To say that Valerie Boyd was a critically acclaimed writer, editor and educator doesn’t do her justice. And when she passed away in February at age 58 after a five-year battle with pancreatic cancer, she left behind an incredible legacy.
“Wrapped in Rainbows,” her biography of Zora Neale Hurston, is considered one of the most praiseworthy profiles of the legendary author. As the founder of the MFA Program in Narrative Nonfiction at the University of Georgia, she created the first program in the country of its kind. And her last published work, “Bigger Than Bravery,” was a brilliant compilation of Black writers’ reflections on the intersection of the COVID-19 pandemic and systemic racism. But to journalist Rosalind Bentley, Valerie Boyd was a mentor and close friend. The Root spoke with Bentley about her relationship with Boyd and the light she was for other Black women writers.
Valerie Boyd was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, to a mother who was a homemaker and a father who owned a Texaco franchise and tire shop. From running her high school newspaper to the 20 years she spent as a reporter and arts editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, she’s always had a special gift for telling stories.
But Boyd left her job at the AJC to set off on the journey of a lifetime – writing a biography of Zora Neale Hurston, one of the most important Black women writers of the early 20th Century. For “Wrapped in Rainbows,” Boyd spent five years researching Hurston’s life, from her upbringing in the all-Black town of Eatonville, Florida, to her participation in the Harlem Renaissance alongside creatives like Langston Hughes, to her death from a stroke at age 69.
And the result, published in 2003, was celebrated for its authenticity and detail. In a review, Jake Lamar of The Washington Post called the book a “scrupulously researched, gracefully written” work that will “most likely remain the definitive Hurston biography for many years to come.”
Boyd was the perfect biographer for Hurston because, in many ways, she felt a kinship with her. “Zora was complicated, and Valerie was drawn to that,” Bentley said. “Valerie was about telling our stories and the gospel of Black women. In the Black literary canons, specifically for Black women, Zora looms large.”
Boyd was also deeply committed to supporting other Black writers’ efforts to tell their stories. Bentley says starting an MFA program in a school of journalism was Boyd’s long-time passion project. Unlike most traditional programs, Boyd wanted hers to be centered on narrative nonfiction and embrace mid-career journalists. “She wanted to build a program aimed at someone with some war stories. She felt like regardless of your age, you have value,” Bentley said.
Bentley joined the program’s inaugural class in 2015, and said Boyd was always intentional about creating an environment where Black women felt seen. “She wanted Black women to get their stories out there,” Bentley said. “And while she couldn’t necessarily favor us, she was very clear that where your stories might be challenged or not understood in another MFA program, here, we’re going to understand the stories that you tell.”
It was clear to everyone in Boyd’s orbit that the program and her students were special. And it came through in the fact that she remained dedicated even as she battled cancer. Not many people knew that she was sick. But those who did, couldn’t keep her from working. “That program was her baby and she was going to see it through,” Bentley said.
Bentley says Boyd’s program changed her life. “I didn’t think that was possible, given my age. It reinvigorated me and set me off on a new path.” So when she was asked to take the helm as the interim director after Boyd’s death, Bentley wanted to maintain the high standard her mentor set when she designed the program. “[Valerie] knew what she had created with the program. She saw her legacy with each graduate she put into the world. And she worked on it until the last days of her life.”
In one of her last gifts, “Bigger Than Bravery: Black Resilience and Reclamation in a Time of Pandemic,” Boyd carefully curated works from some of the most influential Black authors, including Alice Walker, Pearl Cleage, Kiese Laymon and “The Secret Life of Church Ladies’” Deesha Philyaw. Through poetry and personal essays, writers shared their personal stories and reflections during the dual pandemic – COVID-19 and the increased calls for racial justice in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Rosalind Bentley, who was one of the contributing writers, says Boyd was deeply committed to every aspect of the project, including her introduction. “Val was writing that thing until the last minute. She was a journalist to her heart,” she said.
Reflecting on Valerie Boyd’s legacy, Bentley says she loved her ability to make everyone around her feel special and says she’ll always remember her friend’s favorite words of encouragement, ‘You got this.’ “She always spoke to you in the positive. She truly felt it in her bones. She knew that writers of any age could have imposter syndrome. And so whenever I feel overwhelmed, I can hear her saying, ‘You got this.’”
“My friend had a zest for life. She always wanted to open a door for someone, and made you feel like you were the most important person on the planet. I always felt a greater sense of possibility after we hung out.”
And that sentiment was shared across the literary community. Upon Boyd’s passing, Alice Walker said, “Valerie Boyd was one of the best people ever to live, which she did as a free being.”