Richard Rodriguez Accepts the 2002 Melcher Book Award
(Cambridge, May 14, 2003) On Wednesday evening, May 14, the Unitarian Universalist Association awarded its 2002 Melcher Book Award to Richard Rodriguez for his work Brown: The Last Discovery of America. The award ceremony, co-sponsored by the Cambridge Forum, took place in the historic meeting-house of First Parish in Cambridge, Unitarian Univeralist, in Harvard Square. The ceremony will be broadcast on the Cambridge Forum radio program and can be seen on video from WGBH-TV.
In his opening words, the Rev. William Sinkford, president of the UUA, described the origin of the Melcher Book Award as a memorial to the life and work of Frederic G. Melcher, a successful publisher and dedicated Unitarian lay-leader. Sinkford told the audience how, in these trying times, he derived hope and inspiration from Rodriguez's writing.
The Rev. Patrick O'Neill, chair of the Melcher book Award committee, praised Rodriguez's writing “which speaks for those who have no voice, which speaks for those who are often excluded from the circles of political power,… which speaks for those who by their very ‘brownness' are often made invisible in our society.” O'Neill went on to say that, “In a time when our American mass media too often tends to speak in the lowest common denomination of language, Richard Rodriguez rises to speak elegantly and poignantly. In an era when American culture increasingly fails to celebrate the very indivdualism that gave it its greatest promise, Richard Rodgriguez rises to offer an intensely resonant first-person declaration.”
Rodriguez then dazzled the audience with a witty and wide-ranging presentation that included readings from Brown, personal reminiscences of his boyhood in Sacramento, CA, and observations on the “browning” of America. He mentioned numerous examples of the invisibility in American culture of brown, including the time he was admitted to a Malcolm X lecture that was restricted to African-Americans because, said Rodriguez, “the brown boy was invisible.” He described his Mexican-American Catholic aunt's marriage to an Indian Hindu, and the family Thanksgiving dinners with many guests in turbans, “not what the Pilgrims probably expected.”
Rodriguez continually testified to the browning of America and the refusal of many institutions to acknowledge this reality. Speaking at a theological conference, Rodriguez told of meeting a woman who described herself as a “Baptist Buddhist.” One theologian rose to say that this was impossible, that a Baptist Buddhist was a contradiction in terms. “Yet,” said Rodriguez, “I have seen her. She walks.” And he told the audience of riding from Logan airport to Cambridge in a taxi driven by a Ghanian who was reading Jane Austen. “This is very brown,” said Rodriguez.
Rodriguez ended his talk by saying how honored he was to receive the Melcher book Award, especially in light of the accomplishments of previous recipients such as Daniel Berrigan, Dorothy Day, and Toni Morrison.
2002 Melcher Book Award Citation for Brown: the Last Discovery of America
Richard Rodriquez is among us. Entre Nosotros. We say yes to this phenomenology of Brown, this pen of reconciliation, this color of our future. We hear the prophet of Mixed Souls in the Americas, this Warbler of Deliverance. We prize this itinerary of the Brown Millennium that guides us through the Sistine Chapel, James Baldwin’s preoccupation and Malcolm X’s fierceness, Carl T’s sadness and Brueghal’s peasants, a year with Lawrence of Arabia and a song with Mabel Mercer, the dances of Prince Lightfoot, the metaphors of Richard Nixon, the mystery of the avocado and the cubism of our crucifix. Richard Rodriquez is a theatrical intruder into the tragedy of race consciousness in our America with its Latin(o) Lovers, Hispanic fictions and the Puritan I. We express gratitude at his skill to reveal the brownness of our libraries, the greenness of our knowledge and we marvel at a courage to write the unpursued scenes of our democracy even as he takes us through the graveyard of black and white discourses-to the brown paradox of us.
Why these affirmations for yet another discovery of America?
Because Brown calls us to see through the veils of our erotic history as well as this writer’s language and learn to love the persons who are becoming—and yet to come—just behind the words. So, “stick around with” Brown.
—David Carrasco, Rudenstine Professor of the study of Latin America, Harvard University, for the Melcher Book Award Committee