An excerpt from the introduction to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 1996 book, Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement.
As a schoolkid, I remember feeling confused about the role of black people in American history. They didn't seem to have one. My history lessons presented blacks as ignorant savages brought here in subservient roles who contributed nothing to American life. And they came from a people who contributed nothing to the history of the world. It was like the TV shows I watched in the fifties. Occasionally, you'd see a black actor, but rarely in a speaking role. The message was: We know you're here, but you don't matter.
That is one reason why it's important for people to understand their own worth at an early age. Too many youngsters today, particularly African Americans, feel disconnected from their country. They feel America is about things that happened in the eighteenth century to people they can't identify with; and between now and then, who cares? They sense they have no stake in things and that participation in government, commerce, and cultural life is beyond their grasp. In other words, our children feel this country is not for them.
We have to change that. We have to empower our young people---especially African Americans who are largely unaware that other African Americans played key roles in creating this nation. We need to help them feel they are part of this country and will always want to be part of it. One way to do that is to provide better information about common heritage as Americans. That is one thing I try to do in this book. By spotlighting black people whose contributions to American history have been distorted, stereotyped, or ignored, I am saying, "Take a closer look at the history we share. It isn't mine, it isn't yours, it isn't theirs, it's ours." Most black people don't get this information at home or in school. Much of it isn't in the culture anymore.
. . .
I am saying to everyone, not just blacks, "Take a closer look at these courageous African Americans. In many ways, they were just like you. They could have been you. You could have been them."
My parents taught me that knowledge is power. A good way to exercise that power is to understand your heritage: where your people came from, how they got here, what their hardships were, what they accomplished. That is why I think it is especially important for young African Americans to understand how their ancestors contributed to making this country great. African contributions to the history of the New World were quite significant; they just haven't been conveyed to the people who need to know about them.
Part of the problem is our history books. The ones we used in school focused on white people's concerns: what white people wanted, what white people said, what white people did. Basically, the only things they said about black people were: Negroes were slaves and Lincoln freed the slaves. That was our purpose: We were brought here to tote that barge and lift that bale---and without any reward.
This undertone carries through to today, because history books still don't convey black people as fundamentally "American." We have been traditionally presented as insignificant bystanders to American history, not major participants.
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So I eventually developed a sense of being able to accomplish in America, which many native blacks did not grow up with. But like every other youngster, every so often I needed some outside guidance. Something extra to help me get through....They instilled in me the touchstones of character: pride, honor, discipline, dignity, and courage of conviction or moral backbone. I found out later that courage was not simply having the guts to take a stand, physically, if challenged, but also something internal, a moral core.
. . .
In John F. Kennedy's book Profiles in Courage, which he wrote as a young senator, he termed courage "the most admirable of human virtues." I define courage as recognizing when something needs to be done and doing it, even when there are easier choices. Courage should also be motivated by intelligence and moral understanding. The attempt to do the right thing, despite adverse consequences, is the type of courage that I most admire. To me, that is the true measure of character.
Tags: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Black Profiles in Courage