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.

Terrence Jennings
Terrence Jennings

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?