Valerie Boyd

Photo courtesy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In the beginning there was “connection and fear.” That’s how Valerie Boyd (J85), arts editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, describes the genesis of her sojourn to write Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston (Scribner, 2003; paperback due 2004) about the Harlem Renaissance writer who is receiving a new surge in interest.

In 1994 Boyd, then a reporter at the Journal-Constitution, her hometown newspaper, made her annual trek to the Zora Neale Hurston Festival in Eatonville, Fla. There she heard author Robert Hemenway critique his 1977 book Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, pointing out things he felt he missed because he was a white man writing about an African American woman. He declared that it was time for a new Hurston biography to be written, and it needed to be written by an African American woman.

“When I heard those words, I felt it was my calling,” Boyd says. “But even though it felt like something I would do, the thought of doing it was just frightening.”

Maybe she would be ready in 10 years, she decided. But a year and a half later, Boyd received another nudge — a telephone call from John McGregor, an independent literary agent who had gotten her number from an unidentified source. He was inquiring about her interest in writing a Hurston biography. At that point, Boyd surrendered. “I felt like fate was calling me — and that Zora herself was calling me — that this was the work I was destined to do,” she says.

Boyd had been introduced to Hurston’s work as a freshman at Northwestern in an African American studies class taught by the late novelist and professor Leon Forrest. “I felt a connection with Zora when I first read Their Eyes Were Watching God,” says Boyd. “I was just amazed that someone could write a book in 1937 that still spoke to me so urgently.” Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston’s best-known work, is a journey of self-discovery featuring an early 20th–century black woman. Boyd was inspired to read other books by Hurston and everything she could find about her, and she made the trek to the Hurston Festival every year after it started in 1990.

As interest in Hurston has grown recently, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor, and Oprah Presents on ABC bought the film rights to Their Eyes Were Watching God. Cheryl Wall, author of Women of the Harlem Renaissance and chair of the English department at Rutgers University, says Hurston “was surely one of the most important African American writers of the 20th century and undoubtedly the most important [African American] woman writer of the first half of the 20th century.”

Hurston published four novels, two books of folklore, an autobiography, many short stories and several articles and plays throughout her 30-plus-year career as a writer, folklorist and anthropologist. Although a luminary of the Harlem Renaissance, she died in poverty in 1960. Her grave in Fort Pierce, Fla., remained unmarked until 1973, when one of her literary descendants, Alice Walker, found it and placed a headstone there. Walker’s interest helped bring Hurston’s work back into print and introduced a new generation of readers and scholars to her.

Like Walker before her, Boyd made a pilgrimage to Hurston’s grave. This was when she was pondering whether to begin the biography. “I felt that you couldn’t act on her behalf without asking her permission first,” Boyd says. She brought some of the things Hurston loved: Florida oranges and Pall Mall cigarettes — and money, something Hurston never had enough of.

Moments before Boyd left the grave site, a black crow appeared. She remembered that at the first Hurston Festival in 1990, a big black crow arrived on the scene. Its presence was so prevalent that festivalgoers started calling the bird “Zora.” Boyd took the crow’s appearance at the grave as a sign that Hurston had given her blessing to tell her story.

One of Boyd’s first challenges was to track down people who had known Hurston personally. They were all elderly, so time was of the essence. Three of the people Boyd interviewed — Dorothy West, John Henrik Clarke and Louise Thompson Patterson — died before the book was completed.

Another challenge was filling in the gaps in Hurston’s biography. She was born in 1891 in Notasulga, Ala. As a toddler she moved with her family to the town of Eatonville in central Florida, the first incorporated all-black town in America. She was 13 when her mother died, and she left home not long after because a stepmother arrived too soon. At age 26, she entered high school in Baltimore, claiming to be 10 years younger. In her book Boyd says Hurston survived during “the wander years” by doing housekeeping and other menial jobs. Boyd also believes that a painful love relationship during that time provided the basis for some of Hurston’s male characters. Hurston finally arrived in Baltimore as the maid for the lead female singer of a traveling theater troupe.

After 4 1/2 years of research, Boyd was ready to write. She was drawn back to Florida, where Hurston wrote most of her books. During a year and a half of writing, Boyd kept a photograph of Hurston on her desk and would read portions of the book aloud to it.

“Sometimes,” Boyd thought, “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 says Hurston also appeared in her dreams at critical moments. “It was a real intuitive, spiritual process working on the book, [but] it wasn’t like I was channeling her,” Boyd says. “I really did have to work. It was a serious process that tested all of my skills and training.”

“Communing with the ancestors — we have to respect that. Valerie is on a spiritual journey, like Alice Walker,” says E. Ethelbert Miller, director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University and the author of Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer.

When Boyd met Alice Walker and told her that she was writing Hurston’s biography, Walker “touched my face and said, ‘Bless you, my child,’” Boyd relates. Later, Walker would offer an immensely gratifying and important “stamp of approval” for the jacket of Boyd’s book: “After finishing Wrapped in Rainbows, I wondered which of three words best described it: magnificent, extraordinary or masterpiece.”

Boyd credits her training as a journalist, particularly her foundation at Medill and the jobs it opened up to her, for aiding her research and helping her make the biography accessible to a wide reading audience. She also points to her MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College in Baltimore as critical in helping her to apply the tools of fiction to a nonfiction book.

“The biggest lesson that this process taught me was faithfulness — having faith in myself, having faith in this story and having faith in destiny,” says Boyd. “The biggest mistake I could have made would be to write a boring book about [a woman] who’d lived anything but a boring life.”

Boyd’s journey isn’t over. She owns the film rights to her book, and she hopes to see Hurston’s life immortalized on the silver screen.

Alvelyn J. Sanders (C90) is a writer living in Atlanta. Her work has appeared in Essence, CrossRoads and Black Issues Book Review. She is also a regular contributor to WABE-FM, Atlanta’s NPR affiliate.

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