When a mutual friend called to let me know Valerie Boyd had joined the ancestors, I already knew. The night before, I had felt the rush of something irreplaceable leaving us way too soon. Now, I’m not usually mystical about such things, but if this were Star Wars, I would say I felt a disturbance in the Force when Valerie took her leave. So, I closed my eyes and sent up a prayer of deep thankfulness for her life well-lived and for the gift of knowing that at her passage from this plane to the next one, she was surrounded by the songs and prayers and memories of those who loved her. Including me.
But when you’ve enjoyed 30-plus years of a friendship, it’s difficult to know how to curate all the memories that come flooding back in no particular order. Of course, we want to celebrate the depth and breadth of her contributions as writer, editor, publisher, producer, scholar, and educator. And I do. Her work at the University of Georgia to build and nurture a program in narrative nonfiction will live on in the hundreds of students whose lives she touched with her love of writing and her unshakable belief in the hard work it takes to do it well. Her project to bring Alice Walker’s journals to print will forever inform the study of Walker’s work in the same way that her Wrapped in Rainbows became the definitive biography of Zora Neale Hurston.
The list of her professional accomplishments is long and well-earned, but those are not the things that will make me miss her most. Should I tell you instead about those informal gatherings at her art-crammed and book-filled apartments and, more recently, at her perfect jewel of a house within walking distance of an always sun-dappled lake? Should I tell you how she once talked me into doing a reading at the Margaret Mitchell House when I had sworn I would never darken that doorway on account of some unresolved issues between me and Miss Scarlett? I can’t even remember what she could have said to make me finally agree to do it, but Valerie would not take no for an answer. It was easier to just agree and ask her where and what time.
Should I share with you that insane weekend when Valerie was co-producing a show at Club Zebra with my husband, Zaron Burnett, and how when they went to fetch the star from the airport, the diva raised such a ruckus that I thought we might have to cancel the show and use the money to bail them all out of the Atlanta city jail? Or should I tell you how she made me understand the biographer’s challenge when I bumped into her in the early stages of her research for Wrapped in Rainbows, and she was so excited about finding a grocery list in Zora’s own hand. When I expressed my dismay at the importance she was placing on what I considered to be a nonessential item, she just smiled and said, Well, if you don’t want me to be picking through your grocery lists, you better start focusing on what clues you intend to leave behind. And she was right, which is why my papers now reside at Emory’s Rose Library.
Our last meeting was on my front porch a few months ago. It was a beautiful Atlanta day, sunny and sky blue. She brought me a copy of the galleys for Gathering Blossoms Under Fire, the culmination of her 10-year Walker project. Even in soft cover, the book felt fat with love and serious with scholarly intention, just the way it was supposed to. I congratulated her and we fist-bumped in deference to the pandemic even though we wanted to hug each other tight and thank the Goddess for these lives we were so busy living. I was so proud of her and, as she headed back down my front walk to her car, You did good, I called after her. Thanks, she said, smiled, waved, and then she was gone.
It was only after I sat down with the book a few hours later that I realized she hadn’t signed it. Knowing that some writers are superstitious about signing galleys, I figured I’d get her to personalize one at the first book signing, where it was my intention to be first in line. That is still my intention, although there will not be a signature to mark the moment. There will only be a space where we were hoping she would sit. A space for us to fill with all the memories we can hold and all the love we can carry. She was our brilliant friend and even though we wish she could have stayed a little longer, we are grateful for the light of her life that will continue to be a lamp unto our feet. Ashe.
Playwright, journalist, poet, and novelist, Pearl Cleage is currently the Distinguished Artist in Residence at the Alliance Theatre.