History can be dry, dull, dead. Or it can breathe fire and leap up, dancing, singing and crying.
History is a story, and the ability of that story to grab the attention of the reader or listener depends a lot on the knowledge and passion of the history teacher.
In the introduction to his "On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance," basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tells how he shocked a reporter when he said he'd have been a history teacher if he hadn't been an NBA star.
With several books to his credit now, this history teacher will hold class Thursday night at Vive le Livre, the annual benefit for the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library.
Reading about his Renaissance journey reveals a man as adept at presenting history as he is at making it. (He's still the NBA's leading scorer 20 years after his retirement.)
What makes Abdul-Jabbar's book so compelling is his personal experience with racism, social and political injustice and the uplifting power of his discovery of the artists and thinkers who exploded onto American and world culture during the period from 1920 to 1940. The Harlem Renaissance is a fascinating subject in its own right, but his passion for it makes it irresistible.
He spent much of the summer of 1964 before his high school senior year in a program run by historian John Henrik Clarke. He read a lot; he wrote a lot. His group produced a journal of Harlem life, and he attended a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a reporter for the publication. When Harlem exploded in riots, he and his fellow young journalists wrote about that, too.
His experiences taught him vital lessons about history:
Don't just read it. "What's really important," he writes, "is what we do with the information we discover; how we use it to motivate ourselves into some form of action to better our own lives and the lives of those in our community."
Educate yourself. "We must teach (our children) ourselves to have a curiosity about the world, a skepticism about anything they're told is true, and the skill to find out the truth for themselves."
Abdul-Jabbar's history is a mixture of thrills and poignancy: seeing the Harlem Globetrotters and discovering the New York Renaissance Big Five (in 1939 the first winners of the World Professional Basketball Tournament) through the eyes of a basketball legend; reading that the legend was once a shy, awkward 9-year-old who took to the basketball court and developed his famous skyhook to escape school bullies.
Perhaps his greatest passion is reserved for jazz - the study of it, but even more importantly the experience of it. He writes, "It's about wanting to get up out of your chair and move your body just because you're alive and the world is fat with possibilities - and because it just feels so good to swing."
His approach to history is just as interactive.
I swapped impressions about Abdul-Jabbar and his Renaissance journey with a woman who knows more than a bit about dedication, determination and the benefits of study and action. Lady Shivers Tucker is an opera singer, an educator and chairwoman of the library's board of directors.
She's followed his career from basketball star to writer, and she agrees he's a poster child - make that a poster giant - for literacy.
"What he's doing and has done should speak volumes to our young athletes. You need to prepare the mind as much as the body."
She salutes the Library Foundation for bringing its first African-American author to the fundraiser.
The official deadline for reservations to Vive le Livre was Friday, but the library's Stephenie Walker says she may still be able to fit you in if you call her Tuesday before 10 a.m. at 532-5954. That is the drop-dead deadline.
Contact Ann Marie Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or The Huntsville Times, 2317 Memorial Parkway, Huntsville, AL 35801.