C&IS Storytellers: Dr. Robin Boylorn

Jul 7, 2021

Dr. Robin M. Boylorn is a storyteller, commentator and scholar whose work centers Black women and is grounded in lived experience.

Telling stories was first connected to telling untruths. When I was a little girl and the word “lie” was considered too grown up to say out loud, I would profess, complain or declare that such and such or so and so was “telling stories” on me. That usually meant their version of what happened was not the same as mine, or that they were intentionally, if not maliciously distorting what I perceived to be the truth or leaving out what I believed to be important details and context.

Telling stories, at the time, was a way of acknowledging a perceived injustice and seeking the space and opportunity to offer a counter-story, a different truth, for comparison before punishment.

As an adult, I associate telling stories both similarly and differently than I did when I was a child. Instead of equating storytelling with lies, I now understand that telling stories is akin to truth-telling, and truth is a complicated character. The truth is embedded within, between and underneath the stories we tell, and buried behind the stories we intentionally withhold. Stories help memorialize memories, but often fail to account for the multiple truths trying to be told and remembered. I tell stories as a mechanism for getting to the (small t) truth, and for making sense of those truths through reflection, revision and re-storying.

Telling stories, now, is a way of acknowledging a perceived injustice and seeking the space and opportunity to offer multiple accounts, perspectives, possibilities and truths—a way of anchoring lived experience and making concrete the ways our experiences are shaped by our identities. As a storyteller, I start with and linger in mundanity and ordinariness, but I am also intentional about standpoints and positionalities. Stories emerge through the ways we craft and communicate our experiences, which are framed and understood by cultural contexts, interpersonal relationships, social identity and media.

I believe, like Walter Fisher (1978), that humans are inherent storytellers, and all meaningful communication is storied. Our ears do not always bend to the ubiquitous stories we consume every day, and we don’t always recognize phatic communion, introductions, and newsfeeds as stories, but they are. We don’t always think about communication as storied, but it is.

I tell stories poetically, politically, creatively and unapologetically, but I understand that all stories and representations are partial and partisan, which makes them problematic (Goodall, 2000). Stories are not infallible. We tell stories that tend to focus on our experience (partial), and from our point of view (partisan/subjective), but our stories don’t exist in isolation. We connect to stories like our own because personal narratives and experiences help inform generalizable, epistemological truths.

My career is curated on the ways we use stories to comprehend and critique, to record and remember, to make sense of and explain, and to connect with known and unknown others. Stories are bridges across difference and anchors to understanding.

As a black woman storyteller and autoethnographer my investment in storied scholarship is grounded in the importance of visibility, imagination and possibility. The futuristic and historical promises of storytelling are what makes it accessible, and the ability to deconstruct and analyze stories are what makes them theoretical. Theory urges us to attach meaning and intent to stories, but I believe stories are themselves theories, and we are all nascent if not reluctant theorists. We are all nascent, if not naïve storytellers.

As a child, I told stories to fill in the gaps and rehearse sensemaking. As an adult, I write stories for those same reasons and rely on some of my same childhood rituals. I grew up in a house full of people, so I still write when it is dark outside and everything is still and sometimes quiet so I can hear the rhythm of the words as I type. I still jot down notes in hurried handwriting—names, phrases, scenes or memories on napkins, scraps of paper, or on my hands, careful not to smudge the ink before I can memorialize the data. I still write with the door closed if someone is at my house, and open when I am alone. I still wait to write when I am pushed up against a deadline. I write when the dishes are washed, the clothes are folded, and the bathrooms are cleaned because I am easily distracted by opportunities for procrastination.
I still read for inspiration.

I write memory-heavy stories, grounded in my childhood or past but threaded with the present in ways that establish verisimilitude, coherence and fidelity to my narrative. I write stories to imagine justice when and where it doesn’t exist. I write stories to make claims and cultural critiques. I write stories so I can see and remember myself—and other people like me, and people who are nothing like me.

Stories humanize difference.
Stories shape our realities.

A good story lingers and stays with you. It changes how you think—and what you think about. It resonates and informs how you see yourself
and others. A good story captures your attention and insists existence.

I tell stories to insist on my existence—as a rural black woman—in academic scholarship, popular culture and community.

I know myself because of the stories shared across conversations and kitchen tables with women in my family and community: my mother,
my grandmother, my aunts, cousins, sister and friends.

I found myself in the stories of black women storytellers who told truths and centered the experiences of black women.

I recognized myself in the story-grounded research of black women scholars who insisted that our survival be documented and canonized.

I tell stories to leave the same legacy I inherited, and to silence the lies that are too often spoken out loud.