A Tribute to Dr. Rudolph Byrd
On Friday, October 21, 2011 Dr. Rudolph Byrd passed away after a graceful and determined cancer battle. An academic and public servant, his writing spanned topics from African-American literature to exploring issues of contemporary of the LGBTQ community. He was a true educator in that he saw moments of possibility and transformation in every spark of conversation and opportunity for a shared experience. Rudolph strove to lead through service, to Atlanta, Emory University, and broader community through committees, task forces and initiatives well outside of the expectations of his teaching, writing, and directing the James Weldon Johnson Institute. He brought conviction and thoughtfulness to every pursuit, and all who believe in equality and justice lost a friend and comrade on Friday.
I was blessed in so many ways in my friendship and collaboration with Rudolph. He arrived at Emory University when I was an undergraduate student. I still remember the feeling of wanting to sit up a bit more and listen a bit harder whenever “Dr. Byrd” spoke. Rudolph impressed upon the force of a well made argument, even in the face of a loud response. Years later I sought him out as the Center began to take shape and he engaged me in conversation and collaboration as the Johnson Institute took shape. When he approached me regarding CNN Dialogues, I relished the chance to assist in the creation of such a publicly engaged initiative. He chaired a unique and innovative collaboration among the Center, CNN, and the James Weldon Johnson Institute. Two events into the plan, we know he left us with a winning concept. Given our varied collaborations- I’d like to say that I learned a few special things from Rudolph. These lessons are not about his writing career, which was prolific and impressive, his work bringing the Alice Walker papers to Emory, or any of his other prominent accomplishments. These are working ideals that are to his credit--just a few things I observed from our too-short time spent in the trenches together:
Process is Product-If Rudolph Byrd was at the table, your voice was going to be heard, your opinion sought, and a decision was not made until consensus had been reached and everyone could answer the question in the affirmative- “are you comfortable?”. Our present often feels rushed, hierarchical and impersonal- Rudolph was a champion for equality, purposeful engagement and time well spent. To Rudolph how we did things was as important as what we did.
In Matters of Justice, cultivate the Long View-A peek into the daily schedule of Rudolph Byrd would likely reveal some writing, meetings, events on a myriad of social justice issues, teaching and engaging students, and some quiet planning. One sample day would not reveal the tremendous gains he achieved steadily, with deliberate attention to the details and the relentless drive of a man on a mission. He fought for justice as a thinking gentleman. Each day, each conversation, each meeting added up to the life of a legend. His presence indicated a sense of urgency about his priorities, but he was never in a hurry. On many occasions, he stopped me from beginning our meeting agenda until we had taken a few moments to reconnect personally. I never seemed to learn but lucky for me he never stopped trying.
Learning is a Source of Hope-Some of our most insidious social problems were Rudolph’s daily work. His writing and teaching included harsh truths about our capacity to marginalize and violate one another, but he was a hopeful and positive person. He was not affected by fashionable cynicism or the barrage of contrary information those of us in the rights space receive every day. Rudolph gently reminded us that though the work is hard, the alternative is unthinkable, and if we let our world slide in to despair, it is our doing. He lived with the belief that we control our futures.
Comfort and knowledge of one’s self is the first step to enlightenment- Whether it was his bow tie, jauntily folded pocket handkerchiefs, melodious way of speaking or the stories he shared of his life and the way they informed his scholarship- Rudolph was an individual. I remain in awe of his ability to be one of a kind, but to have always made every person he engaged comfortable with him and themselves. Rudolph took the time to know himself, so he could engage others so deeply.
With this missive I’m adding my voice, and the voice of the Center, to the many who are bereft at the loss of a needed leader and trusted friend. May he rest in peace.