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Visible Man

August 06, 2008

Rudolph P. Byrd BA ’75, a noted African American studies scholar, has dedicated his career to exploring issues of identity.

Rarely does a town advertise its race relations from the air, as did Greenville, Texas, in the mid-20th century. Its water tower used to read: “Welcome to Greenville, Texas, home of the whitest people and the blackest soil.” Growing up in the shadow of that tower was Rudolph Byrd, who was born in 1953, the year after the publication of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

The eldest son of sharecroppers, Byrd moved at age 5 to Denver and later to one of its suburbs, Thornton. His parents strove to create educational opportunities for their five children. However, a “good” education meant that, from the sixth grade onward, Byrd would not encounter any instructors of color until he met the poet Michael S. Harper at Lewis & Clark.

“While my siblings and I did receive a better education, we received a more complicated education,” says Byrd. “Because wherever we went, we were usually the only African Americans.”

“Boy, Where Are You Going?”

Neither of Byrd’s parents shrank from obstacles. His father, Rudolph Valentino Byrd, lived up to his namesake’s legendary gaze by being unafraid to match the stare of white society. Byrd vividly recalls a time as an eighth grader when, while carrying home groceries, he was asked by a white police officer, “Boy, where are you going?” When he told his father about the incident, his father put him in the car, drove to the police station, and “denounced everyone there, saying, ‘Don’t ever stop my son again.’” Byrd recalls, “I so admired my father that day. He was free.”

The same fierce conviction of her children’s worth guided his mother, Meardis Cannon–whom Byrd describes in Traps: African American Men on Gender and Sexuality as the “first feminist I had the privilege to meet.” When the parents of a white girl refused to allow their daughter to go to a movie with Byrd, they received a phone call from his mother, who “read them the riot act.”

There were moments, though, when even his parents were caught short, when society’s fences loomed. On seeing the demeaning image of Jim Crow in a textbook, Byrd says, “I knew that it referred to me, but I didn’t fully understand it.” He asked his father to explain. After an achingly long pause, his father shrugged his shoulders, the muteness mirroring a lifetime of struggle. As he tells the story, Byrd’s voice breaks, making way for fresh tears. Regretting that he caused his father any pain, the teenage Byrd resolved that he would find answers to the fundamental questions of identity he was uncovering.

An Education Begins

By high school, Byrd had come to political consciousness, partly because of being, as he says, “a respectful student guided by my teachers to read systematically in literature and history.” Yet he also struck out on his own, dropping by the local Black Panther headquarters and collecting its materials. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. was a galvanizing event during Byrd’s first year of high school, a period in which he describes himself as “angry, bewildered, but also hopeful.”

“In college, political consciousness became a deeper preoccupation that was fueled by the possibility of my serving in the Vietnam War,” says Byrd. Although ultimately he was not called, Byrd reports that “the Vietnam War further radicalized my thinking, along with the emergence of the black power movement.” Pondering the unflinching positions on either side, Byrd grew to believe ever more deeply in dialogue and finding common ground.

Byrd’s continuing pursuit of this quest has brought him prominence as a scholar who probes deeply the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. Arnold Rampersad, the Sara Hart Kimball Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University, says of him: “He has lived to see African American studies attain a degree of respectability and influence that allows it to do its invaluable work of contributing to our deeper knowledge of American culture as a whole. Quietly but consistently, he has helped the field to attain that stature.”

Finding His Passion

Byrd headed west to Portland in a moment of teenage caprice, having learned about Lewis & Clark from a high school teacher he admired.

In the early 1970s, Lewis & Clark was still a sea of white faces. However, his teachers became colorful in at least two senses when Byrd invited Michael S. Harper to read at Lewis & Clark during Black History Month in 1973. Byrd recalls, “Professor Harper is physically a large man, and he works at being intimidating. I was intimidated but also determined to prove my worth and to demonstrate my commitment to join him one day as a colleague in the academy. Amid the dramatic monologues for which he is famous, it was apparent to me that he was sincere, caring, and interested in my welfare and future success. I was filled with admiration for him and remain so.”

Byrd also admires two longtime Lewis & Clark faculty members who influenced his studies: Susan Kirschner, senior lecturer in humanities, and John Callahan, Morgan S. Odell Professor of Humanities. With Kirschner overseeing his study of British literature and Callahan his work in American literature, Byrd was edging closer to mastery in his chosen field.

One of Byrd’s most memorable literary epiphanies at Lewis & Clark came as he read Jean Toomer’s Cane and Ellison’s Invisible Man. Through these books, which he acknowledges he found “difficult,” he was finally able to connect his personal experience with his learning. Michael S. Harper had assured Byrd that “when your personal experience catches up with your studies, that is when your education actually begins at a very deep level.”

With learning in all its forms being pure intoxication to Byrd, it is no wonder that–with generous job offers after he earned his doctorate at Yale–he chose Carleton College because of its emphasis on teaching.

Miriam Petty–now a fellow in race/ethnicity studies at Princeton University–recalls a multicultural literature course Byrd taught at Carleton. It was called Behind the Veil–a reference to W.E.B. Du Bois’ metaphor for the separation and invisibility that African Americans have experienced. Petty says that in her current work, whenever she considers questions of American identity–what happens “when we race it, class it, sex it”–she returns to what Byrd taught her.

A Champion of African American Studies

In joining Emory University’s program in African American and African studies in 1991, Byrd could have disappeared from view; he was, after all, standing in the shoes of the giant who had established the program–Dolores Aldridge, Emory’s Grace Towns Hamilton Professor of Sociology and African American Studies.

He did not fade from sight, nor did his newly inherited program. In nearly a decade as director of African American studies, Byrd increased the number of students majoring in the field and created three well-regarded study-abroad programs, with the University of the Virgin Islands, the University of the West Indies, and the University of Cape Town. Through Byrd’s efforts, Emory was invited to join the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship network, which Byrd terms “the best undergraduate research program in the country.” He also initiated the Mellon Graduate Teaching Fellowship, which provides funding and teaching experience for graduate students in their final years of training.

According to Randall Burkett, curator of African American collections at Emory’s Manuscript, Archives,& Rare Books Library, Byrd “is always about making connections, imagining possibilities, creating programs.” To Burkett’s point, Byrd has assisted his colleagues at Emory in the acquisition of the James Weldon Johnson papers, the Alice Walker archive (see article at right), and, most recently, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference archive.

An Interdisciplinary Approach to Civil Rights

The James Weldon Johnson Institute for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies is an idea that Byrd first dared dream when he arrived at Emory. He recalls, “I had many things in front of me before I could get around to a project like that. But I never lost sight of the idea.”

The mission of the institute, which was established in 2007 and which Byrd directs, is to foster new scholarship, teaching, and public dialogue focused on the origins, evolution, and legacy of the civil rights movement from 1905 to the present. The institute also examines the impact of the civil rights movement on the women’s movement, the gay and lesbian movement, and the human rights movement.

James Weldon Johnson was a figure “behind the veil,” a man who–despite staggering accomplishments in civil rights, diplomacy, education, journalism, law, literature, and music–frequently took a back seat to W.E.B. Du Bois. Henry Louis Gates Jr.–the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University–hailed Byrd’s naming of the institute for Johnson as “brilliant,” noting that “if there was a renaissance man in the Harlem Renaissance, it was certainly Johnson.”

Through its research and public programming, the Johnson Institute challenges participants to reflect on the shifting, complex meaning of race and difference in history, culture, and civil society. Partners include Morehouse College (holder of the Martin Luther King collection), the Atlanta History Center, the Carter Center, and the much-anticipated Center for Civil and Human Rights, which will open in 2010.

The Pull of ‘Push’

Despite the gentility that so many see in him, Byrd has never shied away from the concept that there are sharp edges to learning. Some semesters, that means teaching Alice Walker’s By the Light of My Father’s Smile and getting a reluctant student to “see the world from the perspective of a lesbian.” As he wrote in 2002, “All great universities are always about the difficult and unpopular work of uncomfortable learning, by which I mean the examination of positions and texts which challenge and defy our core beliefs.”

Unlike many people asked to summarize their legacy, Byrd needs but four words: “a commitment to push.” As long as he is teaching courses that didn’t exist when he was a student, he will push. As long as he is “encountering students who never have had an opportunity to discuss African American literature or difference or race in relation to power,” he will push. It is the only way that fences are moved.

Susan Carini is executive director of Emory Creative Group at Emory University in Atlanta.

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