Valerie Boyd, author of Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston (2003, Scribner) and the forthcoming Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker 1965-2000 (2022, S&S), which she edited, died on February 12, at the age of 58 after a long battle with cancer.
Boyd served as an associate professor and the Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence at the Grady College of Journalism at the University of Georgia, where she taught classes on magazine writing, arts reviewing, and narrative nonfiction. She also taught creative writing in the graduate writing program at Antioch University in Los Angeles and was a consultant to The Zora Neale Hurston Trust.
An accomplished journalist and cultural critic, Boyd's essays, articles, and reviews were published in numerous magazines and newspapers, and her work also appeared in Step Into a World: A Global Anthology of the New Black Literature (2000, Wiley). At the time of her death, she was at work on an anthology titled Bigger Than Bravery: Black Resilience and Reclamation in a Time of Pandemic.
Wrapped in Rainbows, the first biography of Zora Neale Hurston published in 25 years, was hailed by the Washington Post as "definitive" and by the Boston Globe as "elegant and exhilarating." For her work on Wrapped in Rainbows, Boyd received the Georgia Author of the Year Award in nonfiction as well as an American Library Association Notable Book Award, and the Southern Book Critics Circle honored Wrapped in Rainbows with the 2003 Southern Book Award for best nonfiction of the year.
"Valerie Boyd was one of the best people ever to live, which she did as a free being," said Alice Walker. "Even though illness was stalking her the past several years, she accompanied me in gathering, transcribing, and editing my journals, and stood with me until the end, though she will be with us in spirit only for publication on April 12th, two months after her passing. 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."
Other such literary figures as Jelani Cobb, Lauren Michele Jackson, Kima Jones, Deesha Philyaw, Jason Reynolds, Craig Seymour, and Danyel Smith expressed their sympathies on social media.
On a personal note, this reporter was early in the process of profiling Boyd for PW during what would be the final weeks of her life. (Boyd always began every email with the same gracious refrain, "Thanks so much for your message.") I deeply admired Boyd's work and lament that there were still so many more questions to ask her and so much left to learn about her.
In the introduction to Gathering Blossoms Under Fire, Boyd writes that, in assembling the book's masterfully researched footnotes, she has tried to provide context and commentary like an "invisible friend" to the reader. Throughout Gathering Blossoms, Boyd's authorial voice accompanies Walker's journals as a gentle, guiding presence. Boyd will surely be remembered as such by her loved ones, students, and countless admirers.
A memorial service and tribute will be held in the coming weeks. Mourners are encouraged to donate to the Black Women's Health Imperative in Boyd's name.