In the recurring series Souvenir Stories, Emily Spivack asks accomplished storytellers about memorable objects they've brought home from their travels. Here, six-time NBA champion and TIME columnist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar speaks of the Buffalo Soldier flags that have given him a deeper sense of connection with his heritage.
I love to collect items from the Old West because that was such a vibrant time in our history. It was a time of great courage when Americans faced many challenges and overcame them all. It was also a time when we chose the rule of law over lawlessness and that set us on the course we’re on today.
But for the longest time, people did not acknowledge contributions made by some who enforced the law, the black military. The bravery of the Buffalo Soldiers, African-American regiments of the U.S. Army created in the mid 19th century, is rarely mentioned in history books. We learned about Custer and Wyatt Earp and all the other legends of the West but there were also black soldiers, lawmen, and cowboys who contributed a lot.
Two of my prized possessions are the flags I have from the Buffalo Soldiers. I got these flags at a Western Memorabilia Show in the 1990s when I used to go to cowboy shooting events in Riverside, California. I’ve always been a big fan of the mystique of the gunfighter and sheriff shooting it out on Main Street and all the other Western mythology. But the Buffalo Soldier flags are more about the reality of the West, especially the black experience.
Several of my books are about overlooked black men and women who have had great but unheralded effects on America. I wrote about black soldiers in World War II, black inventors throughout history, and black artists and writers during the Harlem Renaissance. Even in my newest book, Mycroft Holmes, I introduce the first black character (Cyrus Douglas) to ever be included in a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. The Buffalo Soldiers are another group of overlooked but significant black Americans and these flags have given me a richer sense of my own heritage.