There was a time when Khalil Gibran Muhammad fancied a career as a successful businessman, certainly not as the head of America’s foremost research library dedicated to the African diaspora. But here he is, a month from becoming the new director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. In tracing his transition from would-be CEO to director of the Schomburg Center, Muhammad GSNB’04 points to the time he spent at Rutgers, where in 2004 he earned a Ph.D. in American history, as a catalyst in his intellectual development. In New Brunswick, he encountered members of the faculty in African-American studies and other disciplines that already included scholars such as Deborah Gray White and David Levering Lewis. But Rutgers was also hiring what he calls an “explosion” of young scholars in the field.
“It was wonderful; I can’t overstate the case,” he says. “We saw, from top to bottom, how important it was to have that critical mass of African Americans as graduate students and faculty members. I couldn’t have been happier.”
Named for the venerated Lebanese-American author of The Prophet, Muhammad grew up in Chicago. His father is Ozier Muhammad, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for the New York Times, and his great-grandfather was Elijah Muhammad, an early leader of the Nation of Islam.
As an academic—he has been an assistant professor of history at Indiana University—Muhammad has concentrated on the intersection of race and crime, leading to the publication of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Harvard University Press, 2010).
Muhammad’s hiring at the Schomburg Center, a research unit of the New York Public Library, represents a generational passing of the torch. In July, Muhammad will replace Howard Dodson Jr., who has led the Schomburg Center since Muhammad was in junior high. “I made it very clear to the search committee how I had come to be an academic, why I had gone to graduate school, why I focus on the topic of race and crime,” Muhammad says. “All of that was part of my expressing a fundamental commitment to the importance of black history to the American story.”
Muhammad says he hopes to make the Schomburg Center more accessible to young people, and he envisions busloads of students arriving daily to its front doors, on Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem, to explore what he calls “the raw materials” of the African-American experience.
“To show them what Maya Angelou’s sketch pad looks like, as she was sketching a poem and trying to figure out which word fit in that line of a stanza, is a very important educational tool because it peels back the layers of mystery of what makes people great,” Muhammad says. “Introducing primary source materials to young people gives them another window into history, why history matters, and how they can become historical figures themselves.” — Christopher Hann