Pine Lake Porch Portraits
Photo credit: Cindy Brown. Used by permission.

by Robin Kemp

Valerie Boyd, the acclaimed biographer and journalist who founded the University of Georgia’s Master of Fine Arts longform journalism program, died of pancreatic cancer at her home in Pine Lake on Saturday, Feb. 12.

A native Atlantan from Collier Heights, Boyd was the daughter of Roger and Laura Boyd. She graduated from Northwestern University’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism and completed a master of fine arts in creative nonfiction from Goucher College.

Boyd leaves a tremendous legacy in publishing and journalism education in addition to her own writing, including:

  • HealthQuest, the first national health magazine for African Americans
  • EightRock, the Black arts and culture magazine
  • Catalyst assistant editor
  • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s arts editor
  • University of Georgia Press Editor-at-Large
  • The Bitter Southerner senior consulting editor
  • Co-founder of the Alice Walker Literary Society
  • Southern Foodways Alliance board member
  • Founder of the Grady College MFA program in narrative nonfiction at the University of Georgia, where she was the Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence and Associate Professor of Journalism

Boyd was a noted literary biographer whose Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston (Scribner, 2003) won acclaim for its probing yet sympathetic treatment of the playwright, author, and anthropologist. Wrapped in Rainbows won the Georgia Author of the Year Award in nonfiction, the American Library Association Notable Book Award, and the Southern Book Critics Circle’s Southern Book Award for best nonfiction. In 2017, Prof. Boyd received a Governor’s Award for the Arts and Humanities.

More recently, Boyd edited Alice Walker’s journals (Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker, 1965-2000) for Simon and Schuster. Walker herself was instrumental in reclaiming Hurston’s literary works.

Boyd, whose writing also appeared in Atlanta Magazine, Creative Nonfiction, Essence, The Los Angeles Times, Ms. Magazine, The Oxford American, and The Washington Post, among other venues, founded the nation’s first literary journalism MFA program at the University of Georgia. There, she passed along her passion for longform narrative, immersive journalism, and all kinds of reporting that give a story room to breathe.

She described the program at UGA this way: “Our program is trying to bridge that false divide between journalism and literature. We are the first MFA program housed at a college of journalism in the country, and our thinking behind that is that journalists can write about anything. Our idea is that we want to equip journalists to write factual literature–literature based in fact and reporting.”

In September, a book Boyd edited and to which Walker, Pearl Cleage, Aunjanue Ellis, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, Tayari Jones, Kiese Laymon, Imani Perry, Deesha Philyaw, Khadijah Queen, Jason Reynolds, Karen Good Marable, and other have contributed is due out from Lookout Books: Bigger Than Bravery: Black Resilience and Reclamation in a Time of Pandemic.

A description of the anthology on Amazon.com reads in part, “Born of a desire to bring together the voices of those most harshly affected by the intersecting pandemics of Covid-19 and systemic racism, Bigger Than Bravery explores comfort and compromise, challenge and resilience, throughout an unprecedented time—the Great Pause that became the Great Call. Award-winning author and scholar of the Black archive Valerie Boyd curates this anthology of original essays and poems, placed alongside some of the most influential nonfiction published on the subject, inviting readers into a conversation of restorative joy and enduring wisdom.”
Southern Foodways Alliance Director John T. Edge wrote, “Valerie led by writing well and teaching well and caring fiercely. She showed us all profound new ways to join together and be together and work together. We mourn our loss and celebrate her too-short life. Valerie was our sun, shining with joy and possibility. Those of us who called her friend were very lucky to spin in her orbit.”
Valerie Boyd was 58.
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Robin Kemp

Robin Kemp is executive editor and CEO of The Clayton Crescent, which she founded in 2020. She has worked for Gambit, CNN, The Weather Channel, Clayton News, Henry Herald, and numerous freelance outlets....

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