Feb. 17 2010 12:00 AM

‘History Detective’ Zuberi comes to downtown library




For a sociology professor, Tukufu Zuberi really gets around.

While plumbing the origins of hip hop, the dapper sleuth of PBS’ “History Detectives” went to the Bronx apartment where young DJ Kool Herc lived. He drove to a bar in Reno to find out whether a bell on the wall rang at a 1919 Joe Louis bout. He may yet plop down in your kitchen and blow your mind with some family history you never knew.

Zuberi is the perfect person to expound on the joys of public libraries, which he’ll do at Lansing’s downtown branch Saturday, Feb. 20, as part of an African-American history event.

“We have all these devices, from TV to computers to these itty-bitty pocket phones,” Zuberi said in an itty-bitty pocket phone interview last week. “They’re great providers of information, but
they don’t necessarily lead to knowledge, let alone wisdom.”

For that, he said, we need libraries.

“We need a space of contemplation,” he said. Not to mention free access to books, music, DVDs and proprietary information you can’t Google.

“You can take a book, sit down in a space,and enjoy the process of reading,” Zuberi said. “It’s an intimate thing. Reading is a very underrated activity.”

With “History Detectives” in its seventh season, fans give Zuberi less of a chance for solitary contemplation, but he doesn’t mind.

“I love it when people recognize me or want to talk to me about the work that we’re doing,” he said. “That is a beautiful thing.”

By day, Zuberi is the chairman of the sociology department at the University of Pennsylvania, where his scholarly idol, W.E.B. Du Bois, did ground-breaking research but never got his own office, owing to pervasive racism.

Zuberi is a noted scholar with several books to his name, but he’s grateful for the TV gig for getting him out of the ivory tower. “The show is based on people opening their doors, letting us come in and sharing some part of their private life with us,” he said.

Last season, Zuberi relished an encounter with Brooklyn artist Garfield Gillings, who stumbled upon the original metal printing plates for the hit Duke Ellington song “Take the ‘A’ Train” (written by Ellington’s collaborator Billy Strayhorn).

Zuberi found out Gillings was a Dumpster diver. “It’s a part of who he was,” Zuberi said. “As an artist, he would go and find things, and a beautiful process it is.”

Zuberi’s modus operandi, as in the Ellington segment, is to link a dramatic personal story (hey, these plates you found are the real deal) with a larger historical theme (Duke Ellington was the first major jazz musician to control the rights to his music), folding in a fascinating side-story or two (the economics of running a big band and the unusual creative relationship between Ellington and Strayhorn).

Zuberi said TV lets him share the joy of finding things out, whether he’s riding the A Train or on the A-to-Ain shelf in the library, and he’s getting as much as he gives.

“I am better able to understand people and our world by this invitation into people’s lives,” he said.

Tukufu Zuberi

History Showcase 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20 Downtown Lansing Library 401
S. Capitol Ave. Free Follows Michigan State University geography
professor Morris Thomas 11:30 a.m.-12:20 p.m. (517) 367-6393