Appointment of Schomburg Center's New Director Angers City's Black Leadership

By Jeff Mays on November 17, 2010 8:32pm | Updated on November 18, 2010 5:49am

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a 38-year-old professor of African-American history from Indiana University, was chosen as the next director of the Schomburg Center.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a 38-year-old professor of African-American history from Indiana University, was chosen as the next director of the Schomburg Center.
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Courtesy of the New York Public Library

By Jeff Mays

DNAInfo Reporter/Producer

HARLEM — Strong opposition is mounting against the appointment of the latest director of the world renowned Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

The selection of Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a 38-year-old professor of African-American history from Indiana University, the great-grandson of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, was announced Wednesday by the New York Public Library, which oversees the Lenox Avenue cultural institution.

Almost as soon as the press release went out, prominent politicians expressed their surprise that Muhammad was chosen over African-American scholar Molefi Kete Asante. Asante, a 68-year-old professor at Temple University, appeared to have the backing of the Harlem community and black leaders in the city.

Omawale Clay, an aide to State Sen. Bill Perkins and a member of the Save the Schomburg Coalition, compared the appointment of Muhammad to the controversial selection of Cathie Black as schools chancellor.

"This young brother is a babe in the world of Afro-American, Afrocentric global politics and culture," said Clay. "He is a babe in the woods. He is an assistant professor and he hasn't even obtained tenure yet. No disrespect, but a brother like that would be an excellent research person under Molefi Asante."

Councilman Charles Barron also said he was disappointed

"I don't know this brother here at all," Barron said of Muhammad. "I have no comment on him because I have never heard of him."

"I cannot fathom someone who has more credentials, has written more books, is know by more African leaders and has had more of an impact on Afrocentric scholarship than Molefi Asante out of Temple."

Muhammad was selected by a committee headed by Henry Louis Gates Jr. 

He is currently nominated for tenure at Indiana University and is working on a book about the racial politics surrounding the dissolution of Prohibition-era "tough on crime" laws. He is also the author of the well-received book: "The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America", which was published by Harvard University Press.

An associate editor of the Journal of American History, Muhammad graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a B.A. in economics in 1993. He received a Ph.D. in American History from Rutgers University in 2004. Muhammad is the married father of three children, and is the son of Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times photographer Ozier Muhammad.

Muhammad succeeds Howard Dodson Jr., who announced retirement plans last year after 25 years at the helm of the Schomburg.  He is scheduled to begin his new job in July 2011, and, in an interview with DNAinfo, said that his first task would be reaching out to the community.

"The first priority is to build trust and build relations with the staff and with Harlem to begin to build on Mr. Dodson's legacy," said Muhammad. "That will require a lot of conversations, meetings and listening."

Muhammad also said he wants to digitize more of the center's collections to make them more accessible while reaching out to bring in a new generation of scholars and young people to the library.

"I will be working diligently to bring in a new generation of artists and scholars to the Schomburg and extend its reach. We want to bring in a new generation of young people," Muhammad said.

"It's exciting. Nothing worthwhile comes without risks and challenges but the rich history of Harlem and New York in general and the larger diaspora are central to the Schomburg and tied together inextricably."

Library President Paul LeClerc praised the selection of Muhammad.

“He is a brilliant scholar doing path-breaking work in African-American studies," LeClerc said, "and knows how to exploit the Internet to bring young people into the Schomburg to discover its extraordinary treasures."

But Clay and Barron believe the library should have followed the community's advice.

"We are not discussing the future of the Schomburg. We are discussing whether black people have any say so in the institutions in their community the way that other people do of the institutions in their communities," said Clay. "The library has responded exactly as we thought they would. We are not surprised. They have fired the first shot."

Barron pointed out that the community had to fight for Dodson to be the director of the Schomburg.

"They didn't listen to us this last time and we had to do a lot of screaming. We should have done that this time," Barron said.

Clay said he believed the community could still make a difference.

"The library thought it was a done deal when they picked the last candidate. We are not going to go along to get along because we know what's at stake," he said.

In the meantime, Muhammad met with the Rev. Calvin Butts and Dodson  before the news was announced. Dodson offered a few words of advice.

"The advice from Mr Dodson was to keep my head on straight, keep centered and remain passionate about my commitment," Muhammad said.