Last fall, Khalil Gibran Muhammad was named the new Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. This Wednesday evening, at a free public event presented in collaboration with the Harlem Arts Alliance, Muhammad will be hosting a kickoff to the new season at the Schomburg. Attendees can meet Dr. Muhammad, engage with Scholars-in-Residence, and tour the exhibitions on Malcolm X and Romare Bearden that are currently on display. In the exchange posted below, we asked Muhammad about his plans for the Schomburg Center and about the Center’s role in his own scholarship. His book, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, will be available in paperback next month.
Q. What was the role of the Schomburg Center in the research that you conducted for The Condemnation of Blackness? What particular sources in the Schomburg’s collections informed your work on the book?
The Schomburg Center has an extensive collection of the papers of social service and community organizations. Many of these organizations were pioneering in their efforts to assist African Americans and Black immigrants in New York during the early 20th century. The ravages of the industrial economy and the tightening vise of segregation created the need for organizations as varied as the YMCA, New York Urban League, Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, and the White Rose Mission and Industrial Association. The ideas and activities of talented black researchers and passionate grassroots activists are captured in the papers of these organizations. When I was a researcher at the Schomburg Center, I found the papers of two Urban League sociologists, George Edmund Haynes (1880-1960) and Ira De Augustine Reid (1901-1968), to be particularly helpful. They were both key voices in early debates about crime and policing in pre-WWII black communities.
Q. A place like the Schomburg is so valuable because it can be a resource for both the general public and for scholars. Can you describe the challenge of balancing the Center’s work on those two fronts?
I think of our mixed audience not as a challenge but as a real advantage in the marketplace of similar institutions. The fact of being the leading repository for black archival material within the New York Public Library, one of the world’s greatest library systems, means that academics and lay scholars will always find their way here. And with 120,000 annual visitors to the Center, we consistently have a broad and diverse public audience for programming, symposia, conferences, book talks, major historical and arts exhibitions, and performing arts. Open access to ideas is fundamental to democracy and to what we do. As a public research library we want as many people as possible to be inspired by and learn from the collection in the infinite number of ways human beings express and communicate knowledge. The challenge isn’t our audience. The challenge is finding the resources to fund our public mission at a time when funding for the humanities and the arts is declining.
Q. In general, what are your plans for the Schomburg Center?
I am deeply concerned about the twin evils of anti-intellectualism and historical illiteracy that are apparent in many college classrooms and are most visible in our current political culture. In this climate, African American history and Black Studies are especially vulnerable. Given the breadth and depth of our holdings, and our mission to promote learning about and the interpretation of history and culture, the Center is well positioned to lead the way in promoting historical literacy. Two areas are especially important: national engagement and youth outreach. We will rebrand the Schomburg as a center for applied historical research. We want to develop mechanisms for our researchers to translate their work for public and media consumption, particularly when their expertise can shed light on topics of the day. And we have already begun to design robust and relevant educational programming for young people with plans to curate many of our future exhibitions to appeal partly to school-age audiences. Plans for building a permanent Children’s Gallery are also in the works. Like science and technology children’s museums, we want the Schomburg Center to be a place where the raw materials of history—the primary documents, photographs, and material objects—are exposed to young people so that they will be inspired to be history makers one day, either as researchers, writers, artists, or social change agents.
Q. How do you expect your role at the Schomburg to influence your own focus and production as a scholar?
The Schomburg Center is to me what F.A.O. Schwartz is to my three children. Except, I get to play with the Center’s amazing “toys” every day. Like any scholar, I’m a lifelong learner by nature and I’m always curious about things I do not know. Intrigued by so much that people discuss with me or inquire about, my knowledge base is constantly expanding. I’m more excited now about writing my next book, Disappearing Acts: The End of White Criminality in the Age of Jim Crow, than I was having just gotten tenure at Indiana University last June.
In the video below, Dr. Muhammad further details plans for this year at the Schomburg Center: