Khalil Muhammad: Bloomington to Harlem

Khalil Muhammad moved four years ago from living the quiet life of a Bloomington academic to being director of New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, one of the world’s leading centers for studying and celebrating the African-American and African diaspora experience.

How big a transition was that?

Khalil Muhammad

Khalil Muhammad (Schomburg Center)

“Huge,” Muhammad said. “Gigantic. Life-altering. There’s the scale of responsibility, the extent of public engagement and having to be responsible to a community of stake-holders.”

But he loves the job and is proud of what he has accomplished, tripling the center’s annual visitors and expanding its public appeal through a mix of exhibitions and public programs.

“We’ve worked really hard trying to come up with programs that are relevant and interesting to new audiences,” he said.

Muhammad answered questions during a visit to Bloomington on March 26. Standing outside Alumni Hall at the Indiana Memorial Union — before a panel discussion featuring his friend and former Rutgers graduate school colleague Jelani Cobb — he was continually interrupted by hugs and greetings from old friends and colleagues from the community and the IU history department.

Earlier in the day, he took part in a separate panel on race and law enforcement, showing examples of bias in policing and jousting good-naturedly with Eugene O’Donnell, a faculty member at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice and an ardent advocate for New York City police officers.

Muhammad, a Chicago native, was on the faculty of the IU Bloomington history department for five years. While at IU he published “The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America,” which explores how race and crime became linked after Reconstruction in ways that justified racial segregation and the exclusion of blacks from social progress.

In 2011 he moved from an office in Ballantine Hall to a world-renowned research library in the heart of Harlem, part of the New York Public Library system and established in 1925 with a collections gift from the black scholar and book-lover Arturo Alfonso Schomburg.

“We’re very much front and center on Main Street,” he said.

Muhammad is pleased with the way the Schomburg Center is building audiences with a wide array of programs, including films, lectures, panel discussions, exhibitions and performances — including a symposium on Motown music and discussions of the profiling of Muslims. He is especially proud with the rollout of Schomburg’s Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery, established with a $2.5 million endowment gift — and of the fact that its director, Sylviane Diouf, gave a recent keynote address to the U.N. General Assembly on women and slavery.

Muhammad has been a busy public intellectual, writing for The New York Times, The Guardian and other publications, being interviewed by news media and discussing contemporary issues on NPR, “Moyers & Co.,” “Melissa Harris-Perry” and other media venues. That’s been especially true in the past six months, given the relevance of his scholarship to discussions of high-profile shootings of black men and boys.

“I wish it weren’t the case,” he said. “I wish I didn’t need to be so busy trying to contribute to fixing a problem that shouldn’t exist.”

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