By Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D, NNPA Newswire Culture and Entertainment Editor
Valerie Boyd, world renowned author of the definitive biography of Zora Neale Hurston, Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, passed away on February 12, 2022, after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. In the interest of full disclosure, Valerie was a colleague, collaborator, mentor and great friend.
Originally from Atlanta, Valérie Jean Boyd was born on December 11, 1963 to Roger and Laura Jean (Burns) Boyd. Her mother was a housewife and her father owned a petrol station and later a tire shop in the Bankhead area of the town where she grew up. Valerie was super proud of her family, especially her father and his accomplishments which were significant, especially for a black man who grew up in the segregated south. Val would tell exciting stories about her dad’s businesses, the interesting people who frequented the gas station, and how the tire spot was so small they had to roll the tires out of the store and pile them outside to operate the cash register indoors. of the shop. Valerie’s eyes were windows to the soul and the stories she told were funny, poignant, engaging and painted a vibrant picture of Atlanta, the city she loved.
Growing up watching pioneering journalist Monica Pearson on television, Val was able to see herself as a journalist and decided to pursue a career in journalism. She set her sights on Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and the rest is history. In 1985, she obtained a diploma in journalism. After her undergraduate career, Val returned to Atlanta, immersing herself in the arts and culture scene and joining the new wave of black writers and creatives who have called the black mecca of the south home.
Valérie has had a busy career as an art writer at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution starting as an editor, writer and eventually art editor. She was also editor-in-chief for The bitter southerner and a contributor to the American Oxford and other anthologies including In the Tradition: An Anthology of Young Black Writers (1992), edited by Kevin Powell and Ras Baraka. A major figure in the new wave of black talent shaping the culture and art of writing in major black cities, Boyd co-founded and launched the magazine HealthQuest: The Black Wellness Publication in 1993. Like her father, Valérie was an entrepreneur at heart. She launched EightRock, a journal focused on African American arts and culture.
A founding officer of the Alice Walker Literary Society and a member of the National Book Critics Circle, Boyd earned an MFA in creative non-fiction writing from Goucher College, which would prove useful as she paved the way by writing the definitive biography of Harlem. Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston. Val heard about Hurston while a student at Northwestern when she was assigned the book, There were eyes that looked at God. This is where Val’s interest in Hurston ignited. She would travel to Eatonville, Florida, Hurston’s birthplace, to attend a festival celebrating the beloved writer. From a discussion with Robert Hemenway, a white author who had written a biography of Hurston in 1973, Val knew that a black woman had to write the story and that she was that black woman. Val was so keen to tell Hurston’s story that she left the AJC and moved to Florida to better understand the woman whose life story would make her into literary royalty.
Valerie is best known for her detailed and illuminating work on Hurston. The Southern Book Critics Circle has chosen Wrapped in rainbows for the 2003 Southern Book Award for Best Nonfiction Book of the Year. The American Library Association selected her biography of Hurston for a 2004 Notable Book Award. In 2017, she received a Governor’s Award for the Arts and Humanities from Governor Nathan Deal and First Lady Sandra Deal. The award recognizes outstanding individuals and organizations that have made significant contributions to the economic, civic, and cultural vitality of Georgia. Boyd will be posthumously inducted into the 2022 Georgia Writers Hall of Fame where she will join illustrious writers Tayari Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Clarence Major, Jericho Brown, WEB DuBois, Pearl Cleage, Clarence Major, John Lewis, James Alan McPherson, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Alice Walker and Kevin Young, among others.
Val wasn’t just a writer; she was a foodie and a lover of culture. Valérie sat on the board of directors of Southern Foodways Alliance and was known for hosting dining experiences for friends and family. She once hosted a dining experience that told the story of Zora Neale Hurston through food with a menu planned by award-winning chef Mashama Bailey.
Famous food writer John T. Edge was close friends with Valerie and she loved when he came to town because he had the inside scoop on restaurants. She kept up to date with food happenings in Atlanta. You would literally get a call from Valerie and the next day you would be in a cookie pop-up at Bankhead. Also a foodie, Val introduced me to restaurants in Atlanta and Athens, including Serpas, which closed during the pandemic, and The National. We used to devour Serpas’ salmon crisps and The National’s cheese-stuffed dates.
One of my fondest memories of Valerie is the last time I saw her in person when we raided her snack bar. We were collaborating on a new digital publication on African-American health (HealthPlus) and decided to meet in person. I picked up sandwich boxes from from Alon Bakery & Market and walked to his beautiful home in scenic Pine Lake. Always the big sister, she offered to CashApp me money to pay for food. I reminded her that she was one of the most generous and generous people I have ever met, so it was a pleasure to buy lunch for someone who had mentored and given me so much.
We had a lot in common – black southern women, locs, writing, lovers of African American literature and history, Northwestern, Goucher, UGA, Black Hollywood, Veta, great restaurants and snacks . We ate our delicious sandwiches from from Alon and devoured the small bag of crisps. We looked at each other and she rushed to her snack. Yes, Val had a snack cabinet. I had a pantry. We were literally talking about snacks all the time. Potato chips are both of our favorites, so we ate chips, then cookies, laughed at our brashness, and finally talked shop.
Valerie was a writer. She was Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence and Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Media. Val co-founded and directed the distinguished low-residency MFA program in non-fiction storytelling in college. She was known for working with the community, mentoring students, and connecting students with professors and industry leaders to enhance their academic education. In 2015, Valerie hosted a picturesque session to introduce 12 high school students to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker at UGA’s Wilson Center for the Humanities and Arts. Valérie was an excellent connector and collaborator.
At the time of Valérie’s death, she had just completed work on Gathering the Flowers Under the Fire: The Diaries of Alice Walker. Selected by Walker to work on the project, Boyd spent seven years researching and editing the book to be published by Simon & Schuster in April 2022.
“Valerie Boyd was one of the finest people who ever lived,” Walker said in a Simon & Schuster statement. “Even though the disease had stalked her for several years, she accompanied me in the collection, transcription and editing of my journals. Pick flowers under the fire, and stayed with me until the end. It was a major feat, an immense act of love and solidarity, brotherhood, generosity of soul and shared joy, for which she will be remembered.
Val was also working on a project on public art in Mississippi with Oscar-nominated actress Aunjanue Ellis and had recently been named managing editor for UGA Press. We collaborated on HealthPlusa first digital publication on African American health for The Voice of Atlanta coming out this month (March 2022). Unfazed, Val will be remembered for her generosity of spirit and her commitment to the art of writing, being a free black woman and liberating others in the process.
Valérie was predeceased by her parents Roger and Laura Boyd. His older brother Michael Boyd died on February 18, 2022 from cancer. She is survived by her younger brother Timothy, her niece Kaylisha and her life partner of 23 years, Veta Goler. She was 58 years old.
A private service will be held for Boyd on Saturday, March 5, 2022. The public is invited to view Boyd’s celebration of life on Saturday, March 5, 2022 at 11 a.m. EST online at the following link https://vimeo.com/683541854.
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