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)

Boyd recognized with a Governor’s Award for the Arts and Humanities

Boyd is congratulated by Karen Paty of the Georgia Council for the Arts
Boyd is congratulated by Karen Paty of the Georgia Council for the Arts

Valerie Boyd, the Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence and an associate professor of journalism, received a Governor’s Award for the Arts and Humanities from Governor Nathan Deal and First Lady Sandra Deal.

The sixth annual awards were presented in a ceremony at the Georgia State Capitol on Oct. 4, 2017. The awards are a partnership with the Georgia Council for the Arts and Georgia Humanities.

“The First Lady and I are longtime supporters of the arts, humanities and expressions of creativity,” Deal said. “These awards recognize outstanding individuals and organizations that have made significant contributions to Georgia’s economic, civic and cultural vitality. Our state’s creative industries provide some 200,000 jobs for Georgians and generate $62.5 billion in economic impact. I congratulate the individuals and institutions being honored today and am grateful for their contributions to communities throughout Georgia.”

Boyd’s nomination biography said that “her passion for story inspired emerging writers to find their voice and develop their craft,” and “she animates the writing life, rousing her students’ creativity and zeal for truth by her own example.”

Boyd was introduced at the ceremony by friend and former student Monica Pearson (MA ’14). Pearson spoke of Boyd as a “history maker in the state and around the world” through writing books including “Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurton,” and her upcoming book, “”Gathering Blossoms Under Fire,” a curation of the journals of Alice Walker.

When “Wrapped in Rainbows” was released, the Georgia Center for the Book included it in a list of “25 books that all Georgians should read.”

In addition to her writing, Boyd was celebrated for her contributions to educating future writers, including her role as co-director of the Master of Fine Arts Program in Narrative Media Writing.

Boyd was one of 12 individuals and organizations recognized for their contributions to the Georgia arts.
Boyd was one of 12 individuals and organizations recognized for their contributions to the Georgia arts. Photo: Andrea Briscoe

Pearson said, “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.”

Pearson also cited a nomination letter written by Alice Walker to Governor Deal.

“Talking with her is akin to standing before a mirror,” Walker said in her nomination letter, “but, one that shows not only yourself, but all the surrounding possibilities as she dives straight for the heart of the image and view.”

Prior to teaching, Boyd spent nearly 20 years writing for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, including time as the arts editor.

In addition to Boyd, the following individuals and organizations were recognized with Arts and Humanities Awards: Karen Berman, William Eiland (director of the Georgia Museum of Art), Gilmer Arts and Heritage Association, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport Art Program, Virginia Hepner, Kenny Leon, The Annette Howell Turner Center for the Arts, Pearl McHaney, National Infantry Museum Foundation, Janisse Ray and Lois Reitzes.

Detailed information about the recipients is available at

Pictures of the event can be viewed on Grady College’s Flickr album.

A video of the presentation can be viewed here:


Inaugural class of MFA students graduate from Grady College

The final chapter was written August 5 as the inaugural class of MFA students at Grady College was recognized in convocation ceremonies.

The fourteen graduating students completed two years of the new narrative media writing program in a low-residency format. Five students graduated from the screenwriting track and nine students graduated from the narrative non-fiction writing track.

“It’s amazing to see the fruits of our effort that began in 2009 in an idea that Valerie Boyd presented me,” said Jeff Springston, associate dean of graduate studies and research. “Nate Kohn quickly added to that idea, and though the road of establishing the degree was not always easy, the results have been spectacular.”

There was a lot of love and affection shown for the program’s directors and mentors. The directors included Valerie Boyd, who led the narrative non-fiction program, and Nate Kohn, who directed the screenwriting track.

“Valerie, when you look out at all of us, I hope you know that your legacy is and will always be strong,” said graduate student Rosalind Bentley at the convocation.

Pete Stone, who graduated from the screenwriting program, expressed appreciation on behalf of the students in his track.  “This is our passion,” Stone said. “This is what wakes us up and gets us through everything else we do. This is why we are here and to find that is just great. I am so happy to find a program that allows that, and I really do thank Dr. Kohn for allowing that to happen.”

MFA graduates from the narrative non-fiction program show appreciation to their families for their support.

Stone and Bentley also praised the vital role of the mentors, the community bond formed among the students and the networking that was created from the special speakers who were invited to speak during the program.

The convocation program included insights from keynote speakers Thomas French, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and Jeffrey Stepakoff, a screenwriter and executive director of the Georgia Film Academy.

French encouraged the students to accept the humbling task of chronicling stories. Stepakoff spoke of the burgeoning film and television market in Georgia and his desire to foster writer’s groups in the state that would in turn keep graduates from the MFA program in the state of Georgia.

Benjamin Bolger, another graduate of the screenwriting track added, “Georgia and Atlanta are exciting places for people who want to be in the entertainment and movie business. I can’t think of a better program that is situated to accelerate people’s careers in a very focused direction.”

A clear majority of the students and instructors commented about how the program delivered more than they expected.

“These are stories the world needs to hear,” commented Kohn as he recognized the graduates. “They have exceeded my expectations in every way.”

MFA graduate Benjamin Bolger (right) is congratulated by his mentor, Ramin Serry.

Boyd spoke of the “great enthusiasm, great respect and great love” she had for each of her graduates who filled her with “enormous pride and unbridled joy.”

For narrative non-fiction graduate Andre Gallant, the biggest reward of the MFA program was an in-depth study of the field he loves. “I hoped,

and I think everybody hopes, that the program helps them establish a writing life, a writing practice. It’s kind of hard in our busy lives to treat writing not just as a job but as an art form, as a craft, something we work at and improve. This gives us the first steps to do that.”

Bolger, who has a doctorate from Harvard University and studied at the University of Oxford in Cambridge, concluded that the MFA program compares with other programs he has experienced. “I can honestly say that the University of Georgia, and this program in particular, was really a world-class experience that rivals some of the best competitors that exist. I’m delighted that I was able to participate in this great program.”

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