Sidebar: A Remarkable Friend, Alice Walker
August 06, 2008
Ask Pulitzer Prize–winner Alice Walker why she recently awarded her papers to Emory University, and she will tell you: “Having visited several libraries at different universities, I realized the importance to me of a lively, diverse, committed-to-human-growth atmosphere.” Walker’s description is certainly true of Emory.
However, there was an even greater push behind her decision: Rudolph Byrd. Says Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Rudolph Byrd is one of the great scholars of Walker’s work and African American literature. There is absolutely no doubt that she made this decision because of her friendship and admiration for him.”
Byrd–who regards Walker “a very wise older sister”–first encountered her books when he was a junior at Lewis & Clark. Since that day, Byrd’s impulse has been to share Walker–just as he has now done with the larger world. Back then, he started by putting her books in the hands of female family members. He talked through with them what it means to feel the goad of family histories dominated by slavery while dreaming a more hopeful future.
When he actually met Walker as part of a group lunch while he pursued his Ph.D. at Yale, the lanky six-footer could not get over what had been packed into a “relatively small vessel.” Recalls Byrd, “Even though she spoke with the authority of an adult, her voice had the qualities of a very young woman, sweet and endearing. It was a lovely sound that I hoped would never leave my head.”
He need not have worried; that lovely sound has carried through his years as a scholar. In 1997 Byrd and African American feminist scholar Beverly Guy Sheftall established the Alice Walker Literary Society as a collaborative project between Spelman College–which Walker attended for two years–and Emory.
For Byrd, the joy of helping preserve Walker’s papers is tempered by a realization of the odds that still exist against a black woman’s archive being valued. Asks Byrd in an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “And what is the value of an archive for a black Southern woman writer? In a nation whose founding documents reduced African Americans to three-fifths of a person and where African American women possessed even less constitutional significance, for Walker an archive is a means of anticipating and refuting the warping effects of racism and sexism.”