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Jean Toomer and Politics Update: The Passing of Rudolph Byrd

Gino Pellegrini

The day after “Jean Toomer and Politics” at the 2012 MLA Annual Conference I learned from a Norton representative who had worked on the second Critical Edition of Cane that Rudolph Byrd, the co-editor with Henry Louis Gates Jr., had recently passed away. Byrd was a professor of American Studies at Emory University and the founding director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference. I had emailed Byrd and Gates in March to see if they were interested in participating in the special session. Byrd replied to me with a gracious and encouraging email.

Had we known of his passing, the overall tone of the session would have been somewhat different. Of course, Byrd’s passing is a separate issue from his and Gates’s scholarship in the second edition, and their scholarship was a target of our critique. Nevertheless, his death and his health (he was apparently sick for years) raise interesting questions about his collaboration with Gates on the second edition, which I hope Gates will address one day.

The next day, Monday, I visited the Emory University website to read Byrd’s obituary. There I found a link to the Rudolph Byrd Memorial Blog that was set up for grievers to share their thoughts and memories. Reading many of the posts, I learned that Byrd was a great teacher, and a warm, sincere, and caring human being who had an enormous impact on many students, colleagues, and friends—which in my view is an accomplishment of the greatest value.  He is missed by many, and I am saddened that I did not get a chance to meet him in person.

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