February 21, 2021

Weena with Dori Sanders, 1998
Weena with Ruthie Bolton, 1999

THE TWO WORLDS OF TWO BLACK WOMEN WRITERS FROM SOUTH CAROLINA

In the fall of 1998, I took Weena to the South Carolina Book Festival at the USC Coliseum on Assembly Street.  We enjoyed hearing some authors speak and looking at the book tables.  She was especially eager to meet author Dori Sanders, whose book Clover she had read.  Dori Sanders was gracious and autographed her latest book Dori Sanders’ Country Cooking: Recipes and Stories from the Family Farm Stand for Weena.

The contrast between this author’s life and that of the younger Ruthie Bolton was striking.  Both are black women who’ve lived in South Carolina all their lives—and both have had success as published authors. Dori Sanders came from a large farm family and her father was a school principal.  They had one of the oldest black-owned farms in upstate South Carolina.  Dori and one of her brothers were the only children who remained on the family farm.  They operated a roadside stand selling their peaches and other produce.  Dori loved farming, cooking, and observing all the people she met at the roadside peach stand. She told stories and was encouraged to write.  Clover was her first success, published in 1990 when she was in her 50s. She was amazed to have a literary agent in New York City, and was able to rent an office in nearby Charlotte, North Carolina, where she could go to write.  She enjoyed the book tours and festivals but was always happy to return to her farm life.

Ruthie Bolton (who never used her real name) was abandoned by her 13-year-old mother and raised by her grandmother and step-grandfather.  She experienced extreme oppression and abuse until her escape after high school graduation.  She was working at a nursery in Charleston 1993 in when a groundsman from author Josephine Humphrey’s home came to pick up some supplies.  She told him she wanted to write the story of her life and he took her phone number to give Ms. Humphreys.  When the author called Ruthie, she recognized the power of her story.  Twice a week for eight weeks, Ruthie went to Humphreys’ home and told her story.  Humphreys took the 25 mini-cassettes, transcribed them verbatim and sent them to a publisher.  Gal: A True Life was published in 1994. Humphreys wrote the introduction to the book and commented that Gal  sold more copies than her own novels such as Dreams of Sleep and Rich in Love. The two women lived ten minutes apart—but worlds apart in their life experiences. 

Ruthie said her experience as a published author was too drastic a change for her.  Although she enjoyed flying for the first time, staying in fine hotels, and going to book events, it was very stressful for her.  People sent her gifts and mail.  Finally, she decided she’d had enough of it and wanted to go home. Her marriage did not withstand the pressures of this period—and ended in divorce.  Except for occasional talks to book clubs or her children’s school groups, she leads a private life.  The newspaper clippings, photographs and gifts were all packed away in her garage. She was glad to have the financial resources to buy her suburban home but went back to work doing bookkeeping and billing at a nearby Firestone store. 

Ruthie mentioned to Weena that Dori Sanders was another author she liked reading, and that she would like to write a sequel to Gal.  As far as I know, she never has.  I often wonder how her life has changed since we visited her in Mount Pleasant in 1994. 

A lover of flowers, Ruthie said her favorite is the sunflower.  She ended Gal:  “I really like sunflower. Because it makes you happy, you know. And if you plant one, regardless of how you set it, when the sun is shining, whichever direction the sun is shining, I swear to God you might see that flower turn yourself. The face of the sunflower will turn directly towards the sun. As the sun moves around, I swear, it moves. It follows the sun.” So did Ruthie Bolton!

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