When you enter Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s office at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, it’s easy to see that he’s been there only a short time. There are empty shelves, very little art on the walls and a desk that has yet to be overwhelmed by the usual office clutter associated with a person of such distinction.
The Black history scholar, who came from Indiana University, has been on the job as director of the Schomberg for a little over a month and half and already has his work cut out for him.
He follows in the illustrious footsteps of Dr. Howard Dodson, who announced his retirement in 2009 after spending over 25 years at the Schomberg. Muhammad has already hit the ground running: In the short time that he has been at what he calls the “Library of Congress for the Black community,” his plan to build on the Schomburg’s stellar legacy includes putting the center in better reach of young people and broadening horizons for everyone in the Black community.
In a recent interview with the AmNews, Muhammad said that so far, his new position is everything he thought it would be.
The committee that recommended him for the job included Dr. Calvin O. Butts, Dr. Henry Louis Gates and Aysha Schomburg, great-granddaughter of center founder Arturo Schomburg.
“It is what I expected,” he said. “The transition was long enough for me to get a sense of the scale of work involved and the scope of responsibility the position involved. The center is just an amazing place in terms of the number of lives it touches, the number of themes that it engages.”
Muhammad has also used this time to get better acquainted with the 50 employees that work under him, including librarians, writers, archivists, historians and an administrative staff. One of his first hires was his former colleague Alicia Young, who is in the Schomburg’s public affairs division. Young, a former civil rights attorney, attended the Vera Institute of Justice with Muhammad.
His visibility in the community and around the nation is starting to pick up as well. Coming in on the tail end of Harlem’s busy summer season, he made appearances at the Harlem Book Fair as well as at a Sept. 11 program for the New York Public Library. He is scheduled to speak in Washington, D.C., at the Congressional Black Caucus, has been in Jet magazine and will be in an upcoming episode of “Our World with Black Enterprise.”
As the fifth director in the Schomburg’s 85-year history, Muhammad said he wants to put his focus on the youth. He already has plans outlined to engage young people between the ages of 5 and 15, which include building a space at the Schomberg for kids, connecting with youth organizations and getting into schools.
He said, “I want to get to as many Black children in the city as I can. They have to be exposed to that history so they can make use of it in a way that makes the most sense to them. I want to give them a sense of pride but also access to this rich history, which means to inspire them but also empower them to come to the center and begin a lifelong journey of exploration. Oftentimes, it happens to people as adults.”
While trying to attract a new generation to the center, Muhammad said he knows that the already dedicated connoisseurs of the center’s work are also important. In order to do his job effectively and maintain the Schomburg’s current crowd, he said, he’s all ears.
“In my position, my recipe for success is to have very big ears and spend time listening to people,” he said. “The more time I spend now listening to people’s prior experience with the center, whether as employees, supporters or as visitors of the institution, the more trust I am able to build with those various stakeholders.”
As the Schomburg Center grows, Muhammad said he wants to give the community a new experience with Black history that they’ve never had before. He added that under his leadership, amateur and educated historians will expand their knowledge as soon as they walk in the door.
“People need to walk through those doors and feel the weight of the past in terms of reverence for it, in terms of the ongoing engagement with it and the need for the Schomburg to be part of creating new pasts. I want people to say, ‘Wow, this is different,’” he said. “That’s the message that I want to send: that you are in a place that has been at the forefront of engaging the history of Black people in this country and in the world.
And that we demand your attention, we welcome your presence and we want you to be a part of the future.”