Valerie Boyd’s shining light

Valerie Boyd thrived in many communities and was admired in all…teacher, writer, editor, mentor, confidant.

Boyd, the Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence and director of the Master of Fine Arts in Narrative Nonfiction program at the University of Georgia, died Feb. 12, 2022.

Perhaps her enduring legacy is the light that shone within her and that she shined on others, said Charlayne Hunter-Gault (ABJ ’63).

Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Valerie Boyd visit on UGA’s campus in 2007, the same year Boyd was named the Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence. (Photo: Peter Frey)

“She was not only such a distinguished writer, but as she wrote about Zora Neale Hurston in her powerful and widely acclaimed portrait of Zora entitled ‘Wrapped in Rainbows,’ Valerie was, herself, wrapped in rainbows, as the light she shed on all who came in contact with her made them better people,” Hunter-Gault said.

“What made Valerie ’s light shine so bright without being blinding was her always calm demeanor and her unhurried, thoughtful responses to sometimes difficult questions,” Hunter-Gault continued.

Hunter-Gault cited Boyd’s work in the classroom, helping direct students through the Giving Voice to the Voiceless grant program and editing Hunter-Gault’s recent contribution to the Bitter Southerner, as examples of making those around her better.

“Indeed, as was the case with Zora, ‘it was important to all the world that she should find them and they find her,’ Hunter-Gault said.

Boyd was a senior editor at Bitter Southerner and an editor-at-large at The University of Georgia Press.

Boyd received a Southern Book Award and several other accolades when “Wrapped in Rainbows” was published in 2004. She had been tapped to be inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame later this year.  She was notified of the honor before her death.

Her most recent book, “Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker,” which she edited, will be published this spring.

Alice Walker and Valerie Boyd in conversation about Pratibha Parmar’s movie, Beauty in Truth, at the Ferst Center for the Arts, Georgia Institute of Technology. (Photo: Phields Photography)

In 2017, Boyd accepted the Governor’s Award for the Arts and Humanities at which time Walker said: “Talking with her is akin to standing before a mirror, but, one that shows not only yourself, but all the surrounding possibilities as she dives straight for the heart of the image and view.”

Janice Hume, Carolyn McKenzie and Don E. Carter Chair for Excellence in Journalism at Grady College, noted Boyd’s humility.

“She was a world-class writer who never taught from a pedestal,” Hume said. “She met every student where they were. She listened, and she inspired them to write ethically, accurately and beautifully. With her MFA program, she built a supportive, loving community of mid-career journalists looking to rediscover their voice.”

The MFA Program in Narrative Nonfiction, a low-residency program dedicated to preparing its graduate students for success in publishing, was a vision of Boyd’s for several years before it became a reality. The program brings students together for intensive instruction for one week each semester and pairs them with professional mentors to collaborate the rest of the semester.

Long-time friend, Moni Basu, served as one of those mentors when the MFA program began.

“Steely on the outside; soft on the inside,” Basu said of Boyd. “Accomplished and accommodating. She could not have been more than 5 feet 3 and yet, she stood taller than anyone else in the room. The smile on her lips, the light in her eyes could carry you for days. She was Wonder Woman.”

Basu, the Michael and Linda Connelly Lecturer in Narrative Nonfiction at the University of Florida, credits Boyd with helping her identify a new career direction.

Valerie Boyd (center) with friends Veta Goler (left) and Moni Basu (right) in 2017. (Photo: Sarah E. Freeman)

“Had it not been for her, I might still have been a newspaper reporter who did not know how to tell a story or speak in public or teach others how to write,” Basu continued. “She pushed me to do better. Sometimes, to the point of irritation. ‘Get off of me. Leave me alone,’ I would say to her. But she never did.”

Another mentor in the MFA program is John T. Edge, host of “TrueSouth” and author of the acclaimed book, “The Potlickker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South.”

“Valerie conceived and directed a genre-redefining MFA program, inspired by fierce belief in her students, generous support of her colleagues, and surety in our common purpose,” said Edge. “She led by writing very well and by showing all profound new ways to join together and be together and work together. She was our sun, shining with joy and possibility. Those of us who worked with her and called her friend were lucky to spin in her orbit.”

Edge also worked with Boyd on the Southern Foodways Alliance, a group which Boyd served as an advisory board member.

Lori Johnston (ABJ ’95, MFA ’17), a lecturer at Grady College, was in the first cohort of MFA students.

Valerie Boyd talks with her class during the MFA Spring residency in 2019.
(Photo: Sarah E. Freeman)

“Valerie changed my life and that of so many others with the creation of the college’s MFA program,” Johnston said. “She recognized who I was as a writer and as a professor, and often gave of her time to spur me on to new ideas. The program and Valerie’s mentorship were gifts that we cherished.”

Boyd had a monumental impact on Dodie Cantrell-Bickley (MFA ’17), another instructor at Grady College.

“It’s evident the seeds she planted in her favorite soil—other human souls—will grow and bloom,” Cantrell-Bickley said. “They must. To honor her love for us—and her investment in us.”

Valerie Boyd (l.) and Monica Pearson in 2017 (Photo: Sarah E. Freeman)

Monica Pearson (MA ’14), one of Boyd’s students and retired WSB-TV news anchor, was there to introduce Boyd when she accepted the Governor’s Award for the Arts and Humanities.

Pearson said in her introduction, “Valerie at her core is a…storyteller who teaches how to fine-tune a phrase to make it memorable, mold a concept to make it understandable and prod a writer to the deeper research and interviews to see things through the eyes of those who are written about and those affected by what will be written.”

In a full-circle story, it was a visit by Pearson to a classroom that Boyd was sitting in as a young student that inspired Boyd to pursue a career in journalism. Years later, it would be Boyd teaching Pearson when Pearson pursued her master’s degree.

Boyd earned a bachelor’s degree at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing at Goucher College. She spent nearly 20 years writing for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, including time as the arts editor.

In addition to narrative nonfiction, Boyd’s writing passions included arts criticism, cultural reporting and race and gender issues in media. Her work appeared in such publications as The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Paste, Ms., Essence and Atlanta Magazine. She founded EightRock, a cutting-edge journal of Black arts and culture, in 1990. In 1992, she co-founded HealthQuest, the nation’s first nationally distributed magazine focusing on Black health.

Boyd’s light will continue to shine most brightly through her friends and students, many whom also became friends.

“Dear Valerie, dear friend, I miss you and feel your soul dancing about me, blanketing me with your light,” Basu said in a written reflection.

Hunter-Gault concluded her reflections with a challenge.

“It is my fervent hope that one (or many) of those who benefitted from Valerie’s teaching will one day follow in both Valerie and Zora’s footsteps, and as Valerie quoted Zora… ‘be brave enough to undertake’ a detailed account of her journey.’”

 


This is the second of a two-part feature celebrating the life and contributions of Valerie Boyd. The first part can be read here

 

Boyd is being remembered by many of her former students, colleagues and friends. To view a collection of thoughts being shared, please see Memories of Valerie Boyd: A curated collection.

Additional reading:

Valerie Boyd, acclaimed biographer of Zora Neale Hurston, dies at 58 (Washington Post, Feb. 15, 2022)
Valerie Boyd: A Remembrance (Atlanta Magazine, Feb. 16, 2022)
Valerie Boyd, acclaimed Zora Neale Hurston biographer, dies at 58 (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Feb. 18, 2022)
UGA’s Valerie Boyd, who died Feb. 12, to be inducted into Georgia Writers Hall of Fame (Athens Banner-Herald, Feb. 21, 2022)
‘A beacon of light’: memories of Valerie Boyd live on, (The Red & Black, Feb. 22, 2022)

Cox Institute adds new directors, initiatives to benefit students and industry

A new organizational and leadership structure will expand the training mission of the James M. Cox Jr. Institute for Journalism Innovation, Management and Leadership.

The Cox Institute, which operates as a unit of the Journalism Department at the University of Georgia’s College of Journalism and Mass Communication, will offer expanded skills development and training opportunities programs for students and professionals through the newly-restructured Journalism Innovation Lab and Journalism Writing Lab.

The Cox Institute’s Journalism Innovation Lab will assume operation of the Digital Natives program, which brings UGA journalism students with digital news expertise into Georgia newsrooms to help local journalists and news organizations accomplish specific digital goals.  This program was launched by Dr. Amanda Bright, a member of the journalism faculty, who will continue to manage this project along with other digital innovation initiatives to develop the products, practices and people of journalism’s future in a new role as Director of the Journalism Innovation Lab.

“I’m thrilled to be able to create a space where students and professionals can collaborate and innovate toward the next iteration of journalism,” Bright said. “The Journalism Innovation Lab will be committed to encouraging students to think boldly about where our industry should go next, while meeting specific needs in the field to serve our audiences and a functioning democracy.”

The Cox Institute’s Journalism Writing Lab will expand its scope by operating the Covering Poverty project, which was relaunched earlier this year by students funded through a Scripps Howard Foundation grant. This fall, the project will recruit a new group of students and alumni to work in partnership with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Athens Banner-Herald.  Lori Johnston (ABJ ’95, MFA ’17), a lecturer in the Journalism Department who oversaw the relaunch of Covering Poverty, will become Director of the Journalism Writing Lab. She will continue to manage the Covering Poverty project along with other content initiatives.

“I am thankful to the Cox Institute for being forward-thinking and for the relationships we have established with these important media outlets, and others to come,” Johnston said. “I look forward to guiding students as they report, write and produce meaningful stories about issues, people and places. They will deepen their reporting abilities and delve into the craft of storytelling and service journalism to help newsrooms tell these stories now, and then take those newfound skills into their careers.”

In addition to the new structure and projects housed in the Journalism Innovation Lab and the Journalism Writing Lab, the Cox Institute will continue to provide students with leadership training opportunities through initiatives such as the Levin Leaders Program and skills development opportunities through a variety of fellowship programs.

“We are enhancing the core of what the Cox Institute has built over three decades to make our programs an even more integral part of the journalism education our students receive,” said Dr. Keith Herndon (ABJ ’82), whose title will change from director to executive director of the Cox Institute as part of the new leadership structure. “Adding two respected colleagues in Amanda Bright and Lori Johnston to our leadership is a win for the Cox Institute and for the students we serve.”

The Cox Institute was established in 1990 by the late Conrad Fink, a legendary journalism professor, as the Cox Institute for Newspaper Management Studies. Its current name was adopted in 2014 to reflect the news media’s digital transformation. The Institute honors the late James M. Cox Jr., who headed Cox Enterprises and Cox Broadcasting Corporation from 1957 until 1974. Its primary funding is from the Jim Cox Jr. Foundation.

MFA in Narrative Media Writing

More information about the MFA Narrative Media Writing Program, including the screenwriting program and narrative nonfiction program, can be found by visiting mfa.uga.edu. Applications for the next MFA class are due May 1, 2019 (special alumni extension).

By Lori Johnston (BA ’95, MFA ’17)

I waited for the Grady College’s Master of Fine Arts in Narrative Media Writing program, and it was worth it.

I was enjoying a successful journalism career covering crime, celebrities, politics, business, and home design and architecture. I published freelance stories with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, HGTV.com, American City Business Journals, Wall Street Journal and many others, following full-time work as a reporter for The Associated Press and an editor for magazines and websites.

Lori Johnston (second from left) joins other MFA graduates Max Blau (MFA ’18), KaToya Fleming (MFA ’18) and Mark Shavin (ABJ ’79, MFA ’18) in a panel discussion about preparing for the last semester of the narrative nonfiction program.

As I approached my career midpoint, about 20 years after I earned my bachelor’s degree from Grady in 1995, I desired to move to the next level in my writing and deepen my ability to tell true stories. As with other times in my life, Grady played a key role in my career goals.

When I heard that Grady was launching an MFA program that was the first of its kind in a journalism school and directed by Valerie Boyd, associate professor and Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence, I decided almost immediately that I would be part of the first cohort, the class of 2017.

The program appealed to me for its low-residency format. I didn’t have to shut down or take a break from my freelance writing. Each semester, I was paired with one of the faculty mentors, who are accomplished writers. They embraced the experience I bought to the program. They challenged me by providing rigorous feedback throughout the semester. I relished the monthly one-on-one discussions with my mentor and monthly meetings, sometimes virtually, sometimes in person, with peers to discuss books and our writing projects.

The two-year program was a huge investment in my future. It required me to carve out time — early mornings, nights and weekends — for reading, researching, reporting and writing. At the start of every semester, I immersed myself in the MFA residency in Athens — an invigorating, yet intense week of on-campus lectures, seminars, panel discussions and readings by faculty mentors and visiting writers, agents and editors. Our days and nights were filled with intimate and sometimes relentless discussions about the craft of writing with published authors and classmates, who ranged from their 20s to 60s.

The professional and personal relationships I formed exceeded my expectations. My peers from across the country challenged my thinking and gave me confidence to find my voice as a writer.

The MFA program gave me a way to “steal time,” as faculty mentor John T. Edge told us, from our busy lives. For me, that was the life of mother, wife, journalist, entrepreneur, mentor and friend. I finished with three long-form narrative stories and a burgeoning book proposal, all focused on the intersection of faith, race and culture. Since earning my degree, my pieces on faith have been published in The Washington Post.

Hadjii Hand (seated on left in hand), an instructor in the screenwriting program, discusses a scene with current student Wendy Eley Jackson.

The program broadened my writing abilities, honed my leadership skills and gave me the academic qualifications, with a terminal degree, to pursue teaching full time on the collegiate level.

Recently, I joined fellow MFA graduates to read our work during a night of factual, creative storytelling in Athens. When I looked around the room, I saw the same array of ages, including several Grady undergraduate students. One of them told me the next day, “It was like art.”

Hearing that was worth the wait.

Johnston is a part-time journalism instructor at Grady College and co-owner of Fast Copy News Service.