This must be the season for giants to be laid to rest.
I was still working on refining the 4,000 words I had already written about the moments Law Professor Derrick A. Bell and I shared and the impact of his presence upon me, when I received a phone call on October 3 that would change my life, again. This time it was from my BFF, Tiyi Morris, telling me that our mentor and advisor, Dr. Rudolph P. Byrd, had taken medical leave of Emory University due to losing his battle with (multiple myeloma) cancer and was home receiving “palliative care.” I had to look up the word “palliative” in the dictionary, although I sensed it meant a horrible conclusion, however so defined.
I was given a link to a blog wherein we could write our farewells to Dr. Byrd, as phone calls and house visits would drain him of his energy. I wanted to rush to his side; but I had been here before and, interestingly enough, August Wilson (whom I called “Uncle Freddy”) passed away on October 2, 2005. It’s an anniversary I try hard not to think about and do not try to mark; but that sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach meant that if I did not simply accept that my great mentor was about to pass away, I would regret it forever.
So, I sat down, went to the blog address and started writing. Then I started sobbing. Then I kept writing. And sobbing. And writing. And sobbing. Saying goodbye is so hard but it clearly must be done; and more important to me than saying goodbye to Dr. Byrd was making sure that I said, “Thank You,” one last time. The previous time I had thanked him was in an email, almost a decade ago; and I will never forget that, in his response, he said HE would never forget “the goddesses that graced my life when I arrived at Emory University.”
I could go on and on about Dr. Byrd and I have, in countless impressions of him that I have performed for friends and strangers, alike. He was a wonderful, most debonair, well-dressed, dignified, “uppity Negro”and a wonderfully-spirited man, par excellence’. He didn’t walk, he glided; and I am serious about that. He had a deep, charming voice and a wonderful laugh. He nearly crushed the bones in my hand when he gave me his first handshake but he was a gentle lion and quite the caring, human being. But he most certainly demanded excellence of us as students and as scholars in the world.
And, yes, while Dr. Byrd mentored many thousands of students, those of us who were African American Studies majors at Emory University when he arrived—were the first. We were a handful of students who were provided with wonderful classroom engagement, challenging subject matter and a warm, inviting and intellectually stimulating, uber-scholastic environment that invited us to reach beyond even the immaculately marbled structures at Emory University. Dr. Byrd invited us to stretch our wings and fly. And he was most certainly the one who would hold his breath in faith that we would flap our wings or, if needed, give us a little wind to help us on our way.
If we, as students in his classroom or as majors, missed a speaker he had invited to campus or an event which he thought worthy of our attendance, we were sure to hear it from him the next time he saw us. To this day, I recall the manner in which he would seem to appear, out of nowhere, striding alongside you, furrowing his brow and saying your name with a disappointing tone, inquiring as to why you were absent from another opportunity to learn? None of us wanted the wrath of Dr. Byrd, no matter how suave, so we would simply add the lecture, the workshop, the conference, to our schedules and go. And, as usual, we were always the better for it.
Dr. Byrd was a male feminist (or, womanist) before it became popular. He also helped bring Alice Walker’s archives to Emory University. Here is his tribute to her. Even in this dedication, he is thinner than I have ever seen him. Dr. Byrd was a buff man, so seeing him become so thin and frail must have been jarring for many of the students, faculty and administrators at Emory. In some ways, I am glad I did not see him like that. I was actually looking forward to, one day, working with him at the James Weldon Johnson Institute he created and, apparently, envisioned many years ago.
Dr. Byrd taught me how to engage literature, how to teach students in a classroom, how to be objective and fair in grading while also encouraging students to reach their potential, how to think critically about everything (including African American Studies), how to invite others to become active in changing the world without being forceful and/or dictatorial, and how to honor my history and myself. I would often see him coming from the gym and was so impressed at how well he took care of himself, especially since my workout plan involved running across our expansive campus, trying not to be late for class. I was also impressed that he used Fridays as his writing days and often stood, in awe, at his enormous book collection. He chuckled when he expressed to me that he had not acquired the books “overnight” and that, given some years, mine would look like his. He was right. He gave me so much, I found it truly embarrassing to ask for anything more. And, yet, as I was doing research at Emory for my dissertation, he reminded me that there was a library fellowship for which I should apply and return, in the near future. He was just that type of person and I felt so appreciative that I had someone like him in my corner.
Indeed, Dr. Byrd was so committed to his students, he married two of them—Khalil and Anika Walker Johnson. Many of us could not have been more delighted. Dr. Byrd loved poetry and he loved love.
So, within the first 60 minutes that I found out he would soon be transitioning from this Earth, I sat down and wrote him the following letter, which ended up being too long for the blog, but was promptly sent to him by Dr. Calinda N. Lee , who confirmed for me that he did, indeed, receive it. Thank you, Dr. Lee.
I remain so thankful for the opportunity and hope that other students and friends might benefit from the sharing of what was meant to be a public (but deeply personal) farewell. I have edited my typos because, well, Dr. Byrd would have wanted me to do so:
October 3, 2011
Dear Dr. Byrd,
I am hoping that as you read this letter, you are at least not feeling any pain. I am so sorry to hear of your health challenges and am heartbroken to know you will be transitioning to another plane. I know I have not seen you as often as I would have liked over the years but please know you have and will continue to always hold a special place in my heart. When I saw you after I presented at the “Lynching and Racial [Violence]” Conference, I wanted to steal away some moments of time with you but I also saw you comforting and welcoming your guests; and I resigned myself that I should let you continue to be a great host, as you always have been.
Dr. Byrd, I will never, ever, ever forget the love and care you showed us as undergraduate students, as majors in African American Studies and as young women on campus. I remember when you wanted me to reflect more fully on a David Walker essay and your words of caution to pay attention to and grant myself a more feminist view of his and others’ writings. [These ideas] have never left me. I finally “got it” while teaching it one year and made sure my students were able to learn that for which I was not yet ready. I also remember how pleased you were that I patiently sifted through Ralph Ellison’s “Native Son” for a second class during which you were also our guest lecturer. You chose me to read aloud and I took, “theseventhsonoftheseventhson” like a champ, impressing the entire class, and we gave each other a wink, knowing I had been exposed to the literary work in your class, first. I wasn’t always the best student, though, and Tiyi, Terra, Aisha and I laugh, routinely, about how we would kick each other under our chairs whenever you called upon one of us to read aloud. Our goal was to make the person whom you chose laugh, uncontrollably, and be unable to read for you. HAHAHAHA!! I’m sorry, Dr. Byrd, but it was so much fun to disrupt our decorum. How about we consider it stress relief?
And, of course, I will never forget how you so very patiently sat with me, on the telephone, during a Winter Break, combing through my personal statement for my graduate school applications. I had to read each sentence to you over the phone and we edited the essay together without the use of fax machines, instant messaging or any technology that avails us today. I am so appreciative that you would believe in me that much to edit my work over the phone, continuing to disrupt your Winter break, as though you had not given me enough, already, during the semester. Thank you, Dr. Byrd. I know that your generosity was not and is not limited to me. Please know I have expressed this same level of generosity and consideration to my own students and mentees over the years. I know no other way to thank you than to share your love and grace.
You were a great Director of our program, I LOVED my time at Emory, thoroughly enjoyed being a Double Major in English and African American Studies and still remember how you questioned my commitment to my education when I refused to take an 8am class during my Senior Year! You were always so funny, Dr. Byrd, and always wanted to make sure we received a stellar education. I can also remember how you insisted we attend Dr. Darlene Clark-Hine’s lecture, even if we “weren’t interested in nursing.” Whew, we were so ignorant and I’m so glad we had you as our guide. I am also so thankful to you for allowing us to curate a great debate on the generational role of popular culture with none other than A. Leon Higginbotham. We were always exposed to great scholars, were well-supported as majors in African American Studies and encouraged to maintain excellence. I have always considered the faculty and staff in African American Studies at Emory to be far more akin to family than solely our professors and instructors. Thank you so much for setting a new standard and building upon the scholastic legacy provided by Dr. Deloris P. Aldridge in creating our program.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention the deep despair in knowing you have had to battle and suffer in any way. As you know, my uncle, August Wilson, transitioned from this Earth very much as you seem to be. I didn’t have much time at all to prepare, in any way, for his passing. He was diagnosed in June 2005 and was gone by October 2, 2005. And like you, he was said to have made his peace with his fate. At the risk of embarrassing myself for airing my college antics in this letter to you, I decided to move swiftly, since I did not handle his health challenges well, at all. I admire you both for how you have handled yourselves and will remember to follow in your example whenever my time comes in much the same way that I have tried (but failed) to follow your scholastic discipline and use Fridays as my writing days. I have no idea why I don’t always listen to you, I know good and well you have so many of the answers
I hope you are able to read this and that I have the opportunity to make you laugh and smile, as I so often enjoyed doing at Emory. I have recreated your laugh, your voice and your suave demeanor to others who have not had the privilege to know you as I have. Please be comforted in knowing they are always endeared. I have so often bragged about my advisor as being “the best ever” and I stand by that immodest claim, 100%.
I love you, Dr. Byrd. I will never forget you.
If I never see you again, I need you to know that you will always have a place in my heart and my mind.
Please continue to be at peace and be well.
Thank you for gracing my life with your presence.
Dr. Kimberly C. Ellis, Ph.D.
(a degree I would have never obtained without you)
Dr. Byrd passed away on the morning of October 21, 2011.
Thank you to Emory University, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, The Root and Susan Carini, who wrote this fantastic article entitled, “Visible Man” (which chronicles Dr. Byrd’s life; but was meant only to be a celebration of his work in 2008).
Thank you for your beautiful words about a great mentor, scholar, man and wonderful human being.
Farewell, Dr. Byrd. I hope to hear you amongst the leaves, sometime…