Monday, October 17, 2011
CHARLES JOHNSON TALKS ABOUT RUDOLPH BYRD
E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "When did you first meet Rudolph Byrd? How did the idea for doing the book, I CALL MYSELF AN ARTIST begin? Did you ever think of expanding the opening essay " I Call Myself An Artist" into a memoir?"
To be honest, my working relationship with Dr. Rudolph Byrd stretches back so far in time that I cannot exactly recall when or where we first met. Whenever that was, he would have been a young man then, a former student of Ellison scholar and novelist John Callahan dreaming of the contributions he wished to make to (black) American scholarship and pedagogy. Now, in 2011, I believe we can say enthusiastically that he not only surpassed his youthful promise but distinguished himself brilliantly as one of our finest, and hardest working black literature scholars today, a man whose unselfish contributions have created so much for others to build upon for the rest of the 21st century and beyond.
Personally, I owe Dr. Byrd a very great deal. The book collecting my non-fiction entitled I Call Myself An Artist was entirely his idea. (And, no, I've never thought of expanding the autobiographical essay in that book, originally written for Gale Research, because I get bored writing about myself; I even took a pass a few years ago when Gale Research inquired if I wanted to extend that essay from 1990 to the present.) I have written a few prefaces and introductions for his books. The idea for the Charles Johnson Society at the American Literature Association was originally his. I fondly remember his being present in Washington D.C. at the unveiling ceremony for international stamps (Ghana and Uganda) honoring 12 black American writers of the 20th century (Maya Angelou, Alex Haley, myself, Richard Wright, Toni Cade Bambara, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Rita Dove, Mari Evans, Sterling Brown, June Jordan, Stephen Henderson, and Zora Neale Hurston), an inspired project conceived and made possible by the poet and arts activist E. Ethelbert Miller. And I remember, too, his being present when his alma mater Lewis and Clark College gave me a Doctor of Humane Letters degree in 2006.
Sitting in front of me on my desk are several of the books he wrote and edited: Essentials: Timeless Truths for Living in Today's World by Jean Toomer (Hill Street Press, 1999); Jean Toomer's Years With Gurdjieff: Portrait of An Artist 1923-1936 (University of Georgia Press, 1990); Cane by Jean Toomer, edited by Rudolph Byrd and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Norton Critical Edition, 2011); Charles Johnson's Novels: Writing the American Palimpsest (Indiana University Press, 2005); I Call Myself an Artist: Writings by and about Charles Johnson (Indiana University Press, 1999); and The Essential Writings of James Weldon Johnson (The Modern Library, 2008).
At Emory University, Dr. Byrd is the founding director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute. I.e., he has well understood both the importance of doing original, needed scholarship and the imperative of institution building: creating organizations that will transcend our individual flicker-flash passage through this life, that are a gift to present and future scholars to whom he will one day pass the torch of intellectual excellence, personal courage, and selfless service. Over the last couple of decades, I have known Dr. Byrd to be not only a scholar of the highest critical and moral standards but also a true gentleman always ready to support the work of his students and colleagues. He has enriched many, many lives (mine included), through his research and publications, his dedication to teaching, and especially by the outstanding "content of his character," as Martin Luther King Jr. might put it. Working with him has been one of the great privileges and pleasures of my life. He has truly fought the good fight as a black man of ideas and letters, and through his example inspires all who know him.
Thank you, Rudolph. Thank you from all of us.
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 7:14 AM