Bookshelf: ‘Bigger Than Bravery’ a sobering, hopeful look at the pandemic

Writers and poets reflect on the Black experience during COVID-19.

I only knew Valerie Boyd as a casual acquaintance, but I had tremendous respect for her as a writer, editor, mentor and just all-around kind, compassionate human being. A former staff writer and editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, she went on to write a significant 2003 biography of Zora Neale Hurston called “Wrapped in Rainbows” and edited the journals of author Alice Walker for the book “Gathering Blossoms Under Fire,” which published in April.

Few knew Boyd battled a terminal illness in her final years. Sadly, she succumbed to it in February.

Boyd’s legacy lives on not just in her books but in her role as a mentor who nurtured the talents of many writers — as the founding director of the Narrative Nonfiction Writing MFA program at the University of Georgia, and in her everyday life. Anyone who had the pleasure of speaking with Boyd about their writing goals most likely received generous amounts of wisdom and encouragement.

One of her last projects publishes on Nov. 15. “Bigger Than Bravery” (Lookout Books, $18.95) is a collection of essays and poems by some of our greatest contemporary Black writers, both long-established and up-and-coming. The unifying theme is in the subtitle: “Black Resilience and Reclamation in a Time of Pandemic.”

In her introduction, Boyd reflected on a familiar saying her father used to repeat: “I don’t have to do nothing — except pay taxes, stay Black and die.” But during the course of the pandemic, she realized that “staying Black no longer feels like something I can take for granted,” a sentiment shared by many of the writers in the anthology. The 32 essays and poems that compose “Bigger Than Bravery,” serve to “remind and inspire me to cultivate my Blackness,” she wrote.

The anthology’s theme is addressed with a multitude of topics, but there are a few common threads: the isolation of quarantine, the desire to connect with family, friends and ancestors; the mortality of aging, sick or dying parents; the murder of George Floyd; the protests; and a renewed sense of pride in Black heritage.

Young adult author Jason Reynolds’ essay “Char” opens the collection and manages to touch on all those topics. But his primary focus is food and its ability to fill us up in more ways than one. Forced to quit going to restaurants and prepare his own meals during quarantine, he returns to the cooking skills he learned as a child. The son of a proud grillmaster who lies dying in a hospital bed, Reynolds buys himself a grill, humbly aware that the torch has been passed.

“I was afraid to tell my father about the grill I’d just purchased because soon he would no longer be able to eat; his ability to swallow stolen,” he observes.

In “Racism Is Terrible, Blackness Is Not,” Imani Perry, author of “South to America,” calls out sorrowful white people who, in a misguided attempt to show solidarity, express pity over the suffering of Blacks. “I want the world to recognize our suffering,” she writes. “But I do not want pity from a single soul. Sin and shame are found in neither my body nor my identity. Blackness is an immense and defiant joy.”

In “Out There, Nobody Can Hear You Scream,” outdoor enthusiast and AJC contributor Latria Graham contemplates how difficult it is for Black recreationists to feel safe in the wilderness when they live in a world where “(s)ometimes compliance isn’t enough. Sometimes they kill you anyway.”

As Graham ponders advice for Black newbies navigating the great outdoors, she considers telling them to “make sure you know what it means not to need, to be so prepared that you never have to ask for a shred, scrap or ribbon of compassion from anybody,” or risk becoming one of those “Black people who knocked on the doors of white homeowners asking for help and were shot in response.”

Several Georgia writers are represented in “Bigger Than Bravery.” The title comes from a line in Pulitzer Prize winner Jericho Brown’s poem “Crossing,” which serves as the epigraph for the anthology. Other local writers include Pearl Cleage, Tayari Jones, the late Kamilah Aisha Moon and Shay Youngblood.

Former AJC staff writer Rosalind Bentley writes in “Iron and Brass” about moving into her dream home with her wife, fantasizing about the dinner parties they’ll host when the pandemic ends, admiring the objects from her ancestors that hold place of pride in the house and ultimately ground her.

Other contributors to the collection include Destiny O. Birdsong, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor and Kiese Laymon.

Spanning emotions from anger and frustration to joy and levity, “Bigger Than Bravery” is a multi-faceted look at the Black experience during the coronavirus pandemic. It tackles thorny issues and raises difficult questions, but ultimately it offers a ray of hope.

As Boyd says in her introduction: “If you allow, this book can be a long exhalation, a silent prayer, a solace and a comfort as we reach toward the promise of bright days ahead.”

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor at the AJC. Contact her at svanatten@ajc.com.