An Ode to Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Who Gave Us a Poem About Black Excellence That Was Beautifully Ahead of Its Time

Illustration for article titled An Ode to Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Who Gave Us a Poem About Black Excellence That Was Beautifully Ahead of Its Time
Photo: Mireya Acierto (Getty Images)

Every so often the Internets gets into a running debate about Black famous folks. What is “Black famous?” Well, it’s the idea that a person is famous, and widely known (and typically beloved), amongst Black folks, uniquely. Who is on this list is a moving target. And you can move from Black famous to famous-famous (“white famous”)—think Tyler Perry—but some folks are stalwarts of the community and have spent the greater parts of their careers being folks we enjoy internally. For instance, Clifton Powell is Black famous. Betty Wright. Gary Dourdan. Essence Atkins. Also, it is very important to note, this is not a shot.

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Thomas Jefferson Byrd was one of those people. The scene-stealing, Tony-nominated actor, whose name I honestly couldn’t tell you before he passed away, had so many iconic moments in Black movies that I feel ashamed that his name didn’t come immediately to mind.

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While he was never the main character, his time on screen—especially in Spike Lee films—was always memorable. After Spike let it be known that he was killed in Atlanta over the weekend, he shared some of his favorite scenes that included Byrd. One scene in particular from the movie Clockers (1995), where Spike does Spike camera things and has the main character Strike (Mekhi Phifer) heading to his car only to see Byrd’s character Errol doing some kind of crackhead interpretive dance while KRS-One’s “Outta Here” plays in the background was the kind of shit that gave me nightmares. His character was so menacing, unpredictable and scary I’m pretty sure I vowed to my parents to stay off drugs just in case Errol was a real person who traveled down South to scare kids straight.

My favorite scenes though were his from the movie Bamboozled (2000)—one of the most underrated movies of all time; yeah, I said it—where Byrd played “Honeycutt,” the host of the primetime television minstrel show Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show. He got the hosting gig after dropping one of the most poignant performance piece poems of all time in his audition titled: “Niggas Is a Beautiful Thing.”

After seeing that and rewinding it over and over, I couldn’t help but walk around saying, “niggas is a beautiful thing.” And because I was on the campus of a historically Black college when it came out, well, I vividly remember that being the response whenever somebody did something awesome on campus. Shit, if we’re being real, “niggas is a beautiful thing” is the precursor to “Black excellence.” His delivery of that piece was so memorable that 20 years later, I STILL remember exactly how it was done.

Even in more recent work, I will never forget the face he made in the Netflix series, She’s Gotta Have It, where he played Nola Darling’s father, Stokely Darling, and seeing his daughter’s controversial art piece. The piece (SPOILER ALERT), which ended up being a nude portrait of Nola being lynched by her braids as her body is painted like the American flag, disgusted him so much—it was his daughter’s nude body after all—that when he came from behind the curtain with the most disturbed face I’ve ever seen I laughed out loud and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t supposed to be funny.

Byrd has a career full of moments where he shows up and shows out in ways that add so much to a movie or show. He was just that kind of talent that moved the needle when he was on screen. I’m not sure he quite got his flowers while he was here since he mostly had smaller, supporting roles in movies that we all know and (sometimes) love. And since I personally know how invested I am in Black movies and art and how familiar I am with his roles but didn’t immediately conjure his name, I wanted to make sure to give him his proper flowers. It says something substantial about his talent, though, when upon seeing that he was gone, I immediately envisioned his scenes in Bamboozled (especially), but He Got Game, Clockers, and even Ray. I can see him in each movie he played a role in that I happened to see. He was present, and mattered and when given the chance, he took the ball and ran with it. And he scared me straight. That’s a life of note.

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Rest in Power, Thomas Jefferson Byrd. You were right: Niggas is (and still is) a beautiful thing.

Panama Jackson is the Senior Editor of Very Smart Brothas. He's pretty fly for a light guy. You can find him at your mama's mama's house drinking all her brown liquors.

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Not sure who would shoot an elderly man in the back, but he will be missed.