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Howard Dodson: 25 Years of Leadership at Schomburg Center
By Joan Baum, Ph.D.

At the helm for over 25 years of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture — not just the country’s, but the world’s premier institution of its kind — Howard Dodson Jr. will hardly be retiring when he steps down from his position as director. When pressed though, as to where he will next take his formidable learning, his articulation of the significance of the African experience in American history and culture, and his dedication to improving the education of the nation’s teachers as well as students, he coyly smiles. It’s not yet time to say. But for sure, his passion and energy will not diminish.

Meanwhile, he’s enjoying the gala-filled period between his announcement that he will be leaving the center and, he hopes, the assumption of other possible transformative positions. A breakthrough conference, The State of African American and African Diaspora Studies: Methodology, Pedagogy and Research, organized by Dr. Colin Palmer, director of the Schomburg’s distinguished Scholars in Residence program, which Dodson inaugurated, paid tribute earlier this month to Dodson’s work and legacy. The star-studded two-day celebration, which brought together leading education and political leaders from around the country and several international representatives, took place at the Schomburg Center and at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York, co-sponsor of the conference. On January 24, in honor of the birthday of Schomburg founder, Arturo Alfonso (Arthur) Schomburg, and continuing the Dodson celebrations, the center will hold a special fundraiser for its Junior Scholars Program for 11- to 17-year-olds, another Dodson initiative and one of several devoted to encourage younger people to take advantage of the center’s holdings.

In looking back on his professional life as an activist educator, Howard Dodson describes his career as a series of self-imposed assignments that began a long time ago when he was in high school in Chester, Penn. A youngster who excelled academically, he loved learning, but one day discovered its perils when a group of fellow students ganged up on him and tried to pressure him not to do so well on exams. Well, more than pressure — they were bullying him, and he found himself carrying a knife, he confesses — “this is the first time I’ve told this to anyone.” He wavered. When they came at him again, however, the moment became climactic. He held firm, he would not give wrong answers on tests, and he would not use his weapon. He would arm himself with more significant tools and try to change the playing field, try to make academic turf more engaging for teachers and for students Not that his own intellectual achievements were too easy but rather than he began to feel that the quality of education being offered to blacks was not challenging or inclusive enough.

Dodson has never taken his eyes off the primary need to improve education for new generations of African-Americans by way of inspiring them to know about and appreciate their history and culture. To that purpose, he turned the Schomburg into a jewel in the crown for the retrieval, preservation, interpretation and dissemination of black culture by expanding the center’s collections of books, manuscripts and artifacts and exhibiting them there, and online. Under his leadership the physical space at Lenox & 135th Street was reconstituted as a 75,000 square-foot complex and made digital friendly. The mission was also reinforced and enhanced by way of traveling exhibitions and collaborations with various organizations that focus on black studies as well as on ethnic and gender studies.

An inkling as to what the future may hold for Dodson may be intuited from his continuing research into how textbooks deal with the Black Experience, including the “mind-boggling” fact that black studies may have improved since the 1970s, but the “vast majority of schools, colleges and universities still do not make the African-American experience a core element” of their curricula. An occasional survey course in literature or history on “the oldest people in the human family” is hardly adequate, he says. Though the 1980s saw improvement in addressing these needs, thanks particularly to organizations such as Interracial Books for Children, subsequent analysis of new history texts around the country, a study which Dodson spearheaded, revealed disappointing so-called progress: paragraphs on blacks, women and The Civil War were merely added at the end of chapters, not integrated into main discussions. The same old chapter contents, particularly as these related to militarism, colonial times, religion, and immigration, remained the same, with this remarkable observation: The Irish, the Italians, for instance, “mysteriously became white” once they were here for a while. Significant Pause.

Ironically, though, as Dodson notes, some of the immigrant groups covered in the textbooks still suffer from stereotyping. The Scotch-Irish, for example, are said to have made for the frontier because it was a natural move for a “ruffian” immigrant population. But wait a minute! Of course they made for the frontier, East Coast opportunities were all taken! The 1980s might have produced “more sophisticated texts,” Dodson concludes, with a knowing play on words, but “the master narrative has not changed.” Carter G. Woodson founded Black History Week (now Black History Month) in 1926, but where are the facts he uncovered?

Howard Dodson, Jr. has a degree in social studies and secondary education from West Chester State College, a Master’s in history and political science from Villanova, and studied in the doctoral studies program at the University of California at Berkeley. He served for two years in the Peace Corps in Ecuador and is a much-published author of books and articles. It’s inevitable that in his so-called retirement he will be pursuing with passion and fervor “the structures of advocacy” as these might link funding for education with the economic purposes of schooling, especially for those hitherto underserved. #



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