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About The Book

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 Ellington and Louis Armstrong gave voice and expression to the thoughts and emotions that Jim Crow segregation laws had long sought to stifle.

In On the Shoulders of Giants, indomitable basketball star and bestselling author and historian Kareem Abdul-Jabbar invites the reader on an extraordinarily personal journey back to his birthplace, through one of the greatest political, cultural, literary, and artistic movements in our history, revealing the tremendous impact the Harlem Renaissance had on both American culture and his own life. Beginning with the rise of the Harlem Rens as pioneers of professional basketball, Kareem traces the many streams of historical influence that converged to create the man he is today -- the NBA's all-time leading scorer and a veritable African-American icon.

Travel deep into the soul of the Renaissance -- to the night clubs, restaurants, basketball games, and fabulous parties that have made footprints in Harlem's history. Meet the athletes, jazz musicians, comedians, actors, politicians, entrepreneurs, and writers who not only inspired Kareem's rise to greatness but an entire nation's.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was born in the midst of a cultural reawakening, carried on the shoulders of athletes trying to prove there was a lot more at stake than a ball game, men and women who made music that could break your heart, and writers and intellectuals who gave voice to not just the ideals of a movement but the raw emotions. Kareem tells what it took to get these revolutionaries to Harlem and how they changed the world. A world that is still riding on the shoulders of giants.

Reading Group Guide

LESSON PLANS: On The Shoulders of Giants
My Personal Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance
By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar


This book is about the Harlem Renaissance and the development, accomplishments, and history of a people. But it is also about a man and his development, accomplishments, and history. Using a classic "call and response" format, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar explores the history and the significance of his culture's "rebirth." He examines what it meant not just for his own life but for the lives of everyone, black and white, who inherited its rich legacy and benefited from the writing, art, and music that the men and women of the Harlem Renaissance created.


1. A world map is an excellent way to help students understand the migration of people as well as of art, music, and literature throughout the text. A map of New York City dated between 1920 and 1940, with a detail of Harlem and a current map of the same would also be useful to students. For an extra level of detail, use Google's free satellite imagery at

2. Photographs from the Harlem Renaissance would also be helpful in order for students to visualize those whom they are studying. Such images might include photographs of the writers, musicians, historians, and athletes Abdul-Jabbar refers to in the text. You might also include images of art from the period like Aaron Douglas's mural Aspects of Negro Life. Note: You can find numerous photographs on the sites listed below as well as on the links you will find on those sites.

3. See the film, Go Man Go.


1) If you are teaching works by any of the following authors -- James Weldon Johnson, Jesse Redmon Fauset, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, Wallace Thurman, Countee Cullen, Richard Moore, and Langston Hughes -- you may want to incorporate this book into your teaching by incorporating the text itself as well as the activities and questions that follow.


When approaching a text so rich with information, active reading techniques can be very helpful for students in their understanding of the text. You might want to prompt them to write in the text, using pens, pencils, and highlighters while they read (or in their notebook or on "sticky notes" if they are shared texts). Other useful methods you might want to suggest include:

Keeping vocabulary lists of words they do not know, and of people, places, and events that they'd like to find out more about.
Assigning a journal so that students can write their thoughts about each chapter as they read.


There is a lesson plan for each of the eight chapters in the text. Each plan includes several questions to initiate classroom discussion as well as a writing assignment to supplement it. Following the plans you will find suggested projects, additional readings, and web sites provided to give students an opportunity to enhance their understanding of the text specifically and of the Harlem Renaissance more broadly. For all of the questions, students should reference specific passages in the text for support.

Chapter One: "Some Technicolor Bazaar": How Harlem Became the Center of the Universe

1) Abdul-Jabbar says that there are two Harlems. What are they? What does saying that mean? Why is that important?

2) What were the Jim Crow laws? What influence did they have on Black culture in the twenties and thirties?

3) Abdul-Jabbar talks a lot in this chapter about real estate, property ownership, rent, living conditions, and the like. In what way did those things shape, influence, and affect the Harlem Renaissance?

4) Who were some of the "major players" in the Harlem Renaissance? What roles did they play?

5) Compare and contrast the following streets as they were during the Harlem Renaissance - Seventh Avenue, Lennox Avenue, Strivers' Row, 135th Street, and 125th Street.

Writing Assignment:

Write a response to Langston Hughes' poem "A Dream Deferred." Explain the meaning of a deferred dream. Then, provide your interpretation of the poem as a whole. Finally, share your reaction to the poem and answer the question: in your opinion, what does happen to a "dream deferred"?

Chapter Two: "Mad Medley": How Harlem Influenced My Life

1) Abdul-Jabbar was, obviously, not alive during the time of the Harlem Renaissance. In fact, he spent little time in Harlem as a kid. Yet, he says it influenced his life in a catastrophic way. How is that possible? What did it mean for him? Is there any historical event that you feel has influenced your life in a similarly dramatic fashion?

2) The relationship Abdul-Jabbar had with Coach Donahue affected him deeply. How would you characterize that relationship when it first began? What was the turning point in that relationship? How do you think Abdul-Jabbar's life might have been different had it not happened?

3) How would you characterize Abdul-Jabbar's relationship with Dr. John Henrik Clarke?

4) Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King had very different approaches to achieving racial equality. Which one do you most ally yourself with, and why? Despite agreeing with one, do you see any benefit in the other?

Writing Assignment:

Respond to John Clarke's statement that, "History is not everything." What did he mean by that? Do you believe it's true? Why or why not? Give examples from both within and outside the text.

Chapter Three: "Master Intellects and Creative Giants": The 'Talented Tenth' Paints the World Black

1) Who are Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois? Compare and contrast the two. Why are they themselves as well as their differences so important to the Harlem Renaissance?

2) Marcus Garvey believed that African Americans should return to Africa. What was your reaction to reading about the "Back to Africa" movement? Why do you feel that way? Think for a moment about the view opposite your own. Can you imagine why others might see things that way as opposed to the way you see them?

3) Abdul-Jabbar details eight specific writers who were major contributors to the Harlem Renaissance. Who were they? What did they write? What did their writing do for the Harlem Renaissance? What lasting effect has their writing had over the years? How many of these writers have you read? If none, or very few, why do you think that is?

Writing Assignment:

Discuss what you believe the purpose of writing is. Based on your reading, how might the writers of the Harlem Renaissance have answered this, and how and why are your answers similar or different?

Chapter Four: "The Gifts That My Ancestors Gave": How Harlem Writers Influenced My Life

1) What importance does Abdul-Jabbar see race as playing in today's society? Do you see America as still being a racist society? If so, then in what ways?

2) Abdul-Jabbar talks about the importance of words and of naming. What examples of this can you point out both in your personal life and in contemporary U.S. culture?
3) How was Abdul-Jabbar most affected by the writers of the Harlem Renaissance? Which of those writers and which of their works affected him the most deeply, and why? Who did you most like and why?

Writing Assignment:

Explore what Sir Issac Newton's quote, "If I have seen further [than other men], it is because I have stood upon the shoulders of giants" means to Abdul-Jabbar and to you.

Chapter Five: "Fairness Creeps Out of the Soul": Basketball Comes to Harlem

1) What is the history of the Rens? How would you describe them as a team at their height? Compare and contrast the same for the Harlem Globetrotters.

2) How did economics play a role in African Americans taking their place in the world of professional sports? In what way do economics still play a role in sports today?

3) In what ways did sports during the Harlem Renaissance have a positive effect on the African American community? In what ways were the Rens good for the African American Community? Does the world of professional sports today benefit the African American Community? Providing specific examples, argue why or why not.

Writing Assignment:

Explore the meaning of this chapter's title, "Fairness Creeps Out of the Soul." Discuss that phrase's significance both to this chapter and what significance you see it having in a larger context (i.e. your own life and the world around you).

Chapter Six: "Hoping Against Hope": How the Rens Basketball Team Influenced My Life

1) What effect did the Rens have on Abdul-Jabbar? Cite examples.

2) In what way did the film Go Man Go affect Abdul-Jabbar? Is there a film that has affected you as deeply? If so, how and why? Should that be the purpose of film? To make people think? To change people's lives? To take a hold of viewers?

3) Abdul-Jabbar says basketball did not define him but rather allowed him to define himself. What is it about the team sport of basketball for Abdul-Jabbar that allows for such personal expression? Cite passages in the text.

Writing Assignment:

When people think about the Harlem Renaissance, they generally think of the traditional intellectual and creative pursuits like art, music, and literature. How, then, can Abdul-Jabbar claim that sports plays such a large role in the Harlem Renaissance? Do you see an on-going connection between sports and art, music, and literature? What role do you see the connection playing in society today?

Chapter Seven: "Musical Fireworks": Jazz Lights Up the Heavens of Harlem

1) Who are the women who made musical contributions to the Harlem Renaissance? Was it more difficult for women than for men to "make it" as musicians during the Harlem Renaissance? Why or why not? Are women's contributions to music during this period as great as their contributions to writing? Do you believe it was harder for them to "make it" in music as opposed to in writing? Or vice versa perhaps?

2) What intersection do you see between the writing and the music of the Harlem Renaissance?

Writing Assignment:

Respond to Louis Armstrong's statement that he made when asked to define jazz, "Man, if you gotta ask, you'll never know." What does that mean? Why is that significant?

Chapter Eight: "Everything Was Mostly Fun": How Jazz Influenced My Life

1) What does Abdul-Jabbar say he learned from jazz? In what ways did it influence his life? What connections does Abdul-Jabbar see as existing between jazz and basketball?

2) Abdul-Jabbar specifically mentions three jazz greats. Who does he mention? Why do you think he chose them? What specifically does he say he learned from each?

3) What music has influenced your life? In what way? Had that music not been a part of your life, in what ways do you think your life might have been different?

Writing Assignment:

Abdul-Jabbar talks about his personal connections to the Harlem Renaissance as a whole and then to literature, sports, and jazz in particular. He contends that all that he has done and all that he hopes to be has somehow come from the lives of those who contributed to the Harlem Renaissance. One might say that the literature, games, and songs are the stories, competitions, and soundtracks of his life. What are yours? Which giants' shoulders do you see yourself as standing on? Explain. What do they mean to you? What do they inspire in you? (If you can't answer this right off the top of your head, don't worry. This is a great time to consider just who those people might be for you.)


These projects can be done before, during, or after reading the text and can be done as group or individual assignments.

1) Create four timelines -- the development of Harlem as a center of African American culture, the development of African American literature, the progression of African Americans in professional sports, and the development of jazz.

2) View any of the films mentioned in the text, including, Cotton Comes to Harlem, Birth of a Nation, Brother to Brother, or Go Man Go. Write a summary of and a reaction to the film. If you view more than one, be sure to compare and contrast the films you viewed as well.

3) Read work by any of the following writers: James Weldon Johnson, Jesse Redmon Fauset, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer, Wallace Thurman, Countee Cullen, Richard Moore, and Langston Hughes. Or choose work by other writers Abdul-Jabbar refers to in the text. Write a summary of and a reaction to the work you read. If you read more than one, be sure to compare and contrast the works you read as well.

4) Choose two people from the list below to research. (Or choose any others Abdul-Jabbar mentions in his writing.) Write a biographical sketch for each and then discuss their connections and/or contributions to the Harlem Renaissance.

Zora Neale Hurston
Louis Armstrong
Augusta Savage
Claude McKay
Bob Douglass
Max Ewingg
Marcus Garvey
Father Divine
James Weldon Johnson
Malcolm X
Wallace Thurman
Walter White
Roy Wilkins
Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr.
Ralph Ellison
Paul Robeson
Aaron Douglas
Hale Woodruff
Cab Calloway
Luckey Roberts
Jimmie Lunceford
A'Lelia Walker
Thurgood Marshall
Miles Davis
John Coltrane
Sarah Vaughn
Duke Ellington
Count Basie

5) Research any of the following and then prepare either a paper or a class presentation in which you share your findings.

a. The "Call and Response" method Abdul-Jabbar employed in writing this text, exploring both the history and examples of such

b. Jack L. Cooper and his show Search for Missing Persons

c. The Boll Weevil

d. The Dance Theatre of Harlem and its connections to the Harlem Renaissance

e. The history of the Apollo Theater

f. The Schomburg Center

6) Compare and contrast the following streets as they are now in either a paper or class presentation - Seventh Avenue, Lennox Avenue, Strivers' Row, 135th Street, and 125th Street.

7) Listen to several different pieces of jazz online, at a music store, or elsewhere, including pieces from various artists and from various periods from before, during, and after the Harlem Renaissance. Then answer the following questions in a short essay. What do you think of the music? What do you like or dislike? Which do you prefer? Why? What influences do you see in today's music that obviously came from jazz roots?


Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem. Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African American Achievement
Cullen, Countee. One Way to Heaven
De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex
DuBois, W.E.B. The Philadelphia Negro, The Souls of Black Folk, John Brown
Fauset, Jessie Redmon. There is Confusion, Plum Bun, The Chinaberry Tree: A Novel of American Life, Comedy: American Style
French, Marilyn. The Women's Room
Hughes, Langston. The Weary Blues, Fine Clothes to the Jew, Not Without Laughter, Mulatto, I Wonder As I Wander, The Big Sea
Hurston, Zora Neal. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Moses, Man of the Mountain, Dust Tracks on a Road Johnson, James Weldon. The Auto-Biography of An Ex-Colored Man
Jong, Erica. Fear of Flying
McKay, Claude. Songs of Jamaica, Constab Ballads, Harlem Shadows
Moore, Richard. The Name is Negro: Its Origin and Evil Use
Niles, Blair. Strange Brother
Thurman, Wallace. The Interne, The Blacker the Berry, Harlem: A Melodrama of Negro Life in Harlem
Toomer, Jean. Cane
Van Vechten, Carl. Nigger Heaven
White, Walter. A Man Called White

For an extended bibliography, go to:


Harlem Renaissance
Here you will find a short summary of the period as well as links to information about many different aspects of the Harlem Renaissance.

The Harlem Renaissance
This site includes an impressive list of sites which provide a great deal of backgrounds on the Harlem Renaissance and those involved in it. The sites listed include "biographies of writers, poets, artists, musicians, entertainers, activists, thinkers, and leaders."

A Hypermedia Edition of the March 1925 Survey Graphic Harlem Number
This hypermedia edition takes you through an informative Survey Graphic of the Harlem Renaissance.

The Mississippi River of Song
Here you will find information about this PBS program on music from the Harlem Renaissance. You will also find related articles and additional links.

Art of the Harlem Renaissance
This website offers information about artists active during this period. You will find both images of relevant work as well as information about the artists themselves.

Circle Association's Weblinks to Harlem Renaissance
An extensive timeline as well as a long list of Harlem Renaissance related weblinks are included here.

Selected Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance: A Resource Guide
Information about some of the women writers of the Harlem Renaissance is provided here.

Harlem Renaissance
This site offers information about jazz, and other, musicians who contributed to the Harlem Renaissance.

Harlem: 1900-1940: An African-American Community
This site offers an exhibition portfolio from The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture exhibit titled Harlem: 1900-1940: An African-American Community

Drop Me Off in Harlem: Explore the Intersections
Here you'll find photos, articles, additional links, and a map of Harlem as well as additional resources.

Check out any place in the world on this site. You can explore Harlem as well as the writers, musicians, leaders, and others who contributed to the movement.

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is recognized by Sports Illustrated and Time magazine as history's greatest basketball player (he is the NBA's all-time leading scorer). The author of several New York Times bestsellers, Kareem's previous books include Giant Steps, Kareem, Black Profiles in Courage, A Season on the Reservation, and Brothers in Arms. Since his retirement as a player in the NBA, Kareem has worked as a special assistant coach for the Los Angeles Lakers and acted as a volunteer coach for children on the White Mountain Apache reservation in Whiteriver, Arizona. On the Shoulders of Giants is currently in production as a documentary film.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (January 30, 2007)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416549918

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