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).
“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.
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.
“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 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.”
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.