Valerie Boyd, a critically acclaimed biographer of Zora Neale Hurston and editor of a forthcoming compilation of the journals of Alice Walker, passed away on Feb. 12 at a hospital in Atlanta, the Washington Post reports. She was 58.
Veta Goler, her power of attorney and close friend, confirmed that the cause of death was pancreatic cancer.
Born in Atlanta on Dec. 11, 1963, Boyd went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Northwestern and earned a master of fine arts in creative nonfiction writing from Goucher College in Towson, Md.
For almost 20 years, Boyd was a reporter and arts editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and freelanced for other notable publications such as the Washington Post. Also, she was a senior editor at the publication the Bitter Southerner and was a writer in residence and professor at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.
As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, she first came across Hurston’s 1937 classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.
“I was just amazed,” Boyd said, “that a book published in 1937 could speak to me so clearly and so resonantly through the decades.”
Eventually, she became a regular attendee of the annual festival held in honor of Hurston in Eatonville, Florida. In 1994, Robert E. Hemenway, the author of Hurston’s 1977 biography, remarked that the blindspots in his book were in place because a white man, couldn't capture the essence of a Black woman.
“When I heard those words, I felt it was my calling,” Boyd told an interviewer with Northwestern. “But even though it felt like something I would do, the thought of doing it was just frightening.”
Less than two years later, she received a call from a literary agent asking her to write a biography of Hurston. “I felt like fate was calling me—and that Zora herself was calling me,” Boyd said.
In her research of the book, Boyd tracked the few living associates of Hurston and buried herself in the archival records of her life. She described the process as an “intuitive, spiritual process.”
“Sometimes it seemed as if Zora would look at me in a very approving way, and sometimes she seemed to be looking at me like, ‘Oh, please.’ And I would dutifully press delete,” she recalled.
Released in 2003, Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, received rave reviews. The book was praised by The New York Times for its “painstaking and thorough” research and it was named a notable book by the American Library Association.
At the time of her death, the publisher Simon and Schuster said that Boyd was at work on an anthology titled Bigger Than Bravery: Black Resilience and Reclamation in a Time of Pandemic. Simon & Schuster will also publish her latest work Gathering Blossoms Under Fire, The Journals of Alice Walker 1965-2000 on April 12 of this year.
In a statement issued by the Joy Harris Literary Agency, Walker praised Boyd’s work.
“Valerie Boyd was one of the best people ever to live, which she did as a free being,” Walker said. “Even though illness was stalking her the past several years, she accompanied me in gathering, transcribing, and editing my journals … 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.”
Boyd is survived by her two brothers.
We extend our prayers and condolences to the family and friends of Valerie Boyd.