The Root Interview: The Schomburg's Khalil Gibran Muhammad

The new director of the premier research center for African-American culture talks about his famous great-grandfather, coming of age during the Rodney King beating and his plans for the Harlem library.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad

The torch of leadership has been passed at one of the world's leading research libraries for information on people of African descent, and the new torchbearer is a young scholar with a pedigree steeped in black history. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, 38, has been chosen as the next director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a Harlem-based branch of the New York Public Library system, effective July 2011.

Muhammad's appointment was made by NYPL President Dr. Paul LeClerc, after the unanimous recommendation of a nine-member search committee co-chaired by library trustees Gordon J. Davis and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (who is also editor-in-chief of The Root). Muhammad succeeds Howard Dodson Jr., who will retire from the post after more than 25 years of leadership. Under Dodson's stewardship, the number of artifacts held by the library doubled to 10 million, and annual visitors tripled to 120,000.

A history professor at Indiana University specializing in the study of race relations and the impact of views held about black criminality, Muhammad received his Ph.D. in American history from Rutgers University in 2004, after a stint at Deloitte & Touche LLP. He spent two years as an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit organization for criminal-justice reform in New York, before joining the faculty of Indiana University.

A Chicago native, he is the great-grandson of Elijah Muhammad, who led the Nation of Islam during the mid-20th century.

The Root caught up with Dr. Muhammad this week to learn about his plans for the Schomburg.

The Root: Congratulations! How are you?

Khalil Gibran Muhammad: I'm still flying high on the good news and all the excitement and the future of wonderful things I hope to accomplish [at the Schomburg].

TR: Have you found a place to live?

KGM: Still figuring it out. With a family of five, it's a challenge! I'm going from a low-cost state to a high-cost state. We're keeping our options open.

TR: What are your plans for the Schomburg?

KGM: The first is to build trust among the staff and the managers of the various departments and in the community, which is Harlem. That's my top priority … I want to assure people that the Schomburg is in good hands.

Beyond that, I want to bring in more young people, bring them into the Schomburg's orbit. I want them to know that the raw materials of our lives -- letters to family, postcards from trips, sketches of art that children draw in church to stay awake, crayon markings -- are the beginnings of what can one day become the Schomburg's precious assets, whether they're art, poetry.

I want to demystify what it means to leave a legacy for young people. There's the draft of a poem by Maya Angelou, a letter from Malcolm X to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Richard Wright's manuscript. It shows they're real people. It offers [the children] a chance to see what the raw materials look like. Everyone has a potential for greatness.

TR: The Hon. Elijah Muhammad was your great-grandfather. Did you know him?

KGM: No. He passed in February 1975, two months before I turned 3. I know him through my parents' stories. His son is my grandfather, and he's still alive, so I know [Elijah Muhammad] through him as well.

TR: You have an interest in the intersection of crime and race, as seen in your book, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. Why?

KGM: I grew up when the war on drugs was making its impact felt across the nation. There was a tremendous increase in federal support for local police enforcement. I was a child of that moment, and I have stories of being picked on by police and asked where I was going and who I was with.

When I was in Philadelphia [at school], the Rodney King beating occurred. My political conscience was piqued by that and larger changes in urban America. When I was choosing my dissertation topic at Rutgers, O.J. was on trial. A lot of this was happening around me at the time. And then much later, there was Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo. It shaped my political sense of things.

TR: So why not a career in criminal justice?

KGM: My book, which came out this year, is about this from the perspective of a historian. The field itself needs scholars like me, and I think this shift isn't the rejection of [criminal justice] work but seeing the public importance of that work. I get to talk to a much broader swath of the public. I'm not just preaching to the choir.

TR: Did you watch The Wire?

KGM: I did! I skipped the first season, but when I did start to pay attention, I was blown away by the nuance and complexity. It made the show exceptional and brought into crystal-clear focus the nature of crime, white flight, education. So many issues were explored, and it really elevated the conversation and made it very difficult to pinpoint heroes and villains, and that's how the real world functions. It widened the angle for people with a narrow view of good and evil, that certain people should never do X, Y or Z. It dispelled those binaries.

TR: What do you think of the Obama administration?

KGM: I think the administration is caught between a rock and a hard place. He inherited the absolutely worst economic condition in three-quarters of a century, and the road out of that isn't clear. I think they made some decisions they inherited from the Bush administration, in terms of the TARP and bank bailout. It's hard not to see the challenges of the administration and also praise it for what it managed to accomplish in terms of the health care bill.

They should take pride in health care, even if it fell short of the public option. Certainly, financial stimulus spending was the right choice instead of tax cuts, though they didn't go far enough to prime the pump in order to keep people in their jobs and put people back to work. And the reform of credit cards and credit markets is extremely productive to many Americans who are the victims of too much fine print. It's one of the Obama administration's signature accomplishments. And the 60-plus Republicans who are coming into the Congress hopefully won't change that.

TR: How will you use the Internet as new director of the Schomburg?

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