Barnard College Commencement
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
New York City
Sophomore year, I fell in love. It’s a pretty standard story. We met in class. We had long study dates in the library. I wrote a 13-page paper. Yeah, it was pretty much your typical girl-meets-book story when I picked up Toni Morrison’s Sula during my Literary Criticism and Theory class. It’s a novel about Sula and Nel, two women, friends, who were girls together.
My paper, lovingly and lengthily constructed, was supposed to be five pages. Thank you, Professor Brown, for being nice about that. My paper argued that Sula tells the story of a distinctly female emotional world set in the context of a struggle against male paradigms. But importantly, it’s not a reactionary struggle, not really. It’s Morrison’s poetic dream of a place where women can act authentically, refusing both limitations and the dictate to spend energy fighting them.
To be honest, I fell in love twice sophomore year. While I was swooning over Sula, I was also falling slowly, but surely, for Barnard. Barnard is a place that embodies Morrison’s authentic world and encourages its students to pursue that authentic life. Here, we’re encouraged to create ourselves, active, authentic selves that move in the world and move the world in original, individual ways. In Sula, the women don’t have that encouragement. But somehow, they reject the world’s attempts to tell them who they are. I’m not Nel. I’m not their daughter. I’m me. They choose, as Morrison says, an experimental life, a life that will help them discover who they want to be instead of accepting who they are told to be. As Sula says right after her graduation from college, “I want to make myself.”
Many of us have grown up believing we can do or be anything. Nel is alien to us when she admonishes Sula, “You can’t do it all. You can’t act like a man. You can’t be walking around all independent like.” She ends exasperated, “You still going to know everything, ain’t you?” Sula is much more familiar to us when she replies, “I don't know everything, I just do everything.” This last part, as we’ve already heard, could practically be Barnard’s motto. Don’t we all feel that way? God, I just do everything. But Morrison doesn’t suggest that women, as many Barnard women try to, have to do everything all the time. Instead, she encourages us to be willing to try anything without surrendering to fear of what we don’t know. For Sula, doing everything without or despite that fear encourages her to explore the edges of herself, to start the process of self-creation.
For many of us, Barnard has been a place to start building. For many of us, the process has been uncomfortable. We started with self-excavation, clearing out old certainties about who we were and how we moved in the world. I, for one, felt like the nexus hole, a gaping cavity that I was assured had great potential, but which never seemed to show any real progress.
But things got easier when I found friends, like Nel and Sula, friends who used each other to grow on. We learned to stop looking for ourselves as if we could be found somewhere shiny, intact and complete. We learned to feel out our edges, even when they scared us, discover the worlds and the selves we wanted to build. And like the Diana, we began bit by bit to take shape.
Sula is not a happy book. But it is a beautiful one. It’s a love story in the tragic form, a tale of women’s love skewed by, but ultimately surviving, more traditional paradigms. And it’s an important story, one of smart, strong and, I’m sure, beautiful women, friends who love each other dearly, even when they lose sight of one another. And at the very end, it’s the blueprint of an authentic world, a world that we can carry beyond Nel’s final looping cry of mourning for Sula into an active celebration of our friends, our love, our stories and ourselves.
And so, as we leave Barnard, I hope we bring this authentic world with us. I hope we find the beauty in life, even when our lives are hard. I hope we continue this process of self-construction. I hope we keep sight of our love for each other, our friends, in the end who grew up together. And as a foundation for all the years and all the selves to come, I offer Sula’s fearless words to inform, support and inspire us all. “I got my mind. And what goes on it. Which is to say, I got me.” Thank you.