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: 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?

I hope that social interaction will still exist in the future. Technology has become a way of mediating human interaction, coming in between old-fashioned phone calls and face-to-face chitchat. Not sure where it'll end up. I embrace it, but my successor will have come of age when the global movement is certainly in its mature years, not in its infancy. The challenge will be to keep people coming through the doors of the Schomburg, to keep talking to each other instead of a hologram.

TR: How will you do community outreach?

KGM: The old-fashioned way. I won't be Skyping into community meetings. I will attend as many events as possible to introduce myself to everyday black folk in Harlem. Pounding the pavement means being there. It's part of what I see the job entailing. Churches, art groups, after-school programs, anti-prison groups, second-chance groups, groups that help people relearn job skills, wherever the community is.

TR: Any last words?

KGM: I'm deeply humbled and excited about it! There's no place like New York to engage so many wonderful people who care about black people.

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