Schomberg Center director Dr. Khalil Muhammad: Black history is 'life saving'

theGRIO Q&A - Dr. Khalil Muhammad exemplifies the pure essence of black history...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Scholar, historian, black culture enthusiast, author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America and recently appointed director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York; Dr. Khalil Muhammad exemplifies the pure essence of Black History.

theGrio’s Wanjira Banfield sat down with Dr. Muhammad to get an uncensored account of his love affair with black culture, his unwavering desire for a conscientious America and his commitment to the global advancement and experience of African-Americans.

theGrio: What led you to this journey to becoming a leader of black history preservation and eventually the director of the Schomburg Center?

Dr. Muhammad: I wanted to know black history for my own personal growth. When I was in college, there was a lot of controversy surrounding African-Americans, as well as debate about whether black students were qualified to be in well known prestigious universities such as my alma mater; the University of Pennsylvania. I didn’t personally feel equipped to understand those arguments. This began with me deciding that I needed to get more familiar with African-American history. I needed to learn my history, my culture.

The more I learned, the more I wanted to know and the more committed I became to producing new knowledge where it didn’t already exist.

What are some of the challenges you face in your position in engaging the younger African-American generation?

That is the challenge right there! (laughs)…The challenge is just that: to get young people to care deeply about the past. We live in a broader culture that doesn’t value books, reading, history and so forth. Those are all means to an end and the end increasingly seems to be material accumulation and wealth.

Our young people don’t get to learn about culture and the humanities for the sake of being full citizens and being civically engaged and I think our kids lose out the most in that. So for me the challenge is bringing the past to life for them in ways that meet them where there are. That means social media etc. So when I try to engage young people about why the past matters, I’m going to talk about issues I know they’re thinking about such as policing, prisons, hip-hop, inequality and education. There are a number of issues but if can’t talk about the war on drugs and if I can’t talk about the fact that there are so many young black men who are either part of or know someone that’s connected to that issue, I’ve failed. According to author Michelle Alexander…that’s our new Jim Crow. So as a historian, I have to be able to provide a usable past that helps our younger generation feel like this is something bigger than the bad choices that some individual might make.

What should the core of Black History Month represent?

Black History Month seems to be just a kind of month long commemoration…more of a tribute to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. and much less about what historians really do; which is to teach us lessons of failure and setback and the unfinished work of the past. Regretfully, Black History Month doesn’t allow us to stew in the messiness of the past because of the way it’s framed and the way it’s celebrated. It doesn’t allow for people to learn something new and not to just simply be reminded about what they already know.

How critical is the existence of institutions such as the Schomburg Center in NYC and the African-American Research Library in Fort Lauderdale (Florida) to black culture?

They are life saving institutions and are as critical in the community as a defibrillator at an airport. If you listen to the stories of our elders of the civil rights generation, what you will hear consistently is that learning about the history of segregation for them…learning about what made the economic and racial exploitation of the South possible, changed their lives. It gave them a reason to become political. It gave them a sense of community that was bigger than the neighborhood. They were a part of something bigger. And unfortunately, we haven’t been doing that in my opinion now, for two generations.

So, for people 5 to 45 years old…they have missed out on the life saving empowering narratives of history that make people feel like they are a part of something…part of the story. You see, the stories are important. For African-Americans, storytelling is often sacrificed to the latest round of doom and gloom statistics about the achievement gap, around prison rates, around poverty rates and that’s why people like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston are so important because they were interested in the stories. They were interested in the poetry. They were interested in reminding us how imagination is the starting point to creating new realities.

What would you say are the top three concerns facing African-Americans in the 21st century?

The economy, the Criminal Justice system and education. It’s important for me to make sure that what we are teaching our kids is that we are giving them a sense of the work that remains in this society which means that black people are more likely to be in poverty and means that the system is more likely to punish black poverty by the use of prison. If we don’t educate our kids in a way that encourages them to be scientists and engineers and mathematicians, then we are reproducing the cycle that makes it possible for people to accept the status quo without complaint or concern and to blame their own communities for those levels of economic inequality.

Why do this? Why chose to commit your entire life to the preservation and richness of black culture?

It’s simple. For me, I get comfort and humility in knowing that I’m doing my part in part of the longer story that is the story of humanity.

Wanjira Banfield writes about travel and entertainment for theGrio. You can find her at and follow her on Twitter @wanjirasworld.