Late last year Khalil Gibran Muhammad was selected as the new Director of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Muhammad is also the author of The Condemnation of Blackness, a widely praised study of how the idea (rather than the reality) of black criminality has shaped modern urban America. His tenure at the Schomburg begins this summer, and Muhammad discussed his goals in a recent conversation with Tavis Smiley that you can watch below.
As Muhammad makes clear in the interview, there are definite challenges involved in taking over this storied center for documenting the experiences of peoples of African descent at this moment when it’s often suggested that we’ve reached some post-racial plateau. From the interview transcript:
I have serious concerns about a level of anti-intellectualism in this country and a kind of post-racial zeitgeist that both work against the interests of an institution dedicated to Black history in culture.
So on one hand, a lot of people read less and care less about the minutia of the past or really to appreciate learning the details of one’s culture or one’s society. On another hand, the notion of post-racialism finds us repeatedly asking every February is Black History Month necessary any longer.
So the idea that somehow we could arrive at a point in America’s history where we don’t actually interrogate the experiences of races in this country through the lens of both the African American experience and the diasporic experience of people of African ancestry is as ridiculous as no longer finding the Revolutionary period important to understanding what this country is about.
So my commitment is to making sure that the young people, the 5 to 15-year-olds, have a place at the Schomburg because I see them as the people that I need to invest in and to encourage stakeholders for the future of the institution.
In their conversation Smiley and Muhammad also discussed how the beating of Rodney King and the trial of O.J. Simpson drew Muhammad to the subject of history as a college student; the legacy he carries as the great-grandson of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad; and what he brings to the Schomburg as its first Director to come straight from academia. It’s a lively conversation with a young historian whose eye to the future promises to turn the Schomburg Center into an even more exciting and valuable resource.
The interview begins after a brief ad: