Spotlight on Inventors

TFK talks to former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar about his book What Color is My World?

Feb 24, 2012 | By TFK Kid Reporter Julia Horbacewicz
HORBACEWICZ FAMILY

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was one of the best players in basketball history. He joined the NBA in 1970 and played for 20 years. He was the NBA's most valuable player six times and a 19-time All-Star. He also set nine NBA all-time records. When Abdul-Jabbar retired in 1989 he was the NBA’s all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points. That record has still to be broken.

After the NBA, Abdul-Jabbar began scoring in the literary world. He has written seven bestselling books about American and African American history and culture. In January, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton named Abdul-Jabbar a global cultural ambassador. Today he travels the world talking to kids about education, tolerance and cultural understanding. Standing at 7 feet, 2 inches tall, it is no surprise that Abdul-Jabbar has always stood out. But, in his new children’s book, he shines the spotlight on African-Americans Inventors whose achievements often went unnoticed. In What Color is My World?, Abdul-Jabbar recognizes the unsung heroes behind open-heart surgery, the traffic light and even the ice-cream scoop.

TFK Kid Reporter Julia Horbacewicz recently interviewed the athlete and author in New York City. Read on to see what Abdul-Jabbar said about his new book, What Color is My World? (Click here to watch a video of highlights from the interview.)

TFK:

The title of your new book is What Color is My World, but the subtitle is The Lost History of African American Inventors. Why do you say it’s a lost history?

ABDUL-JABBAR:

I say it’s a lost history because African-American inventors really haven’t been acknowledged by the overall culture. They acknowledge Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers and people like that. African American inventors made some very significant contributions to American life and world culture but they’re not acknowledged.  So it’s more that the history has been suppressed, or ignored. It’s something I think I should put in the spotlight.

TFK:

Why did you choose to present this information in the form of a children’s book?

ABDUL-JABBAR:

I thought that kids, especially African-American kids, needed to know this information.  I wanted to do a book that was their speed. I didn’t want to do it for adults or for kids in high school or college. Young kids should get this information at an early age so that they can have an idea of what’s possible.  So many minority kids are told that sports and entertainment are the fields that they should go into, and everything else is ignored.  So I wanted to put something out there that gave them a broader picture of what is possible.\

TFK:

I really loved the book and how you combined facts with a good story. How did you decide on which inventors to include?

ABDUL-JABBAR:

The inventors I chose all made significant contributions to American life.  So, everybody likes ice cream, but nobody knows about the guy who invented the ice-cream scoop. Everybody likes potato chips, but nobody really knows that a black cook invented potato chips. Things like that get through to people because these are things that are a part of their everyday lives. Once they [see] black people were involved in inventing it, it changes things.

TFK:

Where did you get your inspiration for the characters Herbie and Ella?

ABDUL-JABBAR:

Well, really I should give my co-author Raymond Obstfeld the credit.  He helped flesh those guys out. It was my idea to have kids interact with a black inventor who was really a ghost—more like a haunted house story. And, this is the form that it took.

TFK:

So, the character Mr. Mital was based on a real inventor?

ABDUL-JABBAR:

If you spell Mr. Mital backwards it’s Latimer, like the inventor in the book. Lewis Latimer invented the filaments that make the light bulb a practical invention. He also did Alexander Graham Bell’s patent application drawings for the telephone. So he was at the foundation of telecommunications and electronics, and he was brilliant.

TFK:

Are you hoping to influence kids to pursue careers other than sports and entertainment, such as careers in math and sciences?

ABDUL-JABBAR:

Yes, science, mathematics and electronics. A lot of inventions relate to these fields. For example, Dr. Charles Drew developed the blood bank and blood typing. That saved millions of lives over a period of time. He figured that out in the 1940’s and it’s really helped people worldwide. I think when minority kids get an idea of how broad the world is and how great the possibilities are for them to study and the innovations they can make, we will all benefit from that.

TFK:

I would like to congratulate you on being appointed as a U.S. cultural ambassador. How has it been going so far?

ABDUL-JABBAR:

So far, so good! I had a good trip just recently to Brazil, which is a wonderful place. Good things are happening there. It was nice getting to see the country and interact with the people.

TFK:

Is there anything else you would like to tell readers?

ABDUL-JABBAR:

Pursue your dreams academically and outside of academics, too. Go for it, but never neglect your studies!