In the final night of shows from NY, Tavis talks with the incoming director of the city’s famed Schomburg Center Khalil Gibran Muhammad.
Schomburg Center Director Khalil Gibran Muhammad
Tavis: Khalil Gibran Muhammad is a professor of history at Indiana University – can I just say, “Go, Hoosiers” – who in July will take over as the new director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture right here in New York – Harlem, to be exact. Professor Muhammad, first of all, congratulations, and it’s an honor, sir, to have you on this program.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad: Thank you very much. It’s an honor to be here.
Tavis: When I saw with my staff – we sat down for a meeting one day and laid out what we were going to do in this quarter of the year and this week in New York was on our docket, I immediately said, “Get Professor Muhammad on the program.”
I wanted to make sure that tonight I got a chance to talk to you and Robert Battle because both of you are now taking over in your 30s as the heads of these two iconic institutions in this town, Ailey and the Schomburg. First of all, happy belated birthday. You just turned, what, 39 this week?
Muhammad: I did. It’s the part of my life where I get to celebrate still being in my 30s [laugh].
Tavis: One more year.
Muhammad: One more year [laugh].
Tavis: Is this what you thought you’d be doing around, close to, near 40?
Muhammad: I can honestly say that this is an opportunity that you can’t plan for. Schomburg, as you know, has had five directors over an 85-year period, so you don’t plan on taking over a cultural institution like this.
I’m also the first Ph.D. person coming right out of a university, so in that regard, none of my peers, either senior or junior to me, can say, you know, we were gonna be the director of the Schomburg. So in that regard, no.
But in other regards, it’s an unprecedented opportunity to wed my passion for history with a cultural institution committed to disseminating knowledge all around the world.
Tavis: To your point, what does an academician or that academic background in this way bring to this position since you are the first one to be so distinguished in that way as to head the Schomburg?
Muhammad: I think it brings a fierce commitment to the scholarly mission of the institution itself, and awareness and a sensitivity to the nature of scholarly research in the way that we must protect that production. Because that’s really the cornerstone of our educational system.
If the professors don’t start or continue to figure out who we are as a people, where we’re going and where we’ve been, then in a sense we are not capable of passing on that knowledge to future generations.
Tavis: How did history become your passion, your choice, in the world of academia?
Muhammad: Well, it’s a complicated story, but I’ll make it TV-friendly [laugh]. I was at the University of Pennsylvania heading into a career in corporate America. I just figured I’d be a business person and make lots of money. Then the world crashed in on my college days. That is, that Rodney King was first beaten, then acquitted in 1992 just weeks before the end of my junior year of college.
From that point forward, I was fundamentally shaken by the position of being a young Black man in America and really had a lot of unanswered questions about where I fit in the world and what the future held for me. Then I went to grad school and O.J. Simpson was on trial and that’s what really gave me the spark to focus on the history of criminalization in this country.
Tavis: My advancing in the world of communication as broadcast journalism is so connected to those very things. I live in Los Angeles, as you know, so the beating of Rodney King opened up all kinds of opportunities for me to become a commentator in the media in Los Angeles.
The O.J. Simpson case, of course, just allowed that to burgeon even more. It is out of O.J. that I end up with my own national talk shows. I know those two incidents well.
What strikes me about your answer, though, specifically with regard to Rodney King, I’m trying to figure out what the connect was for you with Rodney King. I’m not casting aspersion on Rodney, but you’re an academic here and Rodney’s a brother riding down the street in Hyundai.
I mean, your worlds are two very different experiences and, yet, you tell me now that you connected with Rodney King. Tell me more about that.
Muhammad: Well, of course, I wasn’t always an academic. I grew up on the south side of Chicago, a largely segregated Black community. Although it was a working and middle-class family, I was deeply rooted in a family that cared about the least of these.
So going to college was really an opportunity to explore African American culture in general. So what we learned in the classroom all of a sudden was being broadcast on television in terms of the beating itself. In that way, the real world was more powerful than what was behind those books, but they weren’t disconnected.
So what drove me into academia was a pursuit of knowledge about how it is that we could live in a society that justified this sort of thing, that obfuscated the reality that Black life was cheaper than other forms of life in America. So it was always a connected thing.
Tavis: You are the great-grandson of Elijah Muhammad, founder of the nation of Islam. I wonder if there is an advantage and a disadvantage, if there’s good and bad about that, and if there is, can you give me an example of each?
Muhammad: Sure. So on the good side, I get opportunities like this [laugh], which is that people are curious. They think that the history of the nation of Islam gives me a kind of celebrity status just by virtue of being connected to one of the most significant Black leaders in the 20th century.
Tavis: To be sure.
Muhammad: The bad side is that sometimes I’m expected to have learned some pearls of wisdom from my great-grandfather who passed when I was about two and a half years old. So sometimes the pressure to sort of live up to that legacy, to have inside knowledge, I liken it to the preacher’s kid.
Preacher’s kids are often the ones that are least informed by the work that their parents are doing because it has something to do with the proximity and the intimacy as opposed to the saints and the congregation. So that’s the down side.
Tavis: You’re taking over for Howard Dodson, a long-time friend of mine. I’ve worked with Howard Dodson. Love and adore what he’s done at the Schomburg for all these years. But that’s a pretty American-sounding name, Howard Dodson. These days, you say Muhammad and all kinds of conversations kick up.
I wonder whether or not you can share with me how that name is wearing these days, W-E-A-R-I-N-G. How is it wearing in America these days and what impact, if any, you think it might have on the work you’re gonna do at the Schomburg?
Muhammad: Well, the first part of my name, Khalil Gibran, seems to be paying huge dividends in terms of the artistic life of the poet from whom my name was inspired. The last part of the name, I must say, that personally in the wake of Barack Obama’s presidency, I thought, in that moment, I felt very liberated.
I say, well, if a man named Barack Hussein Obama can be elected in the United States of America, then my future looks brighter than it did two days ago. So I’d say that the jury’s still out.
The attention that the library has given to supporting the transition between Mr. Dodson and me has generated a lot of good will. So if there are any haters out there in regards to my name, they have not yet appeared.
Tavis: What is it that you want to do with the Schomburg in terms of putting your stamp, creating your legacy around that work?
Muhammad: 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.
Tavis: Tell me why you’re hopeful, then, that those young people are gonna be interested in what you just laid out, given that there is this mantra that people like to offer up time and time again that, because Obama is president, back to your point, and because we do live in that “post-racial America,” that there’s no real need for the Schomburg, the kind of work that it does, focusing in on African American history and African American contributions, that you don’t really need that, we’re just all Americans now, let the hyphen thing go.
Muhammad: Well, because in many of these communities where these young people are, the real world is crashing in on them like it did for me. That is, high rates of poverty, continued segregation in public school systems, failing schools, and a criminal justice system that is unprecedented in its size anywhere in the world in world history.
So bringing the reality of both those daily experiences in some of these communities with a deep commitment to both culture as a means of expressing one’s position – hip-hop is a perfect example – but also a sense of history in helping those young people to understand how these communities came to be, is their legacy.
To be able to have a platform to inspire them, to encourage them, to take ownership of that legacy, again, is an unprecedented opportunity and the real heavy lifting that has to be done in this moment.
Tavis: You mention Wynton Marsalis, a friend of mine in this town, an icon in his own right. You mention Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center. White folk get that in New York. You mention Alvin Ailey. White folk in New York get Alvin Ailey and support it. You mention the Schomburg. I know you have white supporters of the Schomburg as well.
But on that list – I haven’t done any research on this, but I think they get Alvin Ailey and Jazz at Lincoln Center maybe more than they get Schomburg. So I want to close by asking what is the value for all of New Yorkers vis-à-vis the Schomburg?
Muhammad: That’s a good point. Well, because in a country where we are becoming the world’s jailer, we all have responsibility for investing in learning about this problem, its historical roots and where we’re headed. But more importantly, being someone who comes out of a scholarly community, I bring a national network of those who are already committed to the Schomburg.
So my job is to really harness those scholars who are invested in the Schomburg, many of whom are white, and to encourage them, to empower them, to speak the good news about the Schomburg. In that way, we make it not only the national organization that it deserves to be, but an international one.
Frankly, I plan on moving around a lot. Speaking to many different audiences is part of drumming up the support so we do get the audiences that care about that cultural institution like they do some of our others.
Tavis: I’m glad you’re there.
Muhammad: Thank you. Thank you very much. I appreciate it. Thank you for having me on the show.
Tavis: Congratulations. Good to have you on the program.
Muhammad: And congratulations on 20th anniversary of your show and the new book.
Tavis: I appreciate that. Good to have you on.
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