too. Only harder.
That’s what this book is about: pushing back against those who wish to corrupt the American dream, to make it harder to achieve, to make it exclusive to only certain people. And as a person who has had his share of being pushed and pushing back, I felt ready to write about it.
WHY THIS BOOK?
For me, there would be no point in writing a book like this unless I had some hope that it might help improve life for Americans. I don’t imagine anything grand, just that some contentious issues might be clarified, that some people might hear a reasonable voice that isn’t from the same background as others they listen to. Maybe they will become a little more understanding. Mostly, I hope to expand the discussion about what America is and what it means to be an American. Not with waving flags and sentimental speeches but with a return to exploring the document that defines who we are and what we stand for: the U.S. Constitution.
Americans need to recognize and cherish the Constitution for what it is: one of the most revolutionary political documents in the world and the articulation of our values as Americans. It is an unparalleled ideal of democratic principles, personal freedoms, heritage and ethnic inclusivity that has been a model for other democracies and an irritant to despotic regimes around the world. We stand as a symbol of hope for people in all oppressed countries. All because we strive to live up to the spirit of the Constitution.
Too often people who are all puffed up on their own ideals of patriotism propose actions that are contrary to what the country stands for in an effort to codify their personal beliefs as law. These are America’s greatest threat, because they undermine our political, ethical and moral foundation—all while proclaiming their love for the country.
The importance of the Constitution is powerfully asserted in the 2015 movie Bridge of Spies, based on a real-life American hero, James Donovan, who negotiated the release of a spy-plane pilot from the Soviet Union in 1962. When the CIA asks Donovan to do something unethical and illegal in the name of national security, he refuses.
Agent Hoffman: Don’t go Boy Scout on me. We don’t have a rule book here.
James Donovan: You’re Agent Hoffman, yeah?
Agent Hoffman: Yeah.
James Donovan: German extraction?
Agent Hoffman: Yeah, so?
James Donovan: My name’s Donovan, Irish, both sides, mother and father. I’m Irish, you’re German, but what makes us both Americans? Just one thing. One, one. The rule book. We call it the Constitution and we agree to the rules, and that’s what makes us Americans and it’s all that makes us Americans. So don’t tell me there’s no rule book . . .
The rule book for being an American is our Constitution, just as the rule book for being a Jew is the Torah, for being a Christian is the New Testament, for being a Muslim is the Quran. The genius of the document is that it was written by men who acknowledged their own frailties and biases. Some owned slaves; they marginalized women; they protected some immigrants but not others. In the first presidential election, only white men with property were able to vote. But realizing that they were creatures of their times and that history can be a harsh judge of that narrow thinking, the Founding Fathers made provisions for changing the document as the country became more enlightened. They promoted the spirit of the Constitution, and we have amended it to reflect that spirit as it manifests itself in subsequent generations. Abolishing slavery. Recognizing women’s rights. Equal justice for rich and poor. These are changes we made to reflect our understanding of that spirit. And we’ve all been the better for it.
WHAT I HOPE TO GAIN
America was founded on the principles emanating from the Age of Reason, also known as the Age of Enlightenment. Founders such as Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine were enthusiastic converts to the Age of Reason, rejecting the stranglehold of superstition and the tyranny of tradition in favor of making decisions based on reason and the scientific method. The Age of Reason championed liberty, tolerance, democratic governance and the separation of church and state. It was also responsible for the giant leaps forward of humanity in terms of economics, technology and medicine. Politically, it inspired the movement to disband the rigid class system in order to provide education and career opportunities outside the circumstances of one’s birth; it also paved the way for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. Many of these radical ideals from the Age of Reason were deliberately included in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
Many Americans, as evidenced by the 2016 presidential campaign, abandoned these founding principles of reason to voice their fear, anger, frustration and rage. They openly and proudly expressed their racial bigotry, religious intolerance and misogyny as if the past 100 years of our history of incremental social progress had never happened. Without even knowing it, they have dragged the American flag through the mud by rejecting all the principles it represents. As cartoonist Walt Kelly said in Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
With this book, I hope to shine a flashlight on the path back to the Age of Reason and the ideals of the U.S. Constitution.
My qualifications to write about social and political issues in America come from experiencing life from many different points of view. My lifetime of being black in America has given me a rich perspective on the disparity between the promise and the practice of a blended America. My athletic success has given me firsthand experience with celebrities and politicians around the world to better understand the way ambition and corruption can sometimes feed off each other. My advocacy for STEM education has sent me to schools across the country to witness the needs of our educational system. And being the father of five children (and now a grandfather) has made me especially vigilant about contributing to making a better world for them.
I recall reading a letter from a politician from ancient Athens to his son. The letter was written more than two millennia ago, yet he offered the same advice about being kind and humble yet cautious that I might have given my own son. His expression of love, fear, pride and loss for his child leaving home mirrored my own. That letter really drove home the universality of our deepest concerns that bridge time and geography. Which is why what’s most daunting about writing about social and political issues is the awareness that everything I have to say has undoubtedly already been said over the past 5,000 years of written language. And said better. Probably by Shakespeare.
- [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's] concerns are deep, his arguments well-founded, and his solutions straightforward. The trick is to get people to listen, but Abdul-Jabbar provides a good jumping-off point. Heartfelt sentiments on how racism, gender equality, and other social and cultural issues in America can be changed for the betterment of all.—Kirkus Reviews
- On Sale
- Oct 4, 2016
- Hachette Audio