Valerie Boyd, acclaimed Zora Neale Hurston biographer, dies at 58

Teacher, writer, editor remembered for her impact

Credit: File Photo

Credit: File Photo

Timothy Boyd witnessed his older sister pursuing her calling when they were children growing up in Atlanta. Often, he spotted Valerie Boyd cradling a book in her hands or writing.

He wasn’t surprised when she was chosen to lead the student newspaper — as an underclassman — at C.L. Harper High School, where she graduated as a valedictorian. Or when she became the arts editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Or when she created EightRock, an inventive journal about Black arts and culture. Or when she co-founded HealthQuest, a magazine focused on African American health. He knew she was driven. He just didn’t know the full scope of her impact, partly because she was so humble. Then, he sat among strangers adoring his sister at a downtown Atlanta theater as she read from her definitive biography of Zora Neale Hurston, “Wrapped in Rainbows.”

“I got a chance to experience who she was outside of who I knew she was,” said Timothy Boyd, a fellow writer from Covington. “Afterwards, we ended up meeting over at our parents’ house. I said, ‘Sis, I did not know. I really did not know.’ I told her, ‘I am so proud of you.’”

Valerie Boyd, a beloved editor and journalism professor and the Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence at the University of Georgia, died Saturday following a five-year battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 58.

Credit: Jason Thrasher

Credit: Jason Thrasher

Stunned by her death, friends said she rarely talked about her illness even as she endured chemotherapy, radiation treatment and surgery.

“I can’t believe how much she did in her short years on the planet,” said Veta Goler, a retired Spelman College dance history professor and close friend for 30 years. “But she made that happen for other people as well. She was incredibly generous with her time, with information, with love, with encouragement.”

Born Dec. 11, 1963, and raised in Atlanta, Valerie Boyd settled in Pine Lake, a small DeKalb County community. Her late mother, Laura Boyd, was a homemaker from Rayle, a rural community outside of Athens. Her father, Roger Boyd from Woodland, Alabama, owned a Texaco franchise and then a tire shop, often holding several jobs at once. Boyd’s friends and family say her grace, kindness, zen-like calmness and strong work ethic came from her parents.

She wrote lovingly on Facebook about her hard-working father and his tire shop after he died in July of 2020.

“On Sundays after church, we would go to the shop and open up for afternoon business. The building was so small that the tires and the humans wouldn’t all fit at once. So we’d wheel out the tire racks for outside display to make room for ourselves to move around inside the tiny hut, which my mom always called The Milk Jug, in honor of its past life as a drive-through convenience store,” she wrote.

“My mom and I worked the cash register inside while my dad worked the customers outside, with my brothers watching him and memorizing every move. It was like the alternative happy ending to ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ if Walter Lee had used the insurance money wisely, rather than entrusting it to a man named Bobo.”

Credit: Timothy Boyd

Credit: Timothy Boyd

Sonya Ross, a childhood friend who worked on the same high school newspaper with Valerie Boyd, remembers her studious, even-tempered nature.

“When you had conversations with Val, she was studying you in the whole conversation, or at least you felt studied,” said Ross, a veteran journalist. “She was listening intently to everything you had to say.”

Credit: Sonya Ross

Credit: Sonya Ross

Valerie Boyd’s work editing Alice Walker’s journals, “Gathering Blossoms Under Fire,” is set to be published April 12, two months after Boyd’s death. She also edited “Bigger Than Bravery: Black Resilience and Reclamation in a Time of Pandemic,” an anthology scheduled to be released in September.

Additionally, Boyd helped edit The Bitter Southerner, a popular online publication focused on the American South, and created and led the Master of Fine Arts program in narrative nonfiction writing at UGA. The innovative program brings diverse groups of students together with highly experienced writers and editors to tell true, deeply reported stories.

“We have to be sure that her work at UGA continues forward. We have to be sure that her scholarship continues forward and that people continue to understand the great big space that it leaves for her not to be with us,” said Pearl Cleage, a longtime friend, playwright and poet based in Atlanta.

Many of Boyd’s students have written for newspapers, magazines and online publications or published books they worked on in her program. Among them is Martin Padgett, who wrote “A Night at the Sweet Gum Head: Drag, Drugs, Disco, and Atlanta’s Gay Revolution.” It has been excerpted in prestigious publications, reviewed by The New York Times and featured at the AJC Decatur Book Festival.

“Because I sat in that classroom in that building and Valerie Boyd had orchestrated all these great speakers and all this great hand-holding into translating journalism in longform — I got it right away. I just understood,” Padgett said. “And then I understood how lucky I was to be in that group.”

In addition to Timothy Boyd, Valerie Boyd is survived by her older brother, Michael, and her niece, Kaylisha. Family and friends are still planning a memorial service.

What friends had to say

“She is irreplaceable in my life ― and in American culture ― for her talent, integrity, service. And she will be missed most by me for the joy and beauty she brought to living life.”

— Malaika Adero, author of “Vice President Kamala Harris: Her Path to the White House”

“Valerie was just the most calming, brilliant, kind friend.”

— A’Lelia Bundles, author of “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker”

“There was a buoyancy to Valerie that was central to her character. It was central to her kind effect upon others. She conferred belief to others.”

— John T. Edge, who wrote “The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South” and who teaches in the University of Georgia’s Master of Fine Arts program in narrative nonfiction writing

“I doubt that you could find many programs as young as ours that have produced the volume of quality published writing that our graduates have produced.”

— Lolis Eric Elie, a writer and documentary filmmaker who teaches in the University of Georgia’s Master of Fine Arts program in narrative nonfiction writing

“She was such a life force. She was a remarkable writer, teacher, motivator.”

— Nate Kohn, who leads the Master of Fine Arts program in screenwriting at the University of Georgia

“I will forever remember her strength and the light Valerie brought into my life as well as our publication.”

— Eric NeSmith, publisher of The Bitter Southerner

“Valerie Boyd was one of the best people ever to live, which she did as a free being.”

— Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Color Purple”

“She made many of the people in her sphere feel as if we could reach higher than we could see. ‘You can do it,’ she’d say, and you’d believe her. I grew wings and used them to fly with confidence under her influence.”

— Shay Youngblood, author of “Black Girl in Paris”