Khalil Gibran Muhammad defies classification: A historian by training, he currently directs the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library, which is how he first gained the notice of Schlesinger Library staff members. What his librarian colleagues couldn’t have known when they invited him to deliver a Radcliffe lecture, though, is that Muhammad had a future at Harvard: late last year, Harvard Kennedy School and the Radcliffe Institute announced that he had been appointed a professor of history, race, and public policy and a Suzanne Young Murray Professor, respectively. He will join Harvard in his new role on July 1. The Radcliffe professorship brings with it two fellowship years at the Radcliffe Institute—an enticement that helps Harvard’s recruitment.
It’s been a nontraditional path to Harvard for this respected public intellectual, who began his working career with a two-year stint as a public accountant, as he told a group of Harvard students during an organized lunch on the track level of the Knafel Center. After completing a doctoral degree in history at Rutgers, he landed at the Vera Institute of Justice, which—with a staff chiefly composed of practitioners—would influence his academic path. “It demonstrated to me firsthand how useful history can be in offering context and questioning core assumptions in the criminal justice reform space in the early 2000s,” he said.
After his time at the Vera Institute, Muhammad joined the faculty at Indiana University. While there, he researched and wrote his first book, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern America, published by Harvard University Press in 2011, shortly after he became the Schomburg Center’s director. The book, which won the American Studies Association’s John Hope Franklin Publication Prize, looks at the history of social science research to show how the quantification of data has led to misleading assumptions about the potential of the races.
It was the enduring importance of this research that Muhammad highlighted in his lecture at the Radcliffe Institute, “How Numbers Lie: Intersectional Violence and the Quantification of Race.”
Two Schlesinger Library staff members had been introduced to his archival work at the Schomburg Center when he organized a workshop titled “The State of Black Research Collections.” Long concerned with diversifying its holdings, the Schlesinger reached out to Muhammad, leading to a partnership that culminated in his recent visit, which included his lecture, the student lunch, and meetings with two library committees devoted to diversity. As Jane Kamensky, the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library, said during her introduction of his lecture, “Our invitation was part of an ongoing process of strategic planning to widen the diversity and deepen the inclusiveness of our archival collections.”
Muhammad Meets and Greets Harvard Students
At lunchtime on the day of Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s lecture, students from several Harvard schools and programs gathered over lunch to hear about his life and scholarship.
Ranging from College undergraduates to master’s students and PhD candidates, attendees asked Muhammad to reflect on his path to the academy, his career at the Schomburg Center, his belief in historical literacy as a means of increasing positive policy outcomes, and his commitment to teaching beyond the classroom by partnering with local institutions for programming. “I want to disrupt elite quiet spaces by bringing the public sphere into them with more intentionality,” he told the students. Muhammad stressed that higher-education and local institutions ought to connect more, which he thinks will sustain public engagement by providing “the kind of civic literacy we need in order to have a healthier democracy.”
Muhammad also shared his hope of extending the work he began with The Condemnation of Blackness from the late 19th century well into the 20th century, asking along the way why white crime is never quantified. And he expressed his commitment to combining the studies of experience, theory, and history—a combination he finds often on college campuses. For this reason, he said, he’s glad to be returning to academia at Harvard.