Dear Dr. Rudolph P. Byrd,
Scores of Brooklynites are marching on the busy street in front of my apartment. I’m watching from the window, hearing white people chant, “Whose streets? Our streets!” I’m happy to see the support for Black Lives Matter, but here in gentrified Brooklyn, I can’t help but find that funny. I recorded two minutes of it in the event that it’s useful if I ever write poems again. (Cataloging has been a habit of mine this month.) It’s times like these that I miss teaching, sitting with cohorts of first-year college students as their safe worlds are torn apart by conversations around race and privilege. But all of that makes me recall my own reckoning, the moment when I realized the extent to which the law functions to serve these white students more than myself. That was the fall of 2011, the year the State of Georgia executed Troy Davis. And about a month later, you died.
I sometimes think about Adrienne Kennedy’s People Who Led to My Plays, and who I would put in such a book, were I to write it. As a Black, gay, Southern artist, I want to practice intentional ways of memorializing people of influence. This is important for me, for the “people who led to my plays” are often those that will never have buildings or other monuments named in their honor. I imagine that some don’t even have headstones. I like to think of my writing, if not as a headstone, as an homage. Much of it is an homage to people like you who have shaped how I reimagine the world that has been given to me.
I was twenty-one when I enrolled in Call and Response, your introductory graduate-level survey of African American studies. This remains one of the most pivotal courses I took at Emory University. It helped me to see how the humanities were integral to Black liberation and Black sovereignty. I began to think about my contributions: who I was writing to, what I was writing for, and why it mattered. Even though you were with us for only a month before cancer caused you to take a leave of absence, I witnessed the power of that syllabus through the professors who stepped in for you in the months after. Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, Carolyn Denard, and Mark Sanders all testified to your leadership and light, to the ways you’d led the charge in their own lives. I remember how remarkable it was to me that someone who’d seemed so reserved had had so much influence.
Inside the classroom, we studied. Outside, I wept. You introduced me to Kwame Anthony Appiah, Melville J. Herskovits, and Albert Murray. I learned why Marlon Riggs’s art should never be forgotten. Through a volume you edited yourself, I read Jean Toomer’s Cane. I was mesmerized by Johnnetta Betsch Cole and Beverly Guy-Sheftall’s Gender Talk: The Struggle for Women’s Equality in African American Communities, because it was the first time I witnessed an urgency for Black life in academic writing. That same urgency inspired a fury in me. Outside the classroom, I encountered a world that called for the death of a convicted Black man who had maintained his innocence for over twenty years. Excuse me, but I can’t help but think of parallels. Troy had been incarcerated my whole life, accused of killing a police officer in my hometown. In August 1991, when I was but a year old, he was sentenced to death. It was the year you started your tenure at Emory.
The night Troy was executed, September 21, 1991, I read Patricia Williams’s Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor for your class, led that week by Carolyn Denard. Democracy Now! broadcasted the protest and vigil outside of the prison, but no one knew what was happening inside. I sat in my university dorm waiting, not wanting to believe he would die. I had gone out to do something, and when I returned to my apartment, I had a message from my friend: “They killed him.” As police threatened to unplug Amy Goodman’s camera, she signed off and the network began to play Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” over a photo montage of Troy throughout the years. Make no mistake, I knew what injustice was, but did I know the crux of how it intersected with my own young life so viscerally? After picking myself up from the couch, I read Patricia Williams and it was a numbing experience, to see in that moment anti-Blackness and whiteness talked about so bluntly in connection to the law. I thought about governance and our bodies and our lives. I grew sick again thinking about Troy’s body being held by the state after his execution before it was turned over to his family.
Troy was from where I am from; his funeral was held in the neighborhood that raised me. The photos of prom night, school dances, cookouts were all too familiar. The scenery of that country in the background. The silver chain-link fence. In those smiling faces of Troy’s family, I saw my own grounding in the flat Savannah landscape. As I worked my way through your syllabus in the weeks leading up to Troy’s execution, communities and cities across the world took to the streets with signs and blue shirts that said I AM TROY DAVIS. Believe me, I get the message, but some people will never know what it’s like to fear that your life is endangered by those you pay to protect it. They will never know what it’s like to see photos like this and look for your loved ones in the background. That’s how close Troy’s life was to my own—both him and my father were from the same city and in prison when I was born.
I admit, I’m a jaded person. I get exhausted when I hear the phrase “black bodies” as if there is not also a life force there that activates the flesh. I’m over non-Black people needing triggering, visual evidence of state-sanctioned racial violence (yet again) as proof that change is needed. I’m saddened that when a movement was sparked by a man murdered by the police, his daughter said with a smile that her father changed the world. And maybe I feel some type of way that movements tend to center the experiences and deaths of straight cis men while Black women and trans people continue to die. I’m such a pessimist; I’m looking out of my window and I’m having visions of marching in this same way five years ago. Yes, I’m tired, but I do realize things are different this time and even I’m learning. I’ll get over myself soon.
Why am I going on like this about a moment from nearly a decade ago? It’s not because the moment changed me, but because you helped facilitate that change. At the end of class, not too long before you left us, you looked over at me and said, “Are you keeping up with the readings?” Yes, I was keeping up with the readings, but not with my own unraveling. What got me through that semester and the several others after that was being reminded that there were things to be done in writing and in art. I can’t let myself forget that Black expression saves Black lives. Even as I look at the worrisome world outside my window, I know that I am touched by people in and out of my life, even those I knew for just four short weeks. This is what Black writing means to me. You taught me that.
One of the most difficult things about being at Emory was how professional my college classmates were. They wanted good grades to get jobs. I wanted an educational experience (and took so many chances with my grade point average in the process). I rarely participated in class discussions, because my classmates were in a race to prove their intelligence. It was taxing. This was also the case in your class, but the graduate students were making substantial points about things they cared about. I remember, quite vividly, a theology student at the table going to great lengths to make her point about something. While doing this, she paused and said, “I’m sorry, I just care about this a lot.”
Care. In some ways, it’s why I started graduate school. In other ways, it’s why I grew jaded with the academy. Yes, I cared about some of the debates, but not more than I cared about the people and communities around which the debates were centered. I surrounded myself with art, I did my work, and I left. When I realized I was writing what became Heed the Hollow in the process, I knew that my own reckoning had something to do with it. That my writing about Southern history, racial violence, and Black queer life was powered by a critical and necessary care for our people. And what a privilege that is: to decipher, document, and divulge. This is why I dedicated my first book to you, to acknowledge and share the light of your life’s work. And what an honor it is to create a monument your legacy, one that includes one of your greatest accomplishments, the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference.
I miss teaching. I miss witnessing the reckonings and the resistance to them. I have you and a few other teachers at Emory to thank—Amanda Lewis and Angelika Bammer among them—for my approach in cultivating classroom dynamics like this. But I also have Black feminism, something I gained from your legacy more than your syllabus. In my time at Emory, you helped facilitate placing Alice Walker’s archive at the university. Alice’s early writings had a deep impact on me—so much so that I almost went to her alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College, instead of Emory. In college, I would go to the third floor of the library, where an exhibit of the archive was on display, and marvel at the huge photo of Alice that met every person entering the Schatten Gallery. Each time, the large, dark eyes in the photo interrogated me. They made me confront myself. More importantly, they reminded me who I was and where I came from. At a place like Emory, that was important for a Black student. Writers like Alice, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lucille Clifton are people who come to mind when I think about writing fueled by resistance and care. And while you didn’t introduce me to these writers, you helped me to understand why I loved them so much—because they are able to understand the radical change needed to overcome the internal and external systems working against liberation. They help us make the necessary connections, to understand the violence we can embody and must fight against.
In spite of my fatigue, I’m happy to see that movements carry names and that organizers who have always resisted patriarchy are leading us. At the time, I don’t know if I necessarily felt empowered because I had an openly gay Black professor, but I do realize now how rare that was. That there was a force on campus who told us all why and how he became a practicing feminist, and what it meant to live such a life. Yours is a name I must carry. And I know many other people do as well.
And anyway, it’s June and there is so much devastation. It’s June and it is Pride Month. It’s June, and how thankful I am to look out of my window and know I had a gay Black professor who once asked a question and saw me.
Malcolm Tariq is the author of Heed the Hollow, winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize and the Georgia Author of the Year Award. He is a 2020-2021 resident playwright with the Liberation Theatre Company and is the programs and communications manager at the Cave Canem Foundation, a home for Black poetry.