A memorial service was held March 5 for Valerie Boyd, world-renowned author of Zora Neale Hurston’s definitive biography, “Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston.” Boyd died Feb. 12 at age 58, after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.
Her eyes were windows to the soul and the stories she told were funny, poignant, engaging and painted a vibrant picture of her native Atlanta.
Inspired by pioneering journalist Monica Pearson, Boyd attended Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, graduating in 1985.
She had a busy career as an arts editor at the Atlanta Journal & Constitution, starting as a copy editor before becoming a writer and eventually an arts editor.. She was also editor of The Bitter Southerner and contributed to the Oxford American 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 HealthQuest: The Publication of Black Wellness magazine in 1993. She also launched EightRock, a journal focused on black 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 Hurston.
Boyd learned of Hurston while a student at Northwestern when she was assigned the book “There Eyes Were Watching God”. This is where his 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, she knew that a black woman had to write the story – and that she was that black woman. Boyd was so determined to tell Hurston’s story that she quit the AJC and moved to Florida to better understand the woman whose life story would make her into literary royalty.
Boyd is best known for her detailed and illuminating work on Hurston. The Southern Book Critics Circle chose “Wrapped in Rainbows” for the 2003 Southern Book Award for Best Nonfiction Book of the Year. The American Library Association selected the biography for a 2004 Notable Book Award. In 2017, Boyd 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.
Boyd was a writer’s 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. She co-founded and directed the distinguished low-residency MFA program in narrative nonfiction 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.
At the time of her death, she had recently completed her work on “Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker”. Selected by Walker to work on the project, Boyd spent seven years researching and editing the book, which will be published by Simon & Schuster in April.
“Valerie Boyd was one of the finest people who ever lived,” Walker said in a Simon & Schuster statement. “Even though illness had stalked her for several years, she accompanied me in collecting, transcribing and editing my journals (for) ‘Gathering Blossoms Under Fire’ and supported me until the end. This was a major feat, an immense act of love and solidarity, brotherhood, generosity of soul and shared joy, for which she will be remembered.
Boyd was also working on a project on public art in Mississippi with Oscar-nominated actress Aunjanue Ellis and had recently been named editor for UGA Press. We were collaborating on HealthPlus, a first digital publication on the health of African Americans for The Atlanta Voice, which will launch this month.
Unfazed, Boyd will be remembered for her generosity of spirit and commitment to the art of writing, being a free black woman and liberating others in the process.