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.

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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?

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?