In this brief review, I wander the dusty back roads of Sweetwater with Robin M. Boylorn. Although I do not know this world personally, the beautiful writing in this book carries me deep into a world where race and class and gender and poverty may well be trumped by love and resilience in the experiences of rural black women. This story has great power.
Dusty roads. Poverty. Sweet tea. Dark secrets. Violence. Sweaty brows. Jesus. Lots of Jesus. Sweet Jesus.
I've never been to Sweetwater, but I have stumbled across small rural places in the South. I did not linger. I'm mostly a city boy who escapes to Western wilderness, not to rural small towns. I am a product of the big, urban-suburban sprawl of Atlanta and Denver. Sweetwater is not my place.
But now, I think I've been as close to there as you can get without having lived there. I've read Robin M. Boylorn's book.1
And this experience triggered a memory.
October 2001. It is my first year at my first real academic job, at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I'm standing in my Department Chair's office. His name is Buddy Goodall. You all know him—or, at least, you know his writing. Privately, I am awed by him, though I would never tell him that. He is, after all, an ethnographic rock star. And I'm a rock star wannabe.
Of course, I'm not the only person who thinks this about Buddy.
I'm pretty sure he thinks it, though maybe he's a little sheepish about it. Just a little. What I do know for sure is that he thinks of himself as a writer, first and foremost. For him, writing is a noble art, a powerful meaning-making enterprise. For him, writing is both search and research. It is a wondrous quest. Writers stir magic into the mystery of life. Good writers stir up trouble, passion, joy, sorrow, anxiety, pain, hope, despair. Good writers move readers. Really good writers move readers to write.
On this day, we are talking about our graduate students. I point to a name on the roster of my upcoming Relational Communication seminar.
“What about this one?” I ask.
He glances at the sheet, smiles.
“Ah, Robin. Have you met her?”
“Uh, yeah. Briefly.”
“Well, she's a country Carolina girl. A little on the shy side, but she's gaining her voice. Keep an eye on her. She's going places.”
He pauses, then: “She's a writer!” he exclaims, with a trace of admiration in his voice.
Now, most of you know that Buddy has left us, has slipped the bonds that held him to this earth. But knowing him as I do, I know at least one thing beyond his reverence for writing. He loved being right. And in Robin's case—was he right!
And I think I know what Buddy saw in Robin's writing. You see, there was a certain something he liked to do in his own writing. Call it diving into the mystery of the ordinary—and finding something extraordinary there. And Robin does that beautifully. Where Buddy did it somewhat sardonically, Robin does it poetically, charmingly, evocatively.
Like I said, Robin finds—or maybe sews, or kneads, or draws, or pulls, or shoves, or yanks, or maybe just stirs up a swirl of extraordinary ordinariness. She takes the ordinary, everyday lives of poor, rural, black Southern women, and transforms them into an remarkable stew of relations, of connections, of the loose bonds of community.
Robin writes the ordinary into extraordinariness. Consider this, a passage randomly selected from her book:
Winters are different. Tempers are short and nights are long and uncomfortable because the heat is generally stingy, sticking to the ceiling of the room where the potbelly stove resides…. Often, large families sit together in one room for warmth or sleep, fully clothed, three or four in a bed meant for one. There are less distractions in the winter, more fights, less work, more foolishness and frustration, less love seeking, more lovemaking.2
That's a simple, though “thick” description of making it through, making do, engulfed in cold and poverty. But what happens next is truly remarkable. The next sentence opens us to an unexpected, new vista:
Whiteness is like air, everywhere all at once, even when you are not paying attention, and invisible…. White people and black people are not scared of each other, but treat each other as if something bad might happen if they actually spoke or touched.3
I did not expect this turn in the road. It just sort of jumped up out of nowhere, making my brow sprout a little bead of sweat. But it is a dusty little washboard country road after all.
And so we enter Sweetwater, this little town on the edge of deeply nuanced, but often overlooked, problems of race and class and gender and poverty—and yes, tragedy. And, while this is a book about expected “big” issues like race and class and gender and poverty, mostly, it's a book about people in the predicaments of place and relationship. This life Robin portrays has bumps and dips and puddles and holes and sharp turns, and much unevenness. But somehow, the women of Sweetwater hold on, and they go on, despite the many odds against them.
This remarkable story of ordinary but remarkable people, in the end, reveals, beautifully, the heart at the center of their resilience, the heart that generates their courage, the heart that binds them together and sometimes tears them apart. That is the magic of Robin's writing. I am in this place with these people, in a place I've never been, sitting with them, feeling their joys and sorrows, their struggles and their strains, their hot flaring anger and their stone cold indifference. I feel their resilience. I feel their heart.
And, in the end, the driving heartbeat of the story arises from the heart—and the art—of this remarkable writer. Listen! If you draw near, you can hear it. You can hear the beating heart of it. You can hear the power in her voice. You can hear the magic in her writing. Because everything she writes shows Buddy to have been right all along.
Robin M. Boylorn is a writer!