The rocky road to love: Remembering Valerie Boyd

Valerie Boyd (right) embraces author Tina McElroy Ansa at the Clark Atlanta University Annual Black Writers Conference in 2019 where they were both presenters. Courtesy of Georgene Bess Montgomery

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Valerie Boyd (right) embraces author Tina McElroy Ansa at the Clark Atlanta University Annual Black Writers Conference in 2019 where they were both presenters. Courtesy of Georgene Bess Montgomery

My introduction to the late esteemed writer, editor and teacher Valerie Boyd was about 30 years ago when, in a review in the pages of this very newspaper, she destroyed my second novel “Ugly Ways.” She ripped my second baby apart, eviscerating the child I had spent four years creating and nurturing. It wasn’t a bad review. It was a horrible review. The first one in print. In my hometown newspaper.

She had broken my heart.

I had been long gone from my stint at The Atlanta Constitution by the time she joined the paper as an arts and leisure editor. I did not know her, but all my writer friends did. Mere days after the killer review ran, one friend, the novelist E. Lynn Harris, against my express wishes, even invited Valerie, his close friend and mentor, to a celebration he hosted for said book. He wanted me to meet the real Valerie, whom he loved and admired.

ExploreOur obituary for Valerie Boyd

She “accidentally” ran into me in the kitchen while we were both seeking wine.

I could barely look at her.

Weeks later, I was home after a book tour, and a small envelope arrived in the mail. The handwritten card inside read, in part, “There are too few of us (Black women writers) for us not to be connected.” It was from Valerie.

I read it again, then tossed it in the recycling bin at the post office.

She wasn’t saying all that about sisterhood when she was eviscerating my book! Too soon.

Clearly, the writer in me had not healed.

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Valerie Boyd (right) and Tina McElroy Ansa chat at the Clark Atlanta University Annual Black Writers Conference in 2019 where they were both presenters. Courtesy of Georgene Bess Montgomery

Credit: Georgene B. Montgomery

Valerie Boyd (right) and Tina McElroy Ansa chat at the Clark Atlanta University Annual Black Writers Conference in 2019 where they were both presenters. Courtesy of Georgene Bess Montgomery

Credit: Georgene B. Montgomery

Combined ShapeCaption
Valerie Boyd (right) and Tina McElroy Ansa chat at the Clark Atlanta University Annual Black Writers Conference in 2019 where they were both presenters. Courtesy of Georgene Bess Montgomery

Credit: Georgene B. Montgomery

Credit: Georgene B. Montgomery

The journalist Valerie, however, continued to do the work, the writer’s work. Researching and writing, holding up and respecting our literary icons, and all the time offering guidance and support to her sister and fellow journalists. I could not turn around that year or any year since without hearing some story of Valerie’s professional or personal kindness.

About a year and a half later, my husband and I took our semi-regular road trip to Eatonville in Florida for the annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival. And that year, it was a loud joyful festival. My husband Jonee’ and I were dancing in front of a stage where a band was rocking some reggae when we saw a friend we recognized. She came over with her companion. Jonee’ hugged them both. I greeted and hugged my friend and then I went to embrace her companion with my arms outstretched. But she quickly raised her hands, long fingers and palms facing me, stopping me, warning me.

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Boyd, who had been battling cancer, died Saturday Feb. 12, 2022. No cause of death has been cited. CONTRIBUTED

Credit: File Photo

Boyd, who had been battling cancer, died Saturday Feb. 12, 2022. No cause of death has been cited. CONTRIBUTED

Credit: File Photo

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Boyd, who had been battling cancer, died Saturday Feb. 12, 2022. No cause of death has been cited. CONTRIBUTED

Credit: File Photo

Credit: File Photo

She said quietly, “I’m Valerie Boyd.”

I looked into those big soulful eyes of this small brown woman with locs like my husband’s and I felt no pangs and saw no enemy. All I saw was acceptance and love.

The depth and verity of it astounded me.

That was her super power: her unfailing love. She must have learned it early on in her childhood in the church and, thank God for us, it stuck.

Although like myself, she had no children “out of her own body” as the folks used to say, through her work, as well as through her habit of loving, Valerie Boyd birthed legions.

Right there in the middle of the festival honoring the Genius of the South who Valerie would later wrap in rainbows, I looked at the two of us and burst out laughing. Valerie immediately joined in. I slapped her hands down, grabbed her and hugged the stuffin’ out of her. She hugged me back just as hard. We laughed and hugged and let the love flow.

Oh, it felt so good.

“You writing something? Yeah!”

“You? Yeah!”

We were too full of joy to notice the irony. We hugged some more. Couldn’t get enough of each other. Then, we went our own ways to enjoy the rest of the festival. But in that one moment of love and forgiveness and freedom, standing in the sandy dust of Zora’s northern Florida, I knew I had found a sister.

Year after year, she put strong actions behind all her love: an offer of private editing, a respite of a few days at her home, a good meal with great friends, a plan for one of her beloved students to remain in the program. Her readiness and ability to help writers find sustaining and important work was part of her love language.

I came to realize that Valerie’s gift was not only her legacy of scholarly and accessible biography, it was her insistence on living in love. It was what enabled her to see folks in all their true humanity, whether it was a fledgling writer or Alice Walker.

All that time that I was wounded and closed-off, being an immature grown Black woman, Valerie was continuing to love me. She refused to give up on me. That was her signature move, not giving up, not letting you give up.

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Valerie Boyd poses in front of the Zora Neale Hurston U.S. Postal Service Stamp. Courtesy of Phelan M. Ebenhack

Credit: File Photo

Valerie Boyd poses in front of the Zora Neale Hurston U.S. Postal Service Stamp. Courtesy of Phelan M. Ebenhack

Credit: File Photo

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Valerie Boyd poses in front of the Zora Neale Hurston U.S. Postal Service Stamp. Courtesy of Phelan M. Ebenhack

Credit: File Photo

Credit: File Photo

For Valerie, who seemed — seemed — to live a kind of magical existence moving seamlessly in her career from journalist to respected biographer and writer to teacher, editor and guide to a whole ‘nother generation of thinkers, it was always about the work of being a fine and honest writer while being a fine and honest person.

It begs the question: How could Valerie Boyd have possibly produced the brilliant body of literature celebrating us — including the definitive biography of Zora Neale Hurston and the journals of Alice Walker — and still birth her dream of a stellar Master of Fine Arts program in Nonfiction Narrative at the Grady College at the University of Georgia and continue to guide and nurture that dream?

One answer is her life choices were as brilliant, thoughtful and magical as she was. Another is she insisted on love, traveled on a flowing stream of it. Dipped her toes into it in the mornings. Washed her teacups in it in the evenings.

So, days after her death, I went to the ocean in search of her and some peace. And there she was, bright and beautiful, riding on an ocean wave, leaving love, literature and life in her wake.


Tina McElroy Ansa is the author of five award-winning novels and co-editor of the anthology “Meeting at the Table: African-American Women Write on Race, Culture and Community.” She lives on St. Simons Island.