This essay introduces the author's mentoring relationship with Robin M. Boylorn, whom she advised as a PhD student from 2003 to 2009. It describes their initial meeting and the relationship they developed as Robin completed her dissertation, which became the book Sweetwater. It discusses the ethical issues in doing autoethnographic research about one's family. Though of different races, Robin and her mentor both came from working-class, Southern backgrounds. In Sweetwater, Robin goes back home for both of them. They continue to meet often and enjoy being colleagues, family, and “just folk” together.
“There's someone I want you to meet,” Bud Goodall yells toward me, over the heads of three groups of people. It is 2002 and we are at one of our lively University of South Florida (USF) parties at the National Communication Association (NCA) Annual Conventions, this time in New Orleans, LA. I have been meeting and greeting all evening, maneuvering through the packed room of graduate students, alumni, faculty, and potential faculty hires. Bud's voice calls to me. Even from this distance, I can see the twinkle in his eyes and hear the enthusiastic insistence in his voice. The person he wants me to meet must be special. Bud and I gently push our way around the overheated bodies to meet half way. When we do, he places his hands on my shoulders, leans in next to my right ear, and whispers loudly, “Her name is Robin. She's a Southern country girl … and a fabulous writer.”
“I'll be right there,” I say, as Bud nods and heads back to where he had been standing. I pause. And then, foregoing all the meets and greets I have initiated, I make my way back to him, waving and talking briefly to those I pass, and promising to return.
“So where is this incredible writer?” I ask, as I approach Bud and look around.
“I want you to meet Robin,” Bud says, stepping aside to reveal a stunningly beautiful young woman. Her elegant dress and high heels paired with her mahogany skin make her stand out among the blanket of casually dressed and white graduate students and young professors. She extends her hand cautiously, as though afraid I might not take it. “She is finishing her MA with us, and is looking for a place to do her PhD.”
“Hi Robin, so nice to meet you,” I say, tempering my usual enthusiasm so as not to frighten her. “I'm Carolyn Ellis, a professor at the University of South Florida.”
She smiles as I let go of her hand, and steps back, so that half of her body is once again covered/protected by Bud's body.
I move sideways, to be in better contact with her. “What are you interested in?” I ask. Bud takes a step in the opposite direction, and now Robin and I are standing face to face, slightly apart from the crowd.
“I like to write,” she says, then hesitantly, “about African American women in the South.”
“She writes about her life growing up in rural North Carolina,” Bud joins in, when it's clear from the pause that Robin is not going to say more.
“That's wonderful,” I say. “I write about growing up in the mountains of rural Virginia. I call what I do autoethnography. I guess you've heard of autoethnography since you've taken courses with Bud.”
“Oh yes, with Dr. Goodall and Dr. Poulos,” she says. “I think that's what I want to do.”
Now it's my turn to smile. “I think you'd fit right in at USF. Let's stay in touch.” She nods and again moves back a step.
Later Robin will tell me how insecure she felt the evening we met, about academia and her place in it, about the streets of New Orleans where she was ogled and harassed, and about meeting professors whose work she admired. She will say that she always felt we first met on the page, when she was in graduate school and read “There are Survivors” in a Life Writing class with Bud and Final Negotiations in a Relational Communication class with Chris Poulos.1 “I remember,” she will say, “studying your image on the sleeve of the book. I imagined your voice when I read your words, the cadences and Virginian mountain dialect disguised by living in the Northeast, and the pain and loss bleeding off the page from living through so many tragedies in so few years.”
She will tell me that despite her familiarity with me and my work she thought of herself as forgettable, and not someone I would remember.
But that night in New Orleans, I can't get her out of my mind. There is something about her.
Robin applies to USF; she is admitted; she accepts, and in March 2003 she visits the university to find a place to live. During the visit, my partner Art Bochner and I take her and another potential graduate student out for a Thai dinner. We ask for chopsticks. When Robin says she has never eaten with chopsticks, I show her how. After trying for a moment, she picks up the fork beside her plate. I tell her about a Chinese student who took Art and me to a Chinese restaurant and insisted on eating with a fork while we used chopsticks. “She told us that chopsticks were too slow,” I said. Robin nods and smiles at the story. But still she hardly eats, instead staring at her plate and moving around the food with her fork. I tell her to try the Crab Rangoon. She says it's good, but I notice she gulps as the first bite goes down, her eyes get bigger, and she follows the bite with big swigs of water. Later she will tell me that the cream cheese and fake crab filling oozed into her mouth and she had to hide how much she hated it. Her palate is accustomed to batter-fried chicken; salt, pepper, onion, and ham-hock-seasoned collards; green beans; sweet potatoes; and black eyed peas, sopped up with sweet corn bread covered with lots of butter: the food served in the back country of North Carolina, and in the valleys and mountains of rural Virginia; the food that Robin would cook for me later and we'd enjoy together. I understand because I had similar experiences when I first tried French and Indian and Turkish and Ethiopian and Vietnamese cuisine when I moved from Virginia to New York to attend graduate school. I didn't know how to use chopsticks then, either.
Robin will tell me how terrified and intimidated she was at that dinner and how she had asked Bud before she left home, “What if they take me to a fancy restaurant? I don't like fancy food.” Bud had laughed heartily and reassured her that she would be fine, and that we would not rescind her acceptance to the program because of her taste in food.
“I wanted to make a good second ‘first’ impression, to answer your questions, and to have questions,” she will tell me later. “There I was, a rural black girl at a fancy restaurant with academic royalty, trying to (literally) swallow food I didn't recognize and not give myself away as a country-ass black girl completely out of her element. I felt privileged and humbled to be there with you and Art. It took me several months before I felt comfortable being myself around you, before I stopped being afraid of being judged, being seen. You didn't do anything to make me uncomfortable. It's just that I was trying on the possibility of my new self, the self that was good enough and smart enough and capable enough to deserve the opportunity to be a graduate student at USF.”
Her words remind me of how insecure I felt when I first went to graduate school.
Robin takes my class in autoethnography; she takes Art's class in narrative; she takes all the classes we teach. She writes; she astonishes; she writes more; she astonishes more. She chooses me and Art to be her mentors. We choose her to be our student and our academic daughter. She names me “Mami.”
Later, when we talk about why she chose that name for me, she will say, “I come from a community where folk are rarely called by their birth names. Giving people nicknames and shortening their names are gestures of love and respect. I call my biological mother ‘Mommie’ and my grandmother ‘Mama.’ I felt that calling you Mami not only acknowledged how special our relationship was to me, but also signified that we were chosen family for each other. Calling you Mami doesn't mean you birthed me, but it does mean you carried me—in concert with the other mothers in my life—through the process of getting my PhD and becoming the woman I am.”
Throughout the PhD process, I want to carry her gently—to challenge her to be all she can be, but not push her too far. “You're interested in examining your own experiences,” I say, when she is ready to propose her dissertation research. “How do you feel about studying your home community?”
Robin looks enthusiastic and then hesitates. “I am interested in portraying the place I came from, the experience of being there, for me and for the women in my life who were there before me, for me, and who are still there, making a life,” she says, “but …”
“But collecting and telling stories from that place, my place, and bringing them to the academy scares me.”
I wait, but she doesn't say anything more. So I say, “I always wanted to study my rural community and regret that I never did.”
“I want to do it,” she says, letting her excitement run full force now, spurred perhaps by my regret. I tell her that together we'll figure out what to say and how to say it, and even more importantly, what not to say and why.
Later she will tell me that in some ways she saw this study as being “our” study, a way for her to “go back home” for both of us. I often found myself experiencing her project vicariously, though I did not tell her so, at least not then.
We meet regularly. Robin tells me stories of growing up in a small, working-class and black community in the rural South. They are stories about violence, racism, alcoholism, family secrets, deceit, running around, disappointments, joys, celebrations, and adventures, and the women, always the women, who are there for her. I tell her stories of growing up in a small, working-class, and white community in the rural South—of the area known as “colored hill,”2 of racism, of alcoholism, family secrets, deceit, running around, disappointments, joys, celebrations, and adventures, and my family—the women and men—who were always there for me. Exhausted from recounting the memories, we hug and shed a few tears. She goes off to write, while I sit and stare at the photos of my family tacked on my office wall, considering the similarities (and differences) in my and Robin's experiences. I recall the stories I have written about growing up in the rural South, and inspired by Robin's courage, I consider those I still want to write.3
Robin gives me pages, some similar to the ones that follow this introduction. I eagerly take in every word, image, emotion, and scene. I am astounded by her talent, her ability to take her reader into the action and emotions. She makes me feel, taste, hear, and be with the women—and her—as they live through the complexities and mundane details of daily and extraordinary life. We talk of ethics, responsibilities, hurt, and pain as we consider what to reveal and what to conceal, how to tell it, what to tell, how to protect, how to take her academic words back home, how to bring her home life into the academy, for what purpose, and with what result.
We continue talking in years that follow about the ethical complexities of writing and publishing Sweetwater. What if her mother gives her consent but still is uncomfortable with what she wrote? What if family members are hurt?
“Will they tell me?” she asks, tears gathering in her eyes.
“Ask them,” I say.
“I did. I read some of what I wrote over the phone to Mommie.”
“‘Well, that was how it was,’ is all she said. Another time, she said my writing made them look bad, but when I responded that I'd take out anything she thought was negative, she told me I was overreacting and that I should write whatever I needed to write. And then in another conversation, she said she'd “get used to it.' But how can I really know how my writing affects her when I know she wants me to get a PhD more than she wants to protect herself?”
Every year since Robin left Tampa, FL, for her faculty position at University of Alabama, we arrange to meet at NCA. The year is 2013. Excited to see her and celebrate the publication of Sweetwater, I arrive at our meeting place early. As she walks toward me, I note that people approach her from every corner. She waves to those at a distance and hugs those close enough to reach. She fills the room; she owns the room; she is an academic socio/emotional/intellectual storytelling star. “Hi Mami,” she says loudly as soon as she spots me, waves, and hurries over. A few people turn and stare. We pay them no mind; we enjoy their curiosity about who we are to each other. We hug and dance around. It is a family reunion and an academic celebration.
She tells me about her latest projects, her writing, a trip to South America for a conference, excursions to New York City for research and to attend Broadway shows, the people she has met, the foods she has tried, the new experiences she has had, the awards she has won. I revel in Robin's latest accomplishments and honors, as well as in the person she has become.
The conversation turns to the ethics of her research. Now it's my turn to be the student. She tells me about taking Sweetwater to her mother's church for a reading. “I was anxious about how the women who were represented in the book would feel,” she says. “I was also nervous about dredging up things from the past in the space where my Mommie lives. Even though most of the church folk there already know most of the specifics of our story, even though their stories are no different, I was afraid that I was dredging up long-buried stories and secrets and the consequences of doing that would hurt. And, the book is not particularly religious so I worried about how the ‘holy rollers’ would react to the realities of our lives. So in that space, I focused on the stories in Sweetwater as testimonies to how far we have come and how present God is even in the worst circumstances.”
“So how did it go?”
“Tell you the truth,” she chuckles, “most of the church ladies just wanted their book signed. They bought it because I had written it and they came to hear me speak because it was me. They hadn't read it and had little interest in reading it. They had little curiosity about the ethical issues I brought up about why I did this and said that, and how I tried to protect them and Southern black women in general. But the really cool thing is that my Mommie was vocal in that space. She talked about her initial concerns and how she now sees our stories as representative of others' stories and thinks it is important for them to be made public. She said how proud she is of me and proud that our story is out there, and that there is now a record of our lives, that we exist.”
“The kinds of things you wanted from her earlier, but she couldn't say.”
“Yes. I understand now why she couldn't say those things when I needed to hear them. It took me a long time to live with the stories and get used to telling them and seeing them in print; no surprise that it took Mommie a while as well.”
“She had to be able to see and feel the value of the stories for herself, before she could grant the value of you telling them,” I say, and Robin nods.
I enjoy visualizing Robin in front of the church reading from her text. Calling on my own feelings, I imagine how proud the church ladies—especially her Mommie—must be of her. I hear her telling them how Sweetwater is testimony and how the stories in the book are evidence of God's grace. I see them nodding in response. Then I think about the ladies standing in line with their copies of her book, and Robin chewing on the end of her pen, thoughtfully hesitating, then writing something unique and meaningful to each recipient.
As I listen, I celebrate that she continues to hold on to the country girl part of her being: her “mother wit” or common sense; her love and connection to God, family, and community—her “roots”; her care for others; her desire to be true to herself and tell her/their truths. I hear a bit of Southern drawl in both our voices as we relax, enjoying being “just folk” together.
Ah, sweet mentoring. Sweet.