Zora Neale Hurston’s biographer Valerie Boyd dies at 58

The cause was pancreatic cancer, said her friend and attorney, Veta Goler.

Ms Boyd spent nearly two decades as a reporter and arts editor at her hometown newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, shaping the journalistic eye she would turn on Hurston in the biography that became her first major literary achievement.

“Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston,” published in 2003, is the result of nearly five years of research. Ms. Boyd traced Hurston’s life from his birth in 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama, to his upbringing in the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, to his literary activity during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. and 1930 and her anthropological exploration of African-American Folklore, to the circumstances that led to her destitute death in 1960 in Florida, where she was buried in an unmarked grave.

“Because I’m a black woman from the South, I felt very close to Zora, like I could paint a picture of her life almost from the inside,” Ms Boyd told an interviewer for the online magazine In Motion. “I wanted to give readers a sense of what it was like to be Zora, to walk in her shoes, to live in her skin.”

Ms Boyd was an undergraduate at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, when she first read Hurston’s best-known work, the 1937 novel “Their Eyes Were Looking at God”, a coming-of-age story about a black woman named Janie Crawford. .

“I was just amazed,” Ms. Boyd said, “that a book published in 1937 could speak to me so clearly and resonate through the decades.”

Years later, she became a regular attendee of the annual festival held in Hurston’s honor in Eatonville. In 1994, she says, she attended a speech by Robert E. Hemenway, the author of a 1977 biography of the writer.

According to Ms. Boyd’s account, Hemenway examined the shortcomings he felt were inherent in his book as a work about a black woman written by a white man. According to Ms Boyd, he said Hurston owed a new biography, by an African-American woman.

She postponed the task, judging herself not ready. Less than two years later, a literary agent called her to ask if she might be interested in writing a biography of Hurston. “I felt like fate was calling me – and Zora herself was calling me,” Ms Boyd said.

Hurston had complicated the work of any future biographer, Ms Boyd wrote, by disguising “many truths of his life in confusing but decipherable code”. In order to get schooling at a high school in Baltimore, she said she was 16 when she was actually 26. .

Over time, more dust, so to speak, had clouded Hurston’s life story. It had been partially erased by Hemenway’s book and by volumes including “Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters” collected and edited by Carla Kaplan (2002). But in ‘Wrapped in Rainbows’, wrote critic Jake Lamar in The Washington Post, Ms Boyd produced a ‘scrupulous and gracefully written’ work which ‘will most likely remain Hurston’s definitive biography for many years to come’.

Ms. Boyd’s project was a journalistic odyssey, in which she tracked down Hurston’s few living acquaintances and scoured the archives of his life. But it was also an “intuitive and spiritual process,” she said.

“Sometimes,” she told the Northwestern interviewer, “it seemed like Zora was looking at me in a very approving way, and sometimes she seemed to be looking at me like, ‘Oh, please.’ And I would dutifully press delete.

Ms. Boyd has often reflected on the brotherhood of African American writers, observing that “Zora’s, Alice’s and my generation’s generations hold hands”. Alice was Alice Walker, the author of the 1982 novel “The Color Purple,” which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for fiction and was adapted into a 1985 film starring Whoopi Goldberg. Walker had helped rekindle interest in Hurston with an article, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston”, published in Ms. magazine in 1975.

Ms Boyd met Walker during her research for the biography and said that Walker, after learning about her work, touched her face and said, “Bless you, my child. A few years after the publication of Hurston’s biography, when Walker set out to publish her diaries from the years 1965 to 2000, she chose Mrs Boyd as a partner in the venture.

Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker, edited by Ms Boyd, is due out April 12, according to Simon and Schuster publishing house.

“Valerie Boyd was one of the best people to ever live, which she did as a free being,” Walker said in a statement provided by the Joy Harris Literary Agency. “Even though the disease had been stalking her for several years, she accompanied me in the collection, transcription and editing of my diaries. … It was a major feat, an immense act of love and solidarity, brotherhood, of generosity of soul and shared joy, for which she will be remembered.

Valérie Jean Boyd was born in Atlanta on December 11, 1963. Her father ran a gas station and a tire store, and her mother was a housewife.

Ms. Boyd received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Northwestern in 1985 and a master’s degree in fine arts in non-fiction creative writing from Goucher College in Towson, Maryland, in 1999.

In addition to her work at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Ms. Boyd has freelanced over the years for publications such as the Washington Post. She was the editor of The Bitter Southerner publication. For the past few years, she has served as writer-in-residence and professor at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

At the time of her death, according to Simon and Schuster, Ms Boyd was working on an anthology called “Bigger Than Bravery: Black Resilience and Reclamation in a Time of Pandemic”. His survivors include two brothers.

Ms Boyd noted that, out of respect for her subject, she had visited Hurston’s grave in Fort Pierce, Florida, before embarking on the biography.

‘I wanted to make a connection with Zora,’ Ms Boyd told the Journal-Constitution, ‘so I took an offering of Florida oranges, which she liked, and some money – she didn’t. never had enough money in his life – and a pack of Pall malls.

As she left, she saw a black crow similar to the one that had flown over Hurston’s inaugural festival in 1990. Attendees had named it “Zora”. Mrs. Boyd took the sign as permission to continue.

“I believe that’s something I was driven to do here,” she told the Orlando Sentinel in 2003. “My destiny led me to Zora.”

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