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A Darker Shade of Cardinal (Stanford Black Alums Coming Back to the Farm)

You will never meet Black folks like this again.

~ A Stanford Black alumnus, Class of 1978

Last month, I had the pleasure of attending my Stanford Class of 1985 Reunion.  Yes, it's been thirty years since I graduated college.  Well, not really, since I didn't graduate with my class.  The beauty of Stanford is that Stanford doesn't care about when you left; what matters is when you came and with whom you identify.  For me, that's the Class of 1985.

But I don't identify with all of the members of the Class of 1985.  I didn't then, and I don't know.  That became painfully clear to me at my reunion.  More on that later.

There's a reason why Stanford ranks so highly among African American students, and it's not its location in Silicon Valley.  Stanford embraces "microcommunities," and it is because of that embrace that I was able to have what I would call a Black college experience in a predominantly white institution, with absolutely no pressure to assimilate.  That's a good thing.  As I said to one of my Black classmates whom I hadn't seen since she left in 1985, my belonging to Stanford, if you want to call it that, is not tied to the institution; it's tied to the Stanford Black community that made it possible for me to get through Stanford while still being myself.  They are my belonging, and it is because of them that I even deign to return to a Stanford Homecoming.

To say that I belonged to the Stanford Black community doesn't go far enough to explain my affinity.  The Stanford Black community is an extraordinary Black college community, and I have both Princeton and Harvard with which to compare.

To its credit, Stanford, the institution, created the environment that allowed this community to flourish.  When I was accepted to Stanford, I had to fill out a housing preference form.  This form allowed me to voice my preference for what kind of dorm I wanted to live in (all freshmen, multi-class, cultural theme house) and whether I wanted a roommate of the same race.  While I thought I wanted to be in a predominantly white dorm (my high school had been extremely diverse), my oldest sister had the good sense to snatch the form from my hands, check the box for me to live in Ujamaa, the Black cultural theme house, and also check the box voicing my preference for a Black roommate.

My life has never been the same, and for the better.

What I experienced living in Ujamaa my first two years at Stanford rooted me in the idea of unlimited Black possibility.  I had never met so many Black folks who were on their way to their dreams -- future doctors, lawyers, engineers, writers, consultants, educators, you name it.  We worked hard -- on Thursday nights, the hallways were full of Black pre-meds and engineering majors working together on problem sets for calculus and a host of STEM courses long before we had the acronym for them.  We played even harder -- the Ujamaa Lounge, or, when a black fraternity or sorority was throwing a party, the Lagunita Dining Hall -- thumped hard with the musical magic our our resident deejay, Greg Gardner, AKA "GG Disco."  Black parties at Ujamaa or Lagunita Dining Hall rarely, if ever, bombed, because he was an excellent deejay with a great reputation not just on campus, but with all Bay Area colleges.

More than that, we had each others' backs.  I remember times when I missed classed because I was either ill or just lazy, and one of my Black classmates would put the class notes under my door.  I remember some Black classmates not having enough money to swing housing fees, and they'd simply bunk with a Black classmate who had housing. When one of us knew of a job opening, whether it was at the Faculty Club, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), the Stanford Mall or doing research for graduate students, we hooked each other up.  At one point, I had four part-time jobs on campus during the summer, all because my fellow Black classmates hooked me up. We shared cars, mopeds, bikes, dorm rooms, whatever it took to get through.

And that Black freshman roommate I was assigned because of my sister's intervention?  She became my best friend and my matron of honor at my wedding.  All of my closest female friends are Black women I met at Stanford.  But for having lived in Ujamaa, I doubt I would have met, dated, and ultimately married Black Man Not Blogging.

In the words of one of my favorite Al Jarreau songs, we got by.  And through.  At least most of us.

I haven't since met Black folks that brilliant, resilient, resourceful, unpretentious and supportive.  Not at Harvard Law School, not at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton. I was naive enough to expect that I would have the same Black experience at Harvard and Princeton that I had a Stanford.  It was not to be, not by a long shot.

But I did have the same experience with white students at Harvard and Princeton as I had at Stanford.  With white students, I had no "melting pot" experience, but a "tossed salad" one -- we were in the same bowl, so to speak, but we didn't become part of each others' lives.  I know few, if any, white classmates from Stanford, and I don't feel at a loss because I received so much support and affirmation from my Black classmates.

When I attended the Stanford Class of 1985 panel discussion during Reunion Weekend and looked around the predominantly white audience, I nodded to myself and thought, "I didn't know these folks thirty years ago, and I don't know them now.  And I'm okay with that."  Why?  Because I looked down the row I was sitting in and down the row behind me where my fellow Black Stanford Class of 1985 alums were sitting and thought, "This is my belonging.  They are my belonging."

Yes, thirty years later, all the Black folks at Stanford were still sitting together.  This time, we all left together, too.

We are a distinct part of the Stanford experience but still part of the Stanford experience.  I prefer to think we are a darker shade of Cardinal.





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