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As director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Khalil Gibran Muhammad oversees a world-renowned collection historic artifacts, musical scores and letters documenting black life in America. But his work also focuses on connecting the dots between the past and present. He joins Kojo to discuss the challenge of making history accessible and relevant to a broader audience.
- Khalil Gibran Muhammad Director, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's a local library with a global reach. The Schomburg Center for Black Culture is home to 10 million books and artifacts documenting the black experience in America: the letters of Malcolm X, original artwork by Jacob Lawrence, early radio broadcasts of Marcus Garvey.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhen Khalil Gibran Muhammad was named director of the Schomburg two years ago, he laid out a vision of history in action, taking those artifacts and letters, the raw ingredients of history, and putting them into service for the present, teaching a new, younger audience about black history, but also applying a deeper historical context that 21st century policy debates. He joins in studio. Khalil Gibran Muhammad is director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe's the author of "The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime and the Making of Modern America." He joins us in studio. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, welcome. Thank you for joining us.
MR. KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMADThank you for having me on the show.
NNAMDIThese are interesting times for historians. So many of our public policy debates revolve around questions of history, whether we recognize it or not, whether we're talking about government safety nets, immigration or criminal justice. But you've said we're suffering from a kind of society-wide historical illiteracy. What do you mean by that?
MUHAMMADWell, it turns out that we have so much conversation about the need for public policy and very little grounding in what has worked or not worked in the past.
MUHAMMADAnd my perspective on this grows particularly out of what I saw as a college professor, but also as someone who's writing on a topic that may be our biggest social crisis of this time, which is the criminal justice system, and to see how little history informs on-the-ground debates among community activists as well as policymakers who tend to be tied to the latest statistical evidence coming out of, say, the uniform crime reports or out of the Bureau of Justice.
MUHAMMADThat very much limits a larger cultural understanding of where we are in this country. But there's also evidence produced by those who actually pay attention to history education in this country. And it turns out that we're getting dumber when it comes to history education rather than smarter.
NNAMDISee what our audience thinks about that, 800-433-8850. Do our current debates about public policy include enough insights from history as far as you're concerned? 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to email@example.com. W.E.B. DuBois once famously said that the problem of the 20th century was the problem of the color line. But in the era of a black president, some people today believe we're living in a post-racial world, and they portray attempts to explore black history or ethnic studies as a kind of divisiveness, a kind of Balkanization of American history.
NNAMDIYou'll be speaking this evening at Busboys & Poets about what our kids are not learning. What aren't they learning that they should be?
MUHAMMADWell, the easiest topic to teach young people today, in terms of the country that we appreciate and validate, particularly in terms of Obama's success, President Obama's success, and this almost fanatical belief that race is no longer an animating topic in American society is evidence produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center last year, a research report called "Teaching the Movement." The point of the report was to study all 50 states to look at their curriculum requirements on civil rights history.
MUHAMMADThey observed two findings. One, in a 2010 national standards test given to 12th graders across the country, only 2 percent passed the test. It was a simple test asking them to interpret the meaning of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. So what, Kojo, you and I might take for granted as basic information that helps to explain and understand the world we actually live in, most of our children across the nation don't have a clue.
MUHAMMADSecondarily, what they found is that their cluelessness is tied in directly to what isn't being taught in our nation's schools from one coast to the other. And that is to say that 19 states required absolutely no teaching of the civil rights movement. Another 16 received failing grades for such minimal requirements that their raw score was no better than 15 percent out of 100. And the best states, including -- New York state, for example, received a passing score of a 70 percent. In other words, they got an A.
MUHAMMADSo this is just one recent study that gives us something tangible as evidence of a broader move in this country, I would argue, that has been going on for the past 45 to 50 years since the end of the civil rights movement to ensure that history would not be a tool of empowerment, to ensure that history would not animate the social movements that had changed the world in that point. It didn't happen overnight, but it most certainly happened over time and not in an unintentional way.
NNAMDIMore about that tonight, 7 p.m., Busboys & Poets, 14th and V Streets northwest with Khalil Gibran Muhammad. He is director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. 800-433-8850 is the number to call. If you'd like to join the conversation, what lessons from history should we be heeding as we debate issues like criminal justice, immigration or, for that matter, foreign policy? 800-433-8850. The Schomburg Center is a unique institution on a number of levels.
NNAMDIIt's a collection of documents that's world renowned, but it's also an important local institution in Harlem. As a practicing historian, you must be a little bit like a kid in a candy store with so many primary documents at your disposal.
MUHAMMADI am, but I'm like a kid in a candy store that has been tethered to a pole.
MUHAMMADAnd that pole is my desk, which keeps me very busy. So I'm not able just yet to find that right balance between administering the business of the Schomburg Center and...
NNAMDIAnd practicing your craft as a historian.
NNAMDIYou were seen as a non-conventional pick to lead the Schomburg two years ago. You didn't hear -- you didn't hail from Harlem or New York City. You were considerably younger than many other candidates. We know how that works in academic politics. You do have an interesting pedigree. You're the great-grandson of Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam. You're the son of Ozir Muhammad, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer. Tell us how you arrived at the Schomburg.
MUHAMMADA phone call on a random day two summers ago, asking me if I was interested in becoming director, and a series of interviews, some research on my own behalf and others, vouching for my vision. I think that it certainly mattered that they wanted someone who could bring in a new generation of supporters of the Schomburg Center. My predecessor, who officially now is in the D.C. area as the dean of library sciences at Howard University, built that institution into what it is today: a performing arts venue, an international cultural center, a place of international research and engagement.
MUHAMMADBut I think the idea was that the new face of the Schomburg Center would perhaps bridge the gap between the black arts movement or the black nationalist politics of the '60s and the hip-hop generation, in whatever way we want to define a hip-hop generation. And so I had an advantage in terms of my age. It was not a detriment to getting this appointment. But I think they also wanted someone with a strong voice who could articulate the necessity for a cultural institution dedicated to collection, preservation, interpretation.
MUHAMMADKeep in mind that the larger framework for the humanities has been under attack. It's happening in higher education, but it's also happening in a culture that increasingly privileges technology over the arts and humanities. And so there's a tremendous tension everywhere we look between what the public's fear is willing to invest in when it -- when it -- when we talk about future growth. And so the Schomburg Center certainly needed someone who was willing to use their voice to advocate for history writ large.
NNAMDIWell, we're going to face -- you dealt first with the geographic, and then you dealt with the generational. We'll deal with both of them. Here's Al in Washington, D.C., who wants to deal with the geographic. Al, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALI had a question. I'm originally from Harlem, and I go up there sometimes. And I've noticed that there's a lot of interest in black history on the street. Like, if you go, you know, down 125th Street, there's a lot of -- I guess you'd call them street scholars who are young and interested. But how do you connect them? You know, 'cause also a lot of the information isn't, you know, 100 percent verifiable or, you know, based on real scholarship. How do you connect them to what you're trying to do?
NNAMDIYou know, that's probably one of the reasons you were brought there in the first place. I mean, there's a place that's open to the public that you can actually read the letters of Malcolm X instead of reading a book about the letters of Malcolm X. Following up on Al's question, how do you make that accessible?
MUHAMMADWell, Harlem is the birth place of black arts and letters in this country, certainly in the modern period. And so what you are seeing are echoes of that tradition of the soapbox preachers, the organic intellectuals that populate that community. And it's not a surprise then that the Schomburg itself is home to that area. Many people stood on the corner of 135th Street, from Marcus Garvey to Malcolm X to Langston Hughes, debating the politics of their day.
MUHAMMADAnd so I don't necessarily have to do anymore than keep the lights on to make those people part of that institution and part of that neighborhood. To me, the challenge is not only ensuring that young people that grow up in that community know that they're welcome at the Schomburg, and so that they don't become 40- and 50-somethings who I meet occasionally, who say, with some embarrassment, I've never been to the Schomburg Center. I mean, that would be a travesty under my watch.
MUHAMMADAnd so I need to make it a coming-of-age experience, not so much for those street vendors who know of the Schomburg and who are, in a sense, proselytizing others into the world of black history, but to make sure the kids in those neighborhoods know that there is this world-class institution right in their very backyards.
NNAMDIThe neighborhood you're going to be in tonight at 14th and V Street is just off of U Street, which is similar to Harlem in that regard in D.C. Harlem was not the only place where Langston Hughes walked around with a parrot on his shoulder. He was also here in D.C. Also, Zora Neale Hurston, the place you'll be performing -- you'll be speaking at tonight is right across the street from another place called Eatonville, which is named after, of course, the home of Zora Neale Hurston.
NNAMDISo there's a lot of history there from the geographic to the generational. Some people describe you as coming from the hip-hop generation of scholars. You came of age during the drug war. You've talked about how the Rodney King incident and the O.J. Simpson trial affected your outlook and your academic focus. I'm curious about what historical documents you think are most important for understanding the black experience in the '80s, '90s and on to the 21st century.
MUHAMMADI don't know if it's a document that I would focus on. I think I would like to call out the over-reliance on statistical data as a way of understanding reality. We have become, as a society, over-reliant on numbers to communicate with one another. And to the extent that the Rodney King beating and acquittal of those officers, as well as the O.J. Simpson trial, ushered in a new awareness and consciousness about the criminalization of black men and the flaws within our larger criminal justice system, statistics have been, at the very beginning, part of that criminalization process.
MUHAMMADAnd so we are tethered to a history of talking about black people as criminals, of counting their bodies in prison and enumerating their local arrest rates as a way of questioning whether black people should have the rights and privileges to move freely in our society as their white counterparts. And that process of questioning tied to statistics has been in place since the end of the reconstruction period, at the birth of Jim Crow, right up through the 21st century.
NNAMDISo you're saying we should use another way of understanding life in the African-American community. And you've spoken about wanting to secure the papers of people like Mos Def and Kanye West and other icons from hip-hop. And I'm just wondering if, in the same way as we could see some parts of the 20th century through the eyes of Paul Robeson or Harry Belafonte or Billie Holiday or Josephine Baker, if, in the same way, we can see the late 20th century and the 21st century also through the eyes of those kinds of cultural icons.
MUHAMMADOh, absolutely. I don't think that all cultural icons leave behind the same paper trail from which we can reconstruct the relationship between their biography and their craft. But I think we have to be mindful that this generation -- let's call them hip-hop artists and entertainers -- deserve the same seriousness and thoughtfulness in approaching the impact and legacy of their work as is true of men like Harry Belafonte, who, of course, memoir is out. He will be at the Schomburg Center this week.
MUHAMMADI mean, so we don't want to look back on this time, and the Schomburg all of a sudden say, we didn't collect their papers. We didn't welcome them into this place and look at the impact that they had. It's very difficult for people, in the moment in which they are living, to sometimes appreciate the work and the genius of people who walk among them.
NNAMDIA lot of people want to talk to you, so let's go to Josh in Columbia, Md. Josh, your turn.
JOSHHi, Kojo. I'm a first-time caller, long-time listener. And I was actually a history major in college. And one thing that I often -- in my freshman year, when I walked in, is that I would talk about things that I had learned in my high school history courses and have my professor correct me because of the fact that high school history often focuses mainly on the statistical facts, whereas, in college, you start finding that you don't really pay much attention to that.
JOSHIn fact, in one of my German imperial politics courses, we just went over statistics in a Wikipedia page in the first day and then went on to talk about sources and topics that caused these statistics or caused these events. And it's become a major deficiency in the American public education system that they haven't been able to move past that -- the statistical data.
NNAMDICare to comment on that, Khalil?
MUHAMMADNo. I think his example is -- perfectly illustrates what isn't happening for our kids, which is to say that context is everything. Statistics are a way of simplifying complex social phenomena in reality. They are a shorthand, crib notes, and so if we think about the problem of teaching to the test, which No Child Left Behind gave us, if we talk about shrinking public's fear through the disinvestment in tax dollars in education in general, we have competitive grant-making now that shapes federal education policy.
MUHAMMADIf we think about the challenges of arts educators and after-school programs, people who I work with closely in the Harlem community -- but I imagine here in D.C., the same is true. They're struggling for dollars -- it is partly out of that constriction that statistics themselves have basically corporatized how we explain phenomenon. In other words, statistics are part of a way of understanding the success and failure of, what we say, measurable outcomes.
MUHAMMADBut the problem is that those measurable outcomes are themselves reducing the humanity of people. So, for me, teaching history is always about the context, about the interpretation about the past, about the messiness and complexity of the past. And statistics don't do a good job helping us to understand that.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Khalil Gibran Muhammad. He is director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. He'll be, at seven o'clock tonight, at Busboys & Poets at 14th and V Street Northwest. But he's here right now, and so are you. So hold on if you've already called. We'll get to your phone calls.
NNAMDIJosh, thank you very much for your call. In case the lines are busy, send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Khalil Gibran Muhammad. He is author of the book "The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America." Since 2010, he has been director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. He joins us in studio to talk about making history accessible and why that is both important and necessary.
NNAMDIWe're inviting your participation in the conversation at 800-433-8850. We move on to Faisal in Spring Field, Va. Faisal, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Faisal, are you there?
NNAMDIYes. You're now on the air, Faisal. Go ahead, please.
FAISALYou know, I have two quick comments, actually. One is more relevant to black Americans in the United States, and that's about the (unintelligible). If we look at the amount of arrests and the amount of criminal rates that are going on, it mostly targets black Americans. And that's really unfair because it sends non-violent people into jails, and they come out violent criminals. You know, and that's really unfair.
FAISALIf they -- you can compare it to the alcohol prohibitions that went on. You know, it created mobsters, and it created bootleggers. So now we have these drug cartels and drug dealers, drug lords, which are basically doing the same thing. So instead of people just being able to do whatever they want, you know, you have killings, you know, turning non-violent people into violent criminals by sending them to jail. That's the one thing we can look at history to see and change...
NNAMDIAnd we've got the perfect person to look at it with Khalil Gibran Muhammad. So I'm going to take that part of your question, Faisal, and direct it to him because, for years, scholars and public policy advocates have pointed to huge racial disparities in the way the war on drugs is enforced. In your academic work, you have explored how race relations within the United States affected perceptions of crime in the United States.
NNAMDIAnd you argue that the discussion about crime within the African-American community has tended to focus on the moral flaws of blacks, whereas we tend to see structural causes for crime in white communities.
MUHAMMADThat's right. I appreciate the caller's use of the Prohibition (word?) because it perfectly illustrates this double standard. So for much of the early history in this country of urbanization and crime and poverty, you had big cities developing in the late 19th century: Chicago, Philadelphia, New York. And those cities were really overly concerned about the presence of European immigrants. Well, one consequence of that concern and anxiety was to develop and to coordinate a series of progressive responses.
MUHAMMADTheodore Roosevelt, as you recall, carried the moniker of a progressive Republican -- I mean, of a progressive president, although he was a Republican, but, in a sense, the response to high rates of crime and poverty, even before we get to the Prohibition period, was met by robust social intervention: child welfare laws, laws against political corruption, police reform.
MUHAMMADThe advocacy community, in a sense, decriminalized these groups, European immigrants, against the tie of nativists and eugenicists who were arguing that Southern and Eastern European people -- people from Italy, Polish Catholics, Greeks, Russian Jews -- were unworthy of American racial stock.
MUHAMMADAnd that's an important point because the foundation of, in a sense, our social work community and our criminal justice apparatus, outside of the South, was really focused on humanizing people and jettison statistics as evidence of their pathology, but really focusing on statistics as symptomatic of their oppression, of the fact that we lived in a capitalist society that did not reward everyone equally.
MUHAMMADThe prohibition movement really represents the culmination of the set of forces when we ultimately see that moral crusades targeting behavior failed miserably. And the evidence of that failure was its impact on violence among, primarily white and, to some degree, white ethnic communities. Ultimately, the nation reversed course. I mean, if you really just think about what it took to get a constitutional amendment to criminalize alcohol and then another constitutional amendment to reverse course, shows you that, in a sense, white America was too big to fail when it came to alcohol.
MUHAMMADBut the same did not hold true for African-Americans. It didn't hold true as early as the same moment when blacks start moving, in very small numbers, to these very same cities. They were left to be -- to fend for themselves, and their criminality was not explained by the same symptoms of capitalist inequality, plus a little racism to boot, but, in fact, were blamed because these people had been slaves, because these people hailed from primitive cultures that had not yet experienced civilization.
MUHAMMADAnd, therefore, a black thief, robber or murderer was fundamentally different than a white thief, robber or murderer, and set in motion a set of double practices, two parallel tracks diverging around race that, in effect, humanized and eventually created pathways of mobility for white Americans and created ghettoes and stagnation for most poor and working-class black communities.
NNAMDINot to mention jails because black people are far more likely to enter the criminal justice system, even though they are no more likely to actually use or sell drugs. But something funny seems to be happening in that these ideas are actually beginning to gain traction in mainstream policy circles. New York eliminated the mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses known as the Rockefeller laws back in 2009.
NNAMDIThe nation is now saying that penalties for crack cocaine and powder cocaine should not be as different as they are. Why do you think some of these ideas are beginning to gain traction in mainstream policy circles?
MUHAMMADWell, the most consistent rallying point for achieving real political change around the mass incarceration has been the budget crunch. So, to the extent that we have seen how much states poured into building their incarceration capacity over the past 20 years, we know for a fact that in many states that incarceration growth outpaced higher education dollars. But that was OK in the late 1990s and for much of the 2000s until 2000 -- the decade of 2000 until we experienced this most recent recession.
MUHAMMADAnd so now money has gotten tight at the state level. The federal government is not showing a whole lot of movement in terms of its policies. But states are definitely reconsidering how expensive it is to use mass incarceration as a first-line response to social inequality.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones. Here now is Daniel in Herndon, Va. Daniel, you're on the air with Khalil Gibran Muhammad. Go ahead, please.
MR. DANIEL RHODEHi. Kojo, this is Daniel Rhode. (sp?) Thank you for having me on the show. It's an honor.
RHODEWell, my name is -- well, sorry. Well, I'm a 20-year-old college student, and I'm studying pre-law. And I'm wondering whether I should major in English or history. And I was wondering what kind of (word?) my generation might be able to draw to go into history and how relevant it might seem 'cause you mentioned Rodney King and racial events that really haven't happened in our own lifetime.
NNAMDIWell, you're talking to a gentleman who, it is my understanding, studied to be an accountant before he went into history. So he can tell you what motivated him. Is it true you were going to be Khalil the clerk?
MUHAMMADWell, I was certainly going to be...
NNAMDIKhalil, head of accounting.
MUHAMMADI was definitely going to be a CPA, not a clerk, but a CPA. Well, it just struck me that, in that moment, when I had to decide what to do with my life, that I wanted to learn and be more engaged in social justice issues than in auditing the financial statements of publicly traded companies. So in that regard, it was really about being passionate about a set of issues that Rodney King and, in this instance, O.J. Simpson helped to lay bare before my eyes.
MUHAMMADTo the caller's question, I think that you -- first of all, I'd say that, if you are living in certain communities in this country, Rodney King incidents are happening daily. So a young man in New York City, for example, was literally killed in his own bathroom about a month ago when a police officer thought that he was dealing drugs and then assumed that he had a gun on him. Well, he did have a small amount of marijuana on him, not deserving of capital punishment.
MUHAMMADHe did not have a gun, but the officer kicked in his door, went into his bathroom and shot him dead in front of his 6-year-old brother and his grandmother. So I would say to the caller's characterization that issues around police brutality and unjustifiable murder -- Oscar Grant, for example, was killed just a few years ago. I mean, we could go on and on in that regard. The world hasn't changed much.
MUHAMMADAnd, in fact, what is more troubling today is the lack of appreciation for what this says about the quality of life for people who are trapped in the most marginal dispossessed communities, that they, in fact, for many people, deserve a form of policing that doesn't hold true for more privileged or white communities in rural America that have similar rates of poverty but don't have the same presence of an oppressive police force.
NNAMDIDaniel, thank you very much for your call. My first job out of high school also was that of an audit clerk. It's a noble profession. Some people think I should have stayed in it. We got this email from Bill, who says, "Please have your guest talk about the recent flat in Arizona over Mexican-American-Chicano studies in the context of the study of African-American history in the U.S."
MUHAMMADIt's frightening. It may be the canary in the coal mine in this regard. African-Americans are still, I mean, in a relative sense, a privileged class when it comes to acknowledging some very basic narrative of the journey from enslavement to freedom, to segregation, to a black president. So there's at least a kind of lingua franca that says that, at some distant point in the past, some people made some bad decisions, and we ended up with all of these black people who were considered property, so on and so forth.
MUHAMMADAnd now, look at the world we live in. Isn't this great? Well, that's a better position than even the situation of Mexican-Americans in the Southwest right now because, in effect, their history is being completely rejected as being part of the meta-narrative about American history. And so what we saw in the criminalization of ethnic studies, the La Raza...
NNAMDIThe Arizona State Legislature in 2010 passed a law outlawing an ethnic studies program in the Tucson school district, yes.
MUHAMMADIf you listen closely to the language of those who articulated why ethnic studies was to be banned, it was a rehash of the culture wars of the 1980s, of the McCarthy era and the 1950s, of early anti-immigrant movements in the early 20th century, describing these people who were teaching Mexican-American history, Chicano history, the history of Mexican people and the ownership of that land that America claimed in the mid-19th century as anti-American, as anti-white, as racist, as disqualifying these people from claiming to be real teachers.
MUHAMMADI mean, it's very vocal. It's very harsh. It's very aggressive language. And it was effective. And the problem is that when you don't have common narratives of history, even if they're complicated, even if they don't make everyone feel good, if you don't do that work from the earliest possible day, then people are vulnerable to the kind of more aggressive critiques that really grow out of a very emotional response, a very populist and negative view of these individuals that has nothing to do with the actual facts on the ground.
NNAMDIKhalil Gibran Muhammad, I'm afraid we're out of time. He is director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library, author of the book "The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America." He will be appearing tonight at 7 p.m. -- well, the reception starts at six -- at Busboys & Poets, 14th and V Street Northwest. Thank you so much for joining us. Good luck to you.
MUHAMMADThank you very much for having me on the show.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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