“Gathering Blossoms Under Fire,” edited by Valerie Boyd, is published

On this bittersweet day, “Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker,” a book edited by Valerie Boyd, is published nearly 10 years after the project began—and, two months after Boyd’s death.

“If there was ever an editing role for Valerie, this was it,” said Moni Basu, Boyd’s friend of nearly 30 years. “Like Alice, Valerie was so strong and such a masterful writer. It seemed like a perfect fit.”

Basu remembers the night that Boyd offered to help Walker with the project. Walker was in town to lead a program at Spelman College that Boyd moderated, and Basu, who was working at CNN at the time, interviewed Walker after the talk.

“I remember the three of us were in an informal conversation and Alice was talking about going over to Emory to look through her papers and she was talking about what a daunting task that was. There were boxes and boxes of papers and journals and Valerie asked Alice, ‘why are you doing that alone?’ I said, ‘yeah, you need an editor’ and that was the start of conversations of what this book might look like.”

Boyd was so excited about the publication of the book, according to Basu. Basu said Boyd was influenced by three great Black female writers. Boyd became a writer because she was inspired by the writings of Toni Morrison. Zora Neale Hurston, who was the subject of Boyd’s book, “Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston,” was another idol. With Walker, Boyd knew it was her calling to help another one of her idols.

“Alice was one of Valerie’s idols and the opportunity to edit her idol’s work through such personal writings was an incredible honor for Val,” Basu said.

Rosalind Bentley, another close friend of Boyd’s, recalled how she would spend hours at the Emory University Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library combing through Walker’s papers.

“I know it was a labor of love and a joy for her to do this work,” Bentley said. “I remember once that she found this passage where all the Black female titans were there at a dinner. Alice Walker and Toni Morrison and a couple others, and Valerie was just thrilled to find entries like that.”

Alice Walker and Valerie Boyd on stage in a public converation
Alice Walker and Valerie Boyd in conversation about the movie, “Beauty in Truth,” on Nov. 6, 2013, at the Ferst Center for the Arts, Georgia Institute of Technology. (Photo: Phields Photography)

Basu continued: “It was Valerie’s mission to get involved with what she saw as worthy projects by women of color. It doesn’t matter if it was Alice, or her students in the MFA writing program—Valerie felt that helping and mentoring women of color was her life’s calling.”

Bentley vividly remembers a work day at Boyd’s house when the galley proofs for the book arrived. She remembered that Boyd wasn’t feeling well that day.

“Val opened that package and she pulled out that galley and the look on her face—she smiled even through all the pain, and she was so happy,” Bentley said, between emotional pauses. “She knew it was real and it was happening. It was this book that was so special.”

Through the years, the loving bond between Walker and Boyd grew and there was deep mutual respect.

“For Valerie, to have her name on the same cover with Alice’s name was a dream come true,” Basu said. “It is so sad that she can’t be on stage with Alice and hear the accolades.”

Walker reflected on Boyd’s contributions to the book in a remembrance by the publisher at the time of Boyd’s death: “This was a major feat, a huge act of love and solidarity, of sisterhood, of soul generosity and shared joy, for which she will be remembered; as she will be remembered with immense gratitude for her extraordinary biography “Wrapped in Rainbows” of our revered and irrepressible Medicine Ancestor, Zora Neale Hurston.”

“Gathering Blossoms Under Fire” is published by Simon and Schuster and provides in-depth reflections of some of Walker’s most harrowing journal entries. Events include marching in Mississippi with other foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement, led by Martin Luther King, Jr.; her marriage to a Jewish lawyer, defying laws that barred interracial marriage in the 1960s South; an early miscarriage; writing her first novel; the trials and triumphs of the Women’s Movement; erotic encounters and enduring relationships; the ancestral visits that led her to write “The Color Purple;” and winning the Pulitzer Prize.

Boyd talked about the book project in a 2015 interview with Grady College.

“I feel honored that Alice Walker is entrusting me to read her journals and to edit a selection of them for the world to read as well,” Boyd said.

Boyd was the founder and director of the MFA Program in Narrative Nonfiction and the Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence at Grady College. She was editor-at-large at the University of Georgia Press and senior consulting editor for “The Bitter Southerner.” Prior to her February 2022 death, Boyd was named to this year’s class of inductees into the Georgia Writer’s Hall of Fame. Boyd’s final book, “Bigger Than Bravery: Black Resilience and Reclamation in a Time of Pandemic,” is an anthology due out in September 2022.

According to Bentley, it was Boyd’s love for Walker and respect for her writing that led her to work on this project.

Alice Walker and Valerie Boyd
Alice Walker and Valerie Boyd in 2012.

“Valerie believed in Alice,” Bentley said. “She believed in Alice as a person and she believed in Alice as a writer and she wanted to make sure the work of Black female writers was recognized—that their names were part of canon, not an addendum to the canon. She believed that we are not a separate category of writer. She believed that Alice Walker is a great American writer, period. Valerie wanted to ensure that Alice’s legacy was cemented and that Alice also would have an opportunity to speak for herself in letters or entries that were written in real time and she wanted that witness on record.”

Boyd concluded her 2015 interview with reflections of what it meant to work with Walker on this project.

“It means everything to have the opportunity to work with her,” Boyd said. “Alice changed American literature in significant ways and has had a major influence not just on me but on many writers of my generation, and subsequent generations, and on American literature itself. It’s a wonderful gift to have the opportunity to walk side by side with her.”

 

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)

Remembering Valerie Boyd

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part tribute to the legacy of Valerie Boyd. Please read the second part 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.

Valerie Boyd, writer, teacher, motivator and encourager, died Feb. 12, 2022, leaving many former students, colleagues and friends grieving, but grateful for the time they shared.

“Valerie Boyd’s towering prose, gentle spirit and moral compass will be greatly missed by all of us,” said Charles N. Davis, dean of Grady College. “She possessed a rare combination of gift and grit, a colleague who, once she set to a task, never let go. Her work with our MFA program set the course for what has become a family of writers – a family that grieves today, but also celebrates what she helped to build.

Boyd was an award-winning author who turned to teaching in 2004, following several years as the arts editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She was named the Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence in 2007, and Boyd has directed the Giving Voice to the Voiceless grant program created by Hunter-Gault and her husband, Ron Gault.

Her lasting legacy at Grady College will be the low-residency Master of Fine Arts program in Narrative Nonfiction, which she envisioned for several years before it became a reality in 2015. This program is one of two tracks in the MFA Narrative Media Writing program, which also includes a screenwriting discipline.

She is the author of the critically-acclaimed biography, “Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston,” which brought her numerous accolades including a Southern Book Award, an American Library Association’s Notable Book Award and a Georgia Author of the Year Award in nonfiction.

Boyd spent the last several years curating and editing the journals of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alice Walker. “Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker” is scheduled to be published this spring.

In 2017, Boyd received a Governor’s Award for the Arts and Humanities.

Journalism students create legacy project with documentary about UGA desegregation

Editor’s Note: The 60th Anniversary of the Desegregation at UGA documentary can be viewed in its entirety on the Grady College YouTube channel.


Many UGA students spend their time as students learning skills that build toward a capstone project.  While some define that seminal project early on, others wait for it to unfold, gradually over time. Then there is the rare student like Kelsey Coffey (AB ’20) who has that defining project of her time at UGA presented to her a month before graduation.

The invitation presented to Coffey was to help research,  anchor and report on an hour-long documentary, “60th Anniversary of Desegregation at UGA,” produced by Grady College Newsource.

Kelsey Coffey graduated in December with the degree in journalism.

“When I started at the University of Georgia, I couldn’t have dreamed finishing this way,” Coffey said. “Doing this project was the greatest honor of my life and my time at UGA. It was an honor, a privilege and a gift to be involved.”

Coffey and a group of  10 students worked under the direction of supervising producer Dodie Cantrell-Bickley and other Grady College faculty to put together a retrospective and study of the social impact of desegregating UGA. The documentary includes rare, archived news footage from 1961 of Charlayne Hunter (now Hunter-Gault) and Hamilton Holmes entering campus; perspectives from other students during that time; current interviews with Hunter-Gault, Mary Frances Early, Hamilton Holmes, Jr. and others; and a look at the current impact and future plans of diversity at UGA.

The idea for the documentary was presented to Cantrell-Bickley by Dean Charles Davis, who obtained funding support from the Office of the President at the University of Georgia. Cantrell-Bickley enlisted other faculty members including Valerie Boyd, Amanda Bright, Mark Johnson and Ralitsa Vassileva to help the students with the story structure, fact-checking, historical context and consistency.

The archival footage was sourced through the WSB-TV Newsfilm Collection and UGA Public Affairs at the University of Georgia Libraries. The WSB-TV Newsfilm Collection is part of the Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection.

While it is the news coverage from 1961 that gives the documentary its sense of perspective, it is the current interviews with Hunter-Gault, Early and Hamilton Holmes, Jr. that generate its lasting resonance.

“Having the characters tell their stories in their own voices is what gives this project value over time,” Johnson, a content advisor on the project, said. “To preserve their voices telling their story is what will make it so compelling at the 75th anniversary of desegregation and beyond.”

Boyd, the Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence who served as a historical consultant for the documentary, said that Hunter-Gault was extremely generous with her time and was interviewed by the students for nearly three hours during the first session.

“Charlayne was excited watching these young journalists work and ask questions that were great,” Boyd said. “You could see her sheer enjoyment of the process.”

While Hunter-Gault may have been receiving a lot of energy from the students, it was a reciprocal experience for the students.

“Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a gift to humanity,” Coffey said of her interactions with the professional journalist. “To be able to share time and space with an individual of her caliber is unbelievable. She was kind, gracious, funny, authentic—all of the things you would hope she would be, she is and more.”

Further reflections from students involved with the project are being gathered now and will be shared in coming weeks on the Grady Newsource website.

The documentary concludes with a panel discussion about current initiatives and future plans at UGA. The panel included (upper left, clockwise) Charlayne Hunter-Gault; Kelsey Coffey; Victor K. Wilson, UGA vice president for student affairs; Jalen Polk, UGA Black Leadership Council; and Alton Standifer, UGA assistant to the president.

The UGA student chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists, another important connection since Hunter-Gault is a national member of NABJ, is coordinating the premiere of the desegregation documentary.

“Charlayne has been an influential leader among NABJ and the Civil Rights movement, so it is important for us to continue to uplift the NABJ community locally by helping with this event,” said Tylar Norman, NABJ chapter president. “I hope that the legacy of this documentary on campus will be one that unites us and reminds everyone of the brave people who took the first step toward desegregating UGA and pursuing diversity and inclusion for all.”

When all is said and done, the legacy of this project focuses not only on the incredible story of desegregating UGA, but in the passion and work ethic the students telling the story committed to this project.

“The biggest bonus of this project were the students,” Cantrell-Bickley concluded. “They  produced excellent work, and when you produce work like that and you find in your soul that you are capable of producing that, you  will not want to hold yourself to a standard less than that because you know what you can achieve. Our mission is an exceptional education for our students…so, if this college can help students do that—yay!”

The 60th Anniversary of Desegregation documentary.

An Education in Georgia: Then and Now, kick off event for the campus-wide read of An Education in Georgia: Charlayne Hunter, Hamilton Holmes, and the Integration of the University of Georgia

To kick off the campus-wide reading event to celebrate the 60th anniversary of desegregation at the University of Georgia, UGA alumna Charlayne Hunter-Gault will participate in a conversation with longtime New Yorker columnist and author Calvin Trillin to discuss his book An Education in Georgia: Charlayne Hunter, Hamilton Holmes, and the Integration of the University of Georgia (UGA Press). The conversation will be moderated by Valerie Boyd, Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence, Associate Professor, Journalism, Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, UGA.

Register for this Zoom event here. 

Throughout the month of February, the Press will share supplemental materials including discussion questions, interviews, news articles drawn from the New Georgia Encyclopedia, and other prompts via social media. We will announce book giveaways in January as well as provide a discount code to students, faculty, staff, and community members who register for the event.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a Peabody and Emmy award-winning journalist with more than 50 years in the media industry, extending her work at various times to all media including The New Yorker, NBC, The New York Times, PBS, NPR and CNN. She is also the author of four books, including In My Place, an autobiography and To The Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement. She continues with the PBS NEWSHOUR with a special series called Race Matters, looking at solutions to racism and is a highly sought after lecturer and moderator.

Calvin Trillin has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1963. As the Nation’s “Deadline Poet,” he writes weekly verse on the news of the day. In addition to his books of reportage, he has published memoirs, comic novels, and books of verse. His books include Remembering Denny, Obliviously On He Sails: The Bush Administration in Rhyme, Tepper Isn’t Going Out, About Alice, Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin, Jackson, 1964, and No Fair! No Fair! (with Roz Chast.)

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 www.gaarts.org.

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

A video of the presentation can be viewed here: