Many in the arts, academic and writing world are mourning the loss of celebrated author Valerie Boyd, who passed away February 12, 2022, after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Val was a mentor, colleague, collaborator, big sister, and friend. When I say I loved her with all my heart, I mean it. Outside of my mother, Val is perhaps the most generous, giving, and decent human being I have ever met. We had a lot in common: Southern Black women from Black cities, writers, Northwestern, Goucher, UGA, womanists, locs, social justice, food and a real love of Black people, history, and culture.
From the moment I met her, Val treated me as an equal and a sister. She invited me to places I wouldn’t know or think to go and exposed me to people I would otherwise not meet. Val was the kind of person to invite you to dinner with a friend and that friend would turn out to be a Pulitzer prize-winning author. She would curate meals which would turn into experiences, and you would learn that you had eaten the food of a James Beard award-winning chef or sipped cocktails created by a world-renowned mixologist. A great connector, Val was always bringing people together. I mean always.
Whether it was pairing students with mentors from the industry, introducing esteemed faculty from the MFA program in creative non-fiction she founded at UGA to each other or connecting Academy Award nominated actresses with artists to create beautiful art for cultural magazines, Val brought people together.
Val was also spontaneous. It was nothing to talk to Val on a Monday and learn she was on the other side of the country Friday because she had chatted with someone who sparked a desire in her to make something happen in that moment. She would call you one day and the next day you were at a biscuit pop-up in Bankhead, where she would tell you wonderful stories about her family and childhood. When with Val, she was uber present, gave her full attention and had yours. Her eyes were literally windows to your soul, she was open, honest, and funny. Her smile could light up a room. Val mastered the art of being honest with kindness, so her direct statements never came off as cruel. Val was unflappable. I never saw her angry or heard her raise her voice in multiple situations that would send the average person into a tizzy. Val never acted out of character. She gave the same respect she commanded.
At the time of Val’s passing, we were collaborating on a project, HealthPlus, a digital-first publication dedicated to addressing African American health. Even though she was battling a very aggressive form of cancer, she remained positive and helpful and shared many of the tools and resources available like sound healing to help fight diseases. Our plan was to launch the publication and then to work on our dream project on Black Hollywood. We had that in common too.
Many know Val as the author of the definitive biography of Harlem Renaissance writer and documentarian Zora Neale Hurston, Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. Others know Val recently completed editing the journals of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker for a book Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker which comes out April 12, 2022. Hand-picked for this project, it is not lost on me that Alice, who helped resurrect the importance of Hurston’s work chose Val, the woman who wrote the biography Zora Neale Hurston deserved, to edit her most personal and prized possessions. Imagine the level of trust you have to have for someone to give them access to every fiber of your being.
I know Val as a loving daughter, sister, aunt, and long-time partner to Dr. Veta Goler. She was super proud of her family, especially her niece Kaylisha. A proud Aunt, her eyes lit up when she spoke of Kaylisha and their adventures together.
I know Val as a kind, humble, thoughtful friend, who was a big cheerleader throughout some of the most important times of my life like when I was adopting my daughter. Val attended my baby shower and had Kai and me over on multiple occasions. Her home was peaceful, beautiful, and welcoming. We loved to chat, vibe about music, film, literature and history and snacks. We were both foodies and had snack cabinets. We would share snacks, talk about snacks, laugh, talk about culture and politics, overindulge, and promise to do it again in the near future. Val was my person. She understood me and made me want to be a better writer and person by being around her, watching her interact with others and of course reading her work.
I know Val as great friend — a big sister if you will — and I will miss her Earthly presence immensely. If leaving your mark while you’re here on Earth is a person, then it is Valerie Jean Boyd. Although she is no longer here on Earth as we know it, I know for sure she is somewhere wrapped in rainbows. Rest in power Val. You are missed and you are loved. — Nsenga
Val’s celebration of life is Saturday, March 11, 2022, at 11 a.m. EST. Watch online at the following link https://vimeo.com/683541854.