Book: African American Lives

Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard University has made the chronicling of the black and African experience his life’s work.

Since raising Harvard’s African-American studies department from a certificate to a full degree program, he has put his nose to the grindstone to create Encarta Africana, the first DVD program of African and African- American history. His latest historical creation, “African American Lives,” Gates says, was the next logical project for him to unearth lost stories of the past.

“African American Lives” is being billed as the largest ever collection of biographies of pioneering African-Americans who have contributed to the growth and development of the United States. Gates calls the book “greatest hits volume” of amazing black people. The first installation is but one of what will eventually number a 10-volume series of biographies with more than 10-thousand entries.

On The Early Show, he talked about the project and how he hopes to use “African American Lives” to inspire more schools to incorporate the study of African-American contributors into mainstream history lessons.

Read an excerpt from “African American Lives”:

Abdul-Jabbar Kareem (16 Apr. 1947-).
Basketball player, was born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, the son of Ferdinand Lewis “Al” Alcindor, a police officer with the New York Transit Authority, and Cora Alcindor, a department store price checker. The almost thirteen-pound baby arrived in Harlem one day after the major league debut of JACKIE ROBINSON in Brooklyn; as with Robinson, fiercely competitive athletics and the fight against racial injustice would define much of his life.

From a young age, Alcindor was introspective and intense. He had an artistic sensibility, drawn in part from his father, a stern and silent cop who played jazz trombone and held a degree from Juilliard. An only child in a strictly Catholic household, he moved form Harlem at age three to Dyckman Street projects on the northern tip of Manhattan, a racially mixed, middle-class community. In third grade he was startled to see a class photo that feathered him not just towering over his classmates as expected, but standing out by the color of his skin. “Damn. I’m dark and everybody else is light,” Alcindor recalled thinking years later (Abdul-Jabbar, Giant Steps). In fourth grade, his parents shipped him to an all-black boarding school outside Philadelphia, where he was taunted for his intellectual leanings. But in his one year at Holy Providence School, he developed street toughness and also launched his first hook shot, a weapon that would become his aesthetic and athletic trademark.

Back in New York, from fifth grad on, Alcindor began to grow into his coordination. By eighth grade, he was a sinewy six feet, eight inches; by tenth grade, he was a seven footer with astonishing agility. At Power Memorial, an all-boys Catholic School where his team lost only one game in his final three years, Alcindor never fit neatly into the jock stereotype. He read widely, joined the debate team, and began to frequent New York’s jazz clubs. On the court, though, the renaissance man reigned. His game was at once graceful and ferocious. Coach Jack Donohue opened up the world for his sensitive star, bringing him to NBA games at Madison Square Garden.

There the coach pointed with particular reverence to the inspired and unselfish play of Celtics center Bill Russell. Donahue’s influence was not completely positive, however. At halftime of an unusually lethargic performance during Alcindor’s junior year, the fiery coach tore into his prodigy, telling him he was acting “just like a nigger!” (Sports Illustrated, 27 Oct. 1969). The wound from that remark festered for many years.

That summer Alcindor’s growing awareness of racism sharpened when he participated in the journalism workshop of the Harlem Youth Action Project. At one point he covered a press conference by MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., a moment commemorated in a photograph in Jeg magazine. He also witnessed five days of rioting in Harlem after a white policeman shot a black teenager, “Right then and there I knew who I was and who I had to be,” he said in a Sports Illustrated profile (31 March 1980). “I was going to be black rage personified, black power in the flesh.”


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