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Rudolph Byrd: A Serious To-Do List

By Susan Carini 04G

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Rudolph Byrd

Emory Photo/Video

“There’s never enough time.” It’s a cliché, but one with the hard glint of truth. Leave it to Rudolph Byrd to put the lie to that idea.

When Byrd—Goodrich C. White Professor of American Studies and founder of Emory’s James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference—died on October 21, 2011, he had a darn good case for the not-enough-time argument. An indefatigable scholar and community builder, Byrd at 58 was racing through midlife, logging accomplishments faster than they could be counted or praised, his urgency fueled by an eleven-year battle with multiple myeloma. As his Johnson Institute Associate Director Calinda Lee observes, “Rudolph did a lifetime of work after being diagnosed with myeloma. He came to terms with it, but he never succumbed.”

Twenty years ago, Byrd arrived from the University of Delaware to join Emory’s African American studies program as an assistant professor. He might have chosen to make solid contributions there but never to stray. However, he had much broader ambitions, some of which stem—according to Provost Earl Lewis—from a never-diminished consciousness that he had grown up black in America after World War II. Byrd was a native of Greenville, Texas, where the water tower used to read: “Welcome to Greenville, Texas, home of the whitest people and the blackest soil.”

Byrd was a bridge builder without equal. As his career progressed, he made clear his debt to those who had gone before him—figures such as Jean Toomer, Sterling Brown, and James Weldon Johnson. Being a teacher is a natural bridge, but Byrd deliberately pushed that element as far as he could. “He wanted his students to receive the wisdom from the masters,” says his longtime friend Ingrid Saunders Jones of The Coca-Cola Company. “From Rudolph’s perspective, it would help them negotiate life better, as he felt it had done for him.” And through scholarly relationships of extraordinary depth and productivity, he also reached forward, collaborating with—among others—Henry Louis Gates Jr., Alice Walker, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, and Johnnetta Cole.

After directing African American studies for nine years in the 1990s and seeing it to a point of envy nationwide, authoring a raft of carefully crafted books and articles, and doing much to support the Mellon Mays Fellowship Program, Byrd got his second wind.

His pièce de résistance is the Johnson Institute, established in 2004. Its mission could be considered courageous by any standards—promoting the study of civil rights, human rights, race, and social justice—but the more so for taking root at a Southern institution. He and Guy-Sheftall established the Alice Walker Literary Society, and—in a development that left the reserved Byrd giddy—he was part of a team that convinced Pulitzer Prize―winning author Alice Walker to donate her papers to Emory.

At the time of his death, Byrd’s project roster was full and his doctors, friends, family, and partner resigned to the inevitable: nothing could slow him down. To wit, he had just established CNN Dialogues—a partnership of the Johnson Institute, CNN, and the Center for Civil and Human Rights. Byrd wrote, “CNN Dialogues is a community forum that aims to highlight diverse ideas and perspectives on the most significant issues and events shaping our time. It is a place where we address shared challenges and concerns to foster a dialogue of learning, understanding, and hope.” He was also authoring a biography of Ernest Gaines and planning to deliver a series of lectures at Harvard titled “Other Voices within the Veil: The Emergence of the Black Queer Subject in Twentieth-Century African American Literature and Culture.”

And here, finally, is the point about Byrd’s time: in many ways, it continues. Johnnetta Cole, for instance, will deliver those Harvard lectures in 2012. Indeed, no one would dare stop any of the initiatives he was pursuing, and for two reasons.

First, their impact is profound. As Emory College Dean Robin Forman—a relative newcomer to the university’s ranks—says, “So much of what I find compelling about Emory can be traced to Rudolph’s efforts. His was a mind and a presence to be reckoned with. He recognized that ideas shape communities and change lives.” Second, let’s be practical: few people said no to Byrd. “Behind all of his eloquence and grace, Rudolph could be extremely forceful,” Forman says. “Ultimately, it was impossible not to want to work as hard as he worked and to give as much as he gave.”

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