Black Women and Narratives of Resilience, Revised Edition

by Robin Boylorn (Author)
©2017 Textbook XXXIV, 216 Pages


Sweetwater: Black Women and Narratives of Resilience is a multi-generational story of growing up black and female in the rural south. At times heartbreaking, at times humorous, Sweetwater captures the artistry, strength, language and creativity shared by first-hand accounts of black women in small-town North Carolina during the twentieth century. The book uncovers the versatility and universality of black women’s experiences and their exceptional capacity to love in the face of adversity, and hope in the midst of calamity. Sweetwater is about the black female experience as it relates to friendship, family, spirituality, poverty, education, addiction, mental illness, romantic relationships, and everyday survival. The merging themes show the resilience and resistance that black women exhibit while negotiating the intersecting oppressions of racism, classism, and sexism.
Written from field notes and memory, the author reveals the complexities of black women’s lived experiences by exposing the communicative and interpersonal choices black women make through storytelling. Narrative inquiry and black feminism are offered as creative educational tools for discussing how and why black women’s singular and interior lives are culturally and globally significant.
This revised edition preserves the original narratives but features new content including re-views, re-visions and re-considerations for re-writing autoethnography.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Advance praise for Sweetwater
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Author’s Preface to the Revised Edition (Robin M. Boylorn)
  • Series Editor’s Preface (Mary E. Weems)
  • Foreword (H. L. (Bud) Goodall, Jr.)
  • Acknowledgments
  • Prologue: Telling
  • Introduction: The Call(ing) of A Rural Black Woman’s Story
  • List of Main Characters
  • Part I: (Daily) Bread
  • Chapter 1
  • Window Poem: “Business”
  • Chapter 2
  • Window Poem: “Patience”
  • Chapter 3
  • Window Poem: “Cake”
  • Chapter 4
  • Window Poem: “Moon Looks White”
  • Chapter 5
  • Window Poem: “Long and Hard”
  • Chapter 6
  • Window Poem: “Daddy”
  • Chapter 7
  • Window Poem: “Passin’”
  • Chapter 8
  • Interlude: Porch Premonitions
  • Part II: (Robin) Bird
  • Chapter 9
  • Window Poem: “Fireflies”
  • Chapter 10
  • Window Poem: “Waiting to See”
  • Chapter 11
  • Window Poem: “It Hurt To Be Called Black”
  • Chapter 12
  • Window Poem: “Beauty Marks”
  • Chapter 13
  • Window Poem: “Love Me Tender”
  • Chapter 14
  • Window Poem: “I Feel Saved”
  • Chapter 15
  • Window Poem: “Poem for Mama’s Father”
  • Chapter 16
  • Part III: (Bittersweet) Endings
  • Conclusion: Why Black Women’s Stories Matter
  • Sweetwater Re/View(s): Book Reviews/Book Forum Excerpts
  • Sweetwater Re/Vision(s): Author’s Response to Reviews
  • Appendix A: Method(ologies) How (And Why) I Collected Data
  • Appendix B: Sweetwater Summaries
  • Epilogue: BitterSweet(water): A Meta-Autoethnography
  • Postscript
  • Bibliography

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  Author’s Preface to the Revised Edition


I was initially reluctant at the thought of doing a revised edition of Sweetwater. The first time I held the book in my hands, I inspected each page, fingering the edges and finding minor aesthetic errors that made me feel sick to my stomach. I had wanted it to be perfect. It wasn’t perfect. But it was mine, and its imperfections were my imperfections. Pieces and fragments of my story held together by memory, pages, and time.

Sweetwater is what happened after years of collecting stories, writing, witnessing, remembering, and telling. Many people have said to me after reading Sweetwater that they wished there was more, and of course there is more. There is always more. Telling a story is always telling a partial and partisan account (Goodall, 2000). Stories are fragments of larger narratives, snapshots of lives that keep going long after the telling.

When I was writing Sweetwater I was intentional about the stories I told, and while editing sometimes leaves things out, things you intended be left in, I felt Sweetwater was the story I needed to tell at the time. The story is timeless and resonant, representative and generalizable (and not only to black women). Sweetwater is about living with and through complicated circumstances that center race and gender without being limited to race and gender. It is a living witness and history, archived evidence that the black women I wrote about exist(ed) and their ← xi | xii → lives are worth talking about. The interior lives of southern black women, and the intimacy of their knowing, offers an opportunity to analyze the context of their lives and the influence of factors including race, rurality, regionality, socioeconomics, and gender. I worried that retelling Sweetwater would disrupt or alter the importance of the first telling.

Talking with friends and colleagues led me to imagine the possibilities for a revision. While keeping the existing narratives intact, I could reconsider and reimagine how I framed them, adjust the introduction, expand the conclusion to make additional claims about the relevance of black women’s stories, revise and focus the analysis, include feedback and reviews, offering my response, fill in some of the blanks, correct some of the aesthetic errors, make it more imperfect. I became excited about how a re/vision and re/telling could reconceptualize the story and make it available to an even wider audience.

The success of Sweetwater exceeded my expectations. I am humbled that it has been taken up in the ways that it has, and in the additional work and research it has inspired. Sweetwater has been taught in multiple disciplines (including English, Communication, Education, Sociology, Women’s Studies, African-American Studies) and in multiple ways (to teach qualitative method, creative writing, interpersonal and family communication, the rhetoric of oral history, etc.). It received prominent awards including the inaugural H. L. “Bud” Goodall, Jr. and Nicholas Lee Trujillo “It’s A Way of Life” Award in Narrative Ethnography in 2013, the 2013 Best Monograph Book Award from the National Communication Association Ethnography Division, and the 2014 Outstanding Qualitative Book Award by the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry. In 2016, Sweetwater was included in the #LemonadeSyllabus, a digital collection of works celebrating black womanhood curated by Candice Benbow as an accompaniment to Beyoncé’s Lemonade album, and shared widely across the interwebs. I have had the opportunity to teach Sweetwater in my classes, do readings and book signings at community venues (including Charis Books and More, in Atlanta, GA, the oldest feminist bookstore in the south) and promote the book on a late night TV Web Series (Ladies Night). I have visited and skyped with students who were assigned the book for their classes, given invited talks and lectures about Sweetwater, and published excerpts from Sweetwater in an academic journal. Panels dedicated to reflecting on and responding to Sweetwater took place at the National Communication Association Convention in 2013 (“Sweetwater along the Potomac”), and the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry in 2014 (“Celebrating Sweetwater”). In response to those panels, a Forum on Sweetwater was published in the spring 2015 issue of Departures in Critical Qualitative Research, featuring eleven ← xii | xiii → reviews and responses to the book (excerpts of which are included in this revised edition), many of which were first presented at one of those conferences.

While much has happened since Sweetwater was initially published, what remains is my commitment to privileging the lives and storied experiences of black women, and my investment in the ways we narrate and theorize the scripts and situations black women live in/with.

As a communication studies scholar, I am interested in the ways language creates reality and identity, and how black women’s unique communication practices factor into the ways we understand and express ourselves. As a black woman, I am committed to contributing to scholarship that makes black women visible and viable. I am also curious about what stories tell us, teach us, and show us about ourselves and others. If meaningful communication is storied (Fisher, 1987), and stories are theoretical (Bochner, 1994), then how can we use stories to make meaning and make sense of our lives?

(Re)telling Sweetwater gives me an opportunity to make sense of the lives of Sweetwater women, myself included, in new and different ways. I intentionally did not disrupt the narrative of Sweetwater in this revision. I did not insert any new stories to the pre-existing chapters (though a significant revision was made to the Porch Premonitions/Interlude). Instead, I reconsider and revisit the framing of the book to respond to absences and fill in gaps, to clarify and expand, to think through and explain, and to reflect new theoretical considerations, new research, and new thinking. The revision is not about making Sweetwater perfect, it is about making Sweetwater even more discernable and accessible to black women who may never sit in a college classroom, but who will find remnants of their lives hidden in the pages of this book. I don’t attempt to retell the stories of Sweetwater, only to reimagine what the stories suggest about how black women live meaningful lives despite oppressive circumstances. A student once said to me, in response to reading Sweetwater, that she saw it as a story that urges the reader to marvel, not at my resilience for leaving, but at the resilience of the women who stay(ed). I could not agree more.

—R. Boylorn

November 1, 2016 ← xiii | xiv →

← xiv | xv →


  Series Editor’s Preface

Country Stories With Ties to the City

“If ignorance is bliss then my life has been tragic, marked by the realization that despite my attempts to define myself, I’m often reduced to what the world says I am.” When I read these words by Black woman–scholar Robin Boylorn, I was spun back through my own life, like a Black girl fast dancing with time. Although I was born and raised in the inner city, my ancestors on both my mother’s and father’s sides moved here from the south in the early 1900s, and the Sweetwater stories helped me revisit the connection between my southern ancestry and northern self.

I remembered all of the times we were out of Koolaide, soda, juice, and milk in one roach-infested apartment or another and the only thing I could fix my sisters and brother to drink was sugar water, something sweet seasoned with the taste of being poor—a fact I didn’t realize until I started attending school. I remembered all of the times I watched programming in black and white that reinforced blatant stereotypes about Black people—and Black women in particular—and laughed.

Most important, this quote reminded me of the fact that even today, twelve years into the twenty-first century, media stereotypes about Black women are alive and well thanks to TV commercials that feature Black women cleaning houses and kitchens and cooking fried chicken; thanks to television programs with Black ← xv | xvi → matriarchs running the household and their husbands too; thanks to reality shows where Black women act a fool for the camera and get paid; and films like The Help where the southern Black maid is stereotyped while her experiences in the mid-twentieth century are mythologized in ways that mock the brave women who endured racism, hard work, low wages, rape, and disrespect in order to help support their families.

Where is the programming featuring Black women business owners, doctors, lawyers, astronauts, and PhDs? Where are the stories featuring everyday black women as sheroes rather than caricatures?

Sweetwater: Black Women and Narratives of Resilience is first and foremost a journey through life in a country town through the experiences of its women. In it, Robin returns home, a trained scholar seeking to reconnect with her hometown family and the other people she grew up with in order to gather their stories one at a time and to tell her own. To the extent stereotypes are present in this work, it is not by design but rather part of telling what needs to be told as openly and honestly as possible, keeping the importance of the participants’ feelings about the way they are written about as well as her goal of honoring both the past and present of their lives in mind. Sweetwater portrays Black women as we are: powerful, loving, intelligent, confused, challenged, resilient, and, in the end, hopeful for a better day for ourselves and our families. It is a southern book with a heart strong enough to reach Black women raised in the city.


XXXIV, 216
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (May)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. XXXIV, 216 pp.

Biographical notes

Robin Boylorn (Author)

Robin M. Boylorn is Associate Professor of Interpersonal and Intercultural Communication at the University of Alabama. She is the co-editor of Critical Autoethnography: Intersecting Cultural Identities in Everyday Life and co-writer of The Crunk Feminist Collection. Sweetwater: Black Women and Narratives of Resilience received the 2013 It’s A Way of Life Narrative Ethnography Award, the 2013 Best Book Award by the Ethnography Division of the National Communication Association, and the 2014 Outstanding Qualitative Book Award by the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry. Her forthcoming book, Blackgirl Blue(s), introduces blackgirl (one word) autoethnography as a methodological intervention for women of color.


Title: Sweetwater
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