[Updated] Rudolph Byrd, noted African-American gay Emory scholar, dies

Rudolph Byrd, a gay Emory professor and noted scholar on African-American literature, has died, according to a report by the Associated Press. He was 58.

According to an Emory spokesperson, Byrd died Friday from multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells.

Byrd was the founding co-chair of the Alice Walker Literary Society and was a consultant for the United Negro College Fund. He played a key role in bringing Walker’s archives to Emory’s library.

In April, it was announced that Emory received a $234,000 grant to study how the civil rights movement intersects with today’s black LGBT movements.

The grant was the largest awarded to Atlanta-based Emory from the Racial Justice, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity program of the Arcus Foundation, “a global foundation dedicated to advancing equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people,” according to the Emory Report.

“It is historic that the Arcus Foundation has taken this step,” said Byrd at the time, He was also the Johnson Institute’s founding director and Goodrich C. White Professor of American Studies.

At Emory University, the 10-member working group plans to examine renowned black gay figures such as Audre Lorde and Bayard Rustin.

Rustin, one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest companions and trusted advisers, was openly gay and impacted Dr. King’s life and work by introducing him to nonviolent direct action. He also organized the now famous 1963 March on Washington. Rustin, however, was pushed out by others in King’s inner circle because they did not like an openly gay person working with them.

“This is an example of the powerful manifestation of homophobia in African American communities at the highest level,” Byrd said.

Charles Stephens of Atlanta, co-editor of the forthcoming anthology “Black Gay Genius” who knew Byrd through the community, said Friday that Byrd “was an accomplished scholar, a progressive academic, and one of the most eloquent champions of the African-American literary tradition. He was also a pro-feminist black gay man who brilliantly critiqued homophobia and sexism.”

Added Stephens: “Though Dr. Byrd and I were not close, our paths crossed several times over the years. I’ve known of his work as long as I’ve been engaged in the world of ideas. He was a towering figure, a true man of arts and letters. His commitment to African-American literature, critical thought and progressive worldview, made him a model and an inspiration.”

Earl Lewis, the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of History and African American Studies and also
executive vice president for Academic Affairs and Provost, said in a statement on Friday that “For many of us Rudolph was not only a symbol of dignity, propriety, determination, elegance and stamina, he embodied what it meant to live with purposefulness and grace, even to the very end. As others have said more than once in the last few weeks, Rudolph remained the consummate teacher: he taught us to live and how to die.”

Details of funeral and memorial services will follow in the next few days.

Watch a video of Byrd’s tribute to Alice Walker:

Photo: Rudolph Byrd. (Photo courtesy Emory University)