Conditional Love

Shall we relax or wriggle in Mama Stanford's embrace?

March/April 2006

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Conditional Love

Sophie Blackall

“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind but wise.” This was Toni Morrison’s acceptance lecture for the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature. She opened with a fable. A story, if you will, about the role of a storyteller in society. In my years at Stanford, I have sensed that we have our old woman, too, one with a story and a history, heartbeat and a pulse.

This old woman houses many children between her walls. These children gestate within her. They grow—sprouting eyes, and ears, and arms. They get breath from her. They listen. They shout. They cry.

My classmates and I are children of this old woman. Though we hardly ever look like siblings, we come from the same womb.

Sometimes it is easy to let this Stanford mother love me. To let her clasp me to her liberal bosom or hide me behind her skirt of generously funded research. To allow her to caress me with sunshine that is never too hot and a winter that never brings snow. To forget that she is an oasis, a haven amid tumult—apart from the uproar that, when I am being honest with myself, I feel should be uppermost in my mind. Like all mother-child relationships, our bond is complex.

I am here because Swarthmore didn’t take me. And Howard offered no money. And because, coming from Ghana, I was impressed by the fact that Stanford’s admissions office sent out a brochure whose glossy cover glowed with pictures of palm trees.

That is the glib version of my journey here—the one I tell on first dates, the one that makes for a good story. But that is not the real reason. I am here because I knew of no way to say no when Stanford had said yes. That is the true story.

The role of the storyteller, Morrison says, is to narrate the untold story. By that she means the story with all the creases, the story in its totality. That is the story I struggle with telling. Because it is never the good story.

Two days into the summer of my sophomore year I fell ill—ill with debilitating nerve disease that brings chronic pain and feelings of invalidity. In my first quarter back, I fell intellectually, going from being a stellar student, to one who struggled to find any footing. I discovered for the first time that a transcript made more than just a seamless stream of vowel sounds. A transcript could make nonsensical words, with consonants, short phrases that audibly grated. I fell in my own eyes from being a person who ran things and merited fellowships, to being a statistic—another tragic minority student facing adversity.

It is in telling this part of my autobiography that I face the quandary between telling the true story and telling the good story. I love a good story—a triumphant story, one with resolution and an Andrew Lloyd Webber score playing as the credits run. What is the function of wise women if not to create good stories? What kind of bastard offspring, in the telling of the failure and the fallen, have I somehow come to be?

It would make a much better story if Leland Stanford Sr. had built this school after his son died and it had never privileged white men and limited the enrollment of women. It would make a much better story if this school were only a haven of human rights activists and not also a feeder for corporate America. It would make an even better story if the racial diversity of the student body were not coupled with the uniform brownness of the people who clean it. A story can only be flawless if some narratives are excised.

There is a girl down the hall who throws up every afternoon in the tiny bathroom across from my room. I hear her as I walk in from class—the high sound of running water the only clue that she is in there trying to purge her pain from her purpose. My freshman year, my roommate starved herself for seven days in the Quad with other student activists—to help persuade the University to pay its janitorial staff a living wage. I mention these things not to sensationalize or enrage—simply to remind myself of who we are in our entirety.

This mother of mine does not always understand me, does not represent me. But I am here because she chose me. I am an international student, a black woman, an African writer, a physically disabled convalescent. Her skirts are not my comfort zone. But sometimes lost in the night, with my head buried in some book that some dead man wrote, I feel very much at home here.

This old woman who is storyteller, this old woman who is Stanford, makes narrative that is inherently complex. She is, as in Morrison’s words, both the law and its transgression. She is both the institution and the revolution. I am her child, a mixture of misfortune and magnificence— a riot of contradictions, an amalgamation of inconsistencies: a story, perhaps, that’s both good and true.

FAMIA NKANSA, ’06, is a psychology major. This essay is adapted from her speech at the 2005 Founders’ Celebration. This year’s event will be April 9.

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