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Now She Walks “Wrapped In Rainbows”: Reflections on the Life of Writer/Editor Valerie Boyd

todayFebruary 24, 2022 52 1 1

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By Sara Lomax-Reese | WURD Radio

“Listen more often to things than to beings. ‘Tis the ancestors’ breath.”
~ Poem by Birago Diop; Music by Ysaye Maria Barnwell; Sung by Sweet Honey In the Rock

Are you there, Val? It’s me, Sara. I’m envisioning you walking peacefully, upright, regally as you moved through this world just months ago. Powerful. Strong. Grounded. Wise. 

What’s happening on the other side? Are you chilling with Audre and Toni and bell and Ida? And I know for a fact you made a beeline for the Queen herself: Zora. You were inspired and determined to tell Zora Neale Hurston’s true, nuanced story. “Wrapped in Rainbows” was your ode to your muse. I knew you were smitten when we traveled to the Zora Neale Hurston Festival in Eatonville, Florida, in the early ‘90s. A caravan of Black women on a mission to pay love and respect to this fierce, brilliant, trailblazing sister. You traced her footsteps, making sure her life would be known, celebrated, revered. And now this … I am writing my own ode to your story — at least the parts where our lives intersected. 

Valerie J. Boyd, the New York Times did an obituary on you. Writer, editor, storyteller, entrepreneur, magazine founder, friend, confidante. What a gift to have started my career with you by my side. I often say that I’ve spent my entire career as a Black media entrepreneur. It’s true. And it started with our collaboration; co-founding HealthQuest: The Publication of Black Wellness. 

When I heard of your passing, a dear friend asked, “How did you two meet?” While I don’t remember the exact moment, I know it was 1991, not long after I traipsed down south behind my then boyfriend (eventually husband). I was 25, you were 27. Young in our careers but bold and confident, assured that we were going to change the magazine world. 

It didn’t take long for us to realize that while our personalities were very different, we were kindred spirits. In one of our early conversations, I shared that I was being beckoned to join my family’s successful health-care management company based in the suburbs of Philly. I had graduated from journalism school, had a couple of internships under my belt and wanted to build a career. But at that time surviving on a freelancer’s budget was akin to being a starving artist. Back in Philly, stability and opportunity awaited in the form of some type of PR role in the family biz. I knew I wanted to eat, but I wasn’t ready to park my pen just yet.

You were a copy editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution with several side hustles: editor of the National Black Women’s Health Project’s publication and your own arts and culture magazine, EightRock. As we talked and I shared more about my family situation, you said: What about a Black health magazine? Something that married my family’s health care interests, our passion for journalism and a hole in the marketplace.  At that time, there were no nationally circulated consumer health magazines serving the Black community. 

We pitched the idea to my mother and father when they came to visit me in Atlanta. They had the financial resources to fund this startup idea, but more importantly they believed deeply in Black self-determination and understood the importance of culturally specific health information for our people. My father had been a practicing physician in Philadelphia for 32 years caring for the city’s most vulnerable communities. My mother had been steeped in holistic health practices my entire childhood, way before it was en vogue. While none of us knew what we were really getting into, we took the plunge.

HealthQuest: The Publication of Black Wellness sprung from our hearts and minds sitting around dining room tables – mine in Buckhead, yours in the West End. We published our first edition in January 1993 with an amazing team of young Black creatives. No ads. Lots of fire. That first issue tackled abortion rights and the politics over controlling Black women’s bodies. The front cover screamed: “How Free Are We,” and it featured an illustration of the naked torso of a Black woman with suit-and-tie-wearing white men peppering her body. I remember our first bit of press came in USA Today with a piece announcing our debut. The article listed our fax number for subscription inquiries. (This was way before email and social media were ubiquitous.) Within hours, my small upstairs home office started buzzing with fax beeps. The word was out. HealthQuest was here.

And then the real work began. How do you transform an idea into an enterprise? Neither of us knew the full answer. But we had energy, vision, passion, tenacity, courage and incredible creativity. Eventually we had to divvy up responsibilities. You leaned into editorial development; I got immersed in the business side. 

It wasn’t all roses and rainbows. After two years in Atlanta, I returned to Philly, newly married and determined to build the HealthQuest business model. You were always very clear that you would not be leaving your beloved hometown. This was long before we had the technology and mindset to embrace remote working.  

With office space, legal and financial support available, HealthQuest was headquartered at my family’s corporate offices. We needed to figure out how to create a sustainable business — fast. We had to expand beyond stellar content and develop a plan to generate ongoing revenue — how we sell advertising, build subscriptions, develop a marketing and distribution plan all while managing expenses. We found out really quickly that without deep pockets, print magazines are expensive and difficult to maintain. 

After a few years, fissures developed as the balance of power started to shift. Everything was based in Philly: new staff hires, the printer, the financial foundation for the business. Eventually we decided to go our separate ways. I don’t remember all the details of the dissolution of our partnership, but I know we were able to navigate it without intense acrimony, in large part because of your grace and grounding. I continued publishing HealthQuest for about another five years, until 2001, when the Sept. 11 attack rocked everything. Shortly thereafter, I decided to close the magazine after an almost 10-year run. 

Fast forward to now … Early Sunday, Feb. 13, when I got the call from HealthQuest’s first art director, Marcia Minter, I knew it couldn’t be good. I hadn’t talked to Marcia in a very long time. Voice quavering, she didn’t mince words. Val had passed peacefully the night before. It was like someone hauled off, wound up and kicked me right in my gut. I literally doubled over. You, who were so clear and strong the last time I saw you in June. Smiling brightly. Locks full and long. Driving your Mini Cooper like a boss. We ate lunch outside at some eatery in beautiful, gentrified Hotlanta. You checked in with me about my unwinding marriage. You counseled me to just get out there. We laughed. You gently urged me to embrace this new phase of my life. 

You were my model. A few years before in 2018, before the pandemic, we met for dinner at another groovy eatery, that time in Decatur. We hadn’t seen each other since 2010 when I had a layover in Atlanta on my way to South Africa.  It felt so good to reconnect. We were older. Wiser. Kinder. More humble. We talked about “getting the band back together again” – a kind of HealthQuest revival. You brought me up to speed on your journey. Illness. Recovery. Relationship shifts. A new home. Teaching. Powerful projects. Editing the Alice Walker diaries. The journey. You shared how you were able to extricate yourself from a loving, committed, long relationship with peace, compassion and love. Huh? Really? We spent hours as I saw that perhaps uncoupling from my almost 30-year relationship didn’t have to be violent, angry and sad. Maybe it could be liberating and empowering. Imagine that. How fortunate to have a friend who could model a life transition that society says must be messy and mean. Not so, said you.  

You were a deep, patient listener. Wise, wonderful and intense. That has always been your M.O. On Dec. 11, your birthday, I texted you: “Happy Birthday VJB!!! Wishing you boundless joy, peace, health and happiness. Celebrate the amazing life you have created. Enjoy!”

You responded: “Thank you so much SLR. I am feeling very grateful today. Also happy we are still in each other’s lives. Let’s catch up soon. Love you.” 

While we didn’t talk again, we exchanged a few more texts and emails. I am very grateful to have known and worked with you, witnessing your brilliance up close and personal. What a gift. May you continue to inspire us from the other side harnessing the abundance of ancestral wisdom that you channeled throughout your lifetime. We are all the richer and wiser for it. 

1Love, Again, and again, and again.   Sara

 

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Post comments (1)

  1. Phil Johnson on February 27, 2022

    SLR, I find your VJB tribute mightily sincere and with warm courage…the reading time has allowed me, an absolute stranger, to know a little of you both…the print edition actually morphs into a pairing visualization of two souls, two hearts, two eyes, two feet, two hands, two journeys, etc….of two sistahs…

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