Dr. Khalil Muhammad Visits TC ☆
by Eric Strome
On Wednesday, April 24th the Arts & Humanities Department hosted Dr. Khalil
Muhammad, who presented “Grand Simplification: Historical Illiteracy in the Age
of Mass Incarceration” as the second public lecture of the Educating Harlem series.
Formerly a professor within the Africana Studies Department of Indiana University, Dr.
Muhammad is now the Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
at the New York Public Library.
Speaking to a packed house, Dr. Muhammad briefly reviewed the history of the
Schomburg collection and the central importance of the library in general to the
intellectual ferment of both Harlem and black culture. Citing Lewis Lapham’s claim
in “Ignorance of Things Past” that Americans have “a wonderful talent for grand
simplification,” Dr. Muhammad made an unimpeachable case for the significance
of history, archival work, and the Schomburg center in undoing at least a century of
historical oversimplification of the black experience in America.
Turning to his scholarly work, Dr. Muhammad argued forcefully that in our era of “Big
Data” truth claims relying upon statistical evidence are mistaken for the truth itself, and
that this may be the most pernicious version of that American talent for simplification.
Especially significant in the context of race and its portrayal, Dr. Muhammad argued
that the racialized presentation of crime statistics “elides meaningful knowledge” and
pretends that the numbers speak for themselves, relieving the burden of interpretation.
Beginning with the 1890 census, moving through the 1930 Uniform Crime Statistics, and
resting at our current moment, Dr. Muhammad demonstrated how “a political economy
of criminality preceded the statistical ratification and perpetuation of criminality” such
that turn of the twentieth century crime statistics were taken as proof of black racial
inferiority meriting a punitive response. This stands in stark contrast to the response at
the very same time to statistics on white criminality, which were taken as evidence for
the need of progressive policies to avoid the pitfalls of urbanization and industrialization.
This difference in interpretation of crime statistics by race has become conventional
wisdom in contemporary discourse, and for Dr. Muhammad “nothing stands in the way
but commitment and effort” of what public history can do to complicate such simplicities.
Dr. Muhammad was also kind enough to participate in a graduate student discussion
before his lecture that was nearly as full as the lecture itself. Students from the History
and Education, English Education, Music Education, Art Education, and Social
Studies programs joined others from the School of Social Work and the Campaign for
Educational Equity for an informal discussion including the role graduate students might
have in public history, research opportunities within the Schomburg collection, and both
ongoing and future projects in Harlem.
All told, it was a great event and the post lecture conversations were ended only by
another group needing to use the space; no doubt they will continue in
the work of all who attended.