On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance

By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Raymond Obstfeld

225 ratings - 3.98* vote

From 1920 to 1940, the Harlem Renaissance produced a bright beacon of light that paved the way for African-Americans all over the country. The unapologetic writings of W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, the fervent fiction and poetry of Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, the groundbreaking art of Aaron Douglas and William H. Johnson, and the triumphant music of Duke From 1920 to 1940, the Harlem Renaissance produced a bright beacon of light that paved the way for African-Americans all

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Book details

Hardcover, 274 pages
January 30th 2007 by Simon & Schuster
Original Title
On the Shoulders of Giants
1416534881 (ISBN13: 9781416534884)
Edition Language

Community Reviews


I’ve always been a huge fan of Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and not just for his talent on the court. He is a brilliant writer. This compilation has the history of Harlem told with the voices of artists who lived there. Also other people including my number one hero, Maya Angelou. She was such a huge gift to us! There is wonderful music and historically accurate stories. Apparently Kareem was a reporter while in school and interviewed Martin Luther King. Wow!


I generally hate it when authors insert themselves as subjects of histories and other people's biographies. But this mix of memoir and history of the Harlem Renaissance was actually quite interesting. I guess, when the author is as accomplished in their own right as the subjects of the book, I can give said author a bit of license. Sometimes I found the links Abdul-Jabbar was trying to make between himself and the Harlem Renaissance a bit tenuous. Other than that, though, the book is incredibly well-researched. I knew absolutely nothing about the Harlem Rens basketball team; there were more than a few things I learned about the writers of the Renaissance; and Kareem's story is interesting as well.


A history of the Harlem Renaissance. You expect to read about how the Harlem area became the home to many Black Americans, and here you get a history of the circumstances and the landlords who made this possible. You expect to read about the culture, and here you read at length about the writers and the musicians who were center stage at this time. And you don’t expect to read about basketball. But it ends up Abdul-Jabbar makes a good case that basketball should be part of that story. He tells of the beginnings of professional basketball in Harlem, sponsored by large ballrooms and often played on the slick ballroom floors between band sets. He tells of the Rens and the Original Celtics, and the Chicago team called the “Harlem Globetrotters”. I found the basketball stories to be very interesting, and mostly new to me. As a pop history book, covering a lot of areas I am interested in, I enjoyed this.

Abdul-Jabbar also interleaves his own story, growing up years after the events portrayed as the Harlem Renaissance, and in a nearby neighborhood. He tells how the people and events of the Renaissance impacted him, often through meeting some of the people mentioned later on. Abdul-Jabbar also claims to be a historian based on writing prior books about his playing days. Seems like a bit of a reach, but OK. I picked this up expecting it to be mostly about jazz music, based on earlier reviews I had read. The discussion of jazz was actually a small part of the book, but still well done. I enjoyed this book more than I expected, and will look for more of the same type by Kareem for light reads.

Kenneth L.

This book is the perfect blend of Harlem Renaissance history and KAJ biography with music sprinkled all through the listening experience as an audiobook. As an astute historian, there were some things that even I learned about the period and how it affected Kareem. Reading this book during this time in our country’s history made the experience that much more purposeful.


"I am the dream and the hope of the slave
I rise
I rise
I rise."

Best yet from Kareem and Raymond. ?

Daniel Cornwall

Note: On readability alone I'd give this book five stars. I take back one star for the lack of specific footnotes or citations - just as I did for "The Library Book."

I've read several books by Kareem Abdul-Jabber and I continued to be amazed at how successful he is in both providing an unflinching view of past and present racism while appearing confident that the United States will eventually deliver on its promise of liberty, justice and freedom for ALL. He doesn't sugarcoat the past and doesn't destroy hope in the future.

On the Shoulders of Giants is written in this vein. It also highlights writers, basketball players and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance, a period that peaked in the 1920s and 1930s but had roots earlier and influence later. Mr. Abdul-Jabber spends parts of the book detailing how the Harlem Renaissance influenced him in particular to be more than he thought he could be as a teenager. Part of this the influence came from people around him, but much of it came through his personal studies at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (https://www.nypl.org/locations/schomburg). Where he learned about many figures he had not been told about in school or in American popular culture or sports history.

Mr Abdul-Jabbar never once used the term "ethnic studies" in his book, but one takeaway for me after reading about these persevering giants in literature, basketball and music and how having these role models shaped the author's life for the better is that banning ethnic studies is unhelpful. I felt banning ethnic studies was a mistake before, but this book explains why without having to use the term. Though the best practice probably would be to integrate these heroes of color, along with heroes of other colors into our regular subject curricula. But anything would be better than the practice of banning the study of non-White groups while only providing the standard White-centric story of history and culture in this country, conveniently leaving out the large swaths of intense hatred and suppression of African Americans.

Another takeaway I had was to try some writers and Jazz musicians. This last is making me give Jazz another try. I've tended to see jazz as something I can take if i'm in the mode for it, but Mr. Abdul-Jabbar's descriptions of the emotional and technical complexity combined with an innate sense of joy put me in the mood to try. He suggested Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong as three standouts.

A benefit of living in the 21st Century and being an Amazon Prime customer is that much of the world's music is at your fingertips. So I started my jazz journey with 75 Original Great Performances Remastered by Fats Waller. I'm impressed so far and look forward to checking Ellington and Armstrong.

So much for my reactions to the book. The book itself is readable. The author makes sure we understand that Harlem was not a monolith. There were disagreements as to what was and was not appropriate to a modern African-American. There were writers who only advanced the positives of the black community, others wrote about the whole of society, scorning the hand-wringing of the academics. Additionally, by Mr. Abdul-Jabbar's account, most folks in Harlem were just trying to get by with dignity and were not consciously engaged with the renaissance. Though they felt its effects, particularly through basketball and jazz.

I feel the author does a great job of scene setting and providing details about the people he mentions. The book comes with a general bibliography that will be a good springboard for people wanting to know more. There is a good index as well. My only criticism of the book is that it would have been desirable to have footnotes or a chapter by chapter bibliography. Otherwise this is a great engaging read about an important topic that will likely impel readers to explore further. I can't ask more of a non-fiction book.

Steven Spector

A true oddity. An extraordinarily intelligent sports figure sharing part of his life and his influences with you. An excellent survey which only encourages readers (without force) to seek out more on the topic.

Hendra Putra

I am not a basketball fan, neither a player. But what made me want to read this book is because of his legacy off the court. He was there when Dr. Martin Luther King gave a speech in Harlem, when Kareem was only 17 years old. Later in his life, he was there also when Malcolm X dan Muhammad Ali stood up for the racial injustice on the civil rights movement. He witnessed the legacy left by Harlem Reinassance because he was from Harlem. As an athlete, he is so literate, in fact after he's not playing basketball anymore, he wrote a lot of books and you can tell how literate he is by the type of books he wrote. He wrote history! In a very unique approach.

And in this book, I read the well-written history of Black Migration from the south due to the inhuman lynching, economic depression, world war I, and Jim Crow. All of that event contribute on the rise of black culture in New York. Can you imagine that the best athletes around the world nowadays are black? The race that suffered a lot of pain because white people enslave them and perpetuate the idea that white race is superior to any race? Against all odds, the African-American people also contributed significantly to music culture by their blues and jazz music. They found this music, although it was a cultivation of their music back there in Africa which affected by Islamic and African music at that time, still, the impact they brought to the music world is tremendous.

I write down all of the jazz musicians he mentioned in this book so that I could also understand the development of jazz genre in time. I think you don't have to be a basketball player to admire such a character like Kareem Abdul Jabbar.


An interesting read. I've never before read the history of the Harlem Renaissance, even though I've heard the term many times before. Understanding how a huge group of people, living in a small area of New York, chose to focus on uplifting themselves. I know it influenced my mother and my grandmother, but to realize that it panned out and changed the whole cultural sense of African-Americans... and then, even later, in Harlem, it was still bouncing around so that, even though, it was said to be over, in the '40's, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar felt it's essence in the '60's. That's powerful.

What's also amazing is how it affected so many areas. Sports, music, philosophy, theater, fine arts and so on. Also, it demonstrated how so many different ideas could work to the common good. From well educated people to construction workers.

Also, the book underscored the difficulty of being born black. It took a movement where people forced themselves to do their best work and to insist on being taken seriously by white people before they could benefit in the same way. Share the same stages, the same sports arenas and work at the same jobs. Then, to make things worse, the government would start to open doors, then, just as suddenly, shut them tightly closed. The question of why looms in my head, but, as the book suggests, people have a hard time shifting their attitudes. I call it having boxes over their heads... and it's still keeping people from looking, honestly and openly at one another. For a variety of reasons.


One of the things I enjoyed about this book is that Kareem Abdul Jabbar paid tribute to the past, and he highlighted the best that black culture had to offer him as a person and the overall American culture in the Harlem Renaissance. It's easy to recognize past and present atrocities of humanity and it's even easier to be angered by them to the point of rage and destruction. Conversely, it's hard to recognize the past and present achievements of humanity in spite of adversity and become inspired to continue a legacy of greatness. Kareem chronicles how he was influenced to achieve greatness in his field by studying the great philosophers, writers and entertainers of the Renaissance.