A few years ago, I walked into the Folk Art Restaurant on North Highland Avenue in Atlanta to have brunch with Valerie Boyd. She was already sitting at a table in the back glancing at the menu as I made my way over.
I was nervous. She was a big deal.
I had met Valerie years before at a Rose Library event, but neither of us could ever recall which one it was. Either way, I was a bit uneasy because we didn’t know each other well, and I had contacted her out of the blue to ask if she wouldn’t mind talking to me about her book, Wrapped In Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston (2003).
She agreed to meet with me. And yet there I was, sitting across from one of the most lauded educators, authors, and journalists in the country, speechless. Sensing the awkwardness, she immediately asked about my family and my work to lighten the mood. Soon we were talking about mutual friends, movies, and comic books! Quickly, what had started uncomfortably, felt like hanging out on the porch with an old friend.
That’s who Valerie was to me and what she continues to represent for many of us who had the opportunity to know her—a vibrant, charismatic, and generous spirit. She was a friend, always on the move, always working on a project of some import, but also willing to take time to spend with you, teaching, breaking bread, or simply lending an ear.
Valerie had many friends in the Emory community, in part because of her work, but also because of the relationships she built over the years with staff, students, and faculty. Some of these relationships include Dr. Rudolph Byrd, Dr. Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, Dr. Pellom McDaniels, III, Gabrielle Dudley, Dr. Randall Burkett, Kathleen Shoemaker, Holly Crenshaw, Dr. Valerie Babb, and Dr. Nagueyalti Warren, to name a few. No doubt, these relationships, and her appreciation for the archives, led Valerie to place her papers at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Book Library in 2017.
Her papers consist mainly of items from her professional career. There are research files documenting her time as the Arts Editor at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, as well as files pertaining to her work on HealthQuest (1992), the first nationally distributed magazine focused specifically on African American health that she cofounded, and EightRock, a black arts and culture publication that she founded in 1990.
There are also scores of audio-visual materials pertaining to interviews with noted writers and colleagues such as Maya Angelou, Toni Cade-Bambara, Toni Morrison, and August Wilson. For others, like myself, who were moved by Valerie’s incredible biography of Zora Neale Hurston, Wrapped in Rainbows, there are research files, drafts, and proofs of the text available for researchers.
In a sense, it’s no surprise that Valerie would place her collections in an archive because she was always in the Rose Library reading room, head bent down, meditating over a box of materials. Over the last several years, we at the Rose had become accustomed to seeing her perform research on what has become her final project, Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker (2022).
In this way, Valerie became a staple of the Rose Library; a constant you could surely count on to brighten your day, share a laugh, or debate an insight into an aspect of African American history and culture. However, perhaps the greatest lesson that Valerie taught us over the years was how to use the archives to not only preserve collections, but to share important stories with the public.
As an author and a feminist, Valerie’s dedication to documenting the work of African American women writers extended beyond publications, but also to public programing at Emory meant to spark conversation about collections. One of her most memorable events was when she moderated a Creativity Conversation on the 30th anniversary of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple in October 2012.
She posed this question to both Alice Walker and Pearl Cleage: “Both of you have spent your whole careers writing about free women and the men who are free enough to love them. Tell us a little bit about what being a free woman means to you. How do you define that? How do you live that day to day?”
In 2022, we mark the 40th anniversary of The Color Purple and we honor the life of Valerie Boyd, who enlivened our community at Emory University by not only sharing her story, but the stories of countless other black women, such as Alice Walker and Pearl Cleage, who have dedicated their lives to shaping our world for the better through art and culture.
My initial brunch with Valerie lasted for a couple hours. After I had exhausted all my questions about her book, she started sharing her own story with me. She talked about being born in Atlanta, attending Northwestern University, and about founding the Narrative Nonfiction MFA program at the University of Georgia. I was hungry to learn more because it’s very rare to speak with someone whose life is so expansive. So, at the risk of being annoying, I kept asking anyway, until it was clearly past lunchtime and we both needed to go.
What I realize now, is that our conversation that day never really ended. Even though we walked away from the table, we kept talking after the fact and I continued learning from her over the years. Now that Valerie has passed, our conversation continues still. I, along with everyone else who knew her and has yet to be introduced, get to celebrate her. Valerie allows for the conversation to continue through her writings, her presentations, her correspondence, and the memories of her friends.
With this in mind, I look forward to the day when I walk into the archives, and I see another researcher meditating over a box of materials from the Valerie Boyd Papers. Who knows what incredible stories that researcher will be inspired to tell after they too meet my friend and colleague Valerie Boyd?
Clinton Fluker, Ph.D. Curator, African American Collections Stuart A. Rose Manuscripts, Archives, & Rare Book Library