Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recently turned cultural critic by reviewing the HBO show Girls for the Huffington Post. In a follow-up article titled “Coming Out of the Locker Room Ghetto,” he addresses the naysayers who question his qualifications to do so:
There was much reaction. Some questioned why a man my age would watch a show about girls in their twenties, as if they’d just discovered me hanging around a school playground with a shopping bag full of candy in one hand a fluffy puppy in the other. Of course, these critics are right. When I read Moby Dick I first had to convince the bookseller that I was a former whaler named Queequeg. When I read the poetry of Sylvia Plath, I had to pretend I was a depressed white woman with daddy issues. Don’t worry, I used a fake ID. […]
But even among some of the positive response was an underlying head-scratching theme: isn’t it amazing that a former jock can have opinions on pop culture and articulate it with words and references to books and movies? Some mentioned my height, as if I was so tall that the air up here could not support intellectual development. […]
Maybe this will help: I have a degree from UCLA. I’m an amateur historian who has written books about World War II, the Harlem Renaissance, and African-American inventors. I read a lot of fiction as well as non-fiction. I watch TV and movies. I have acted in both. I have been a political activist and an advocate for children’s education. How should an aging, black jock like myself know anything about pop culture? Man, I am a living part of pop culture and have been for nearly 50 years. Beyond that, I think pop culture expresses our needs, fears, hopes and whole zeitgeist better than some of the more esoteric and obscure forms of art.
Be sure to read the rest. It’s smart, funny — and, I’m ashamed to admit, surprisingly so, to me. Apart from his cameo in Airplane!, I was mostly unaware of Abdul-Jabbar’s accomplishments off the basketball court — and had mentally relegated him to the “amazing jock” category without giving any thought to whether the man had any interests, abilities, or other fascinating facets as a human being outside the narrow field for which he’s recognized (and pigeonholed).
Mea culpa. As I’ve argued myself, it’s always unwise to put people into boxes of any kind. Once you get past your easy assumptions and really get to know them, people will endlessly surprise you. I suppose, at this point, we really shouldn’t be surprised at all.