“This is nowhere near the whole story.”
I was reminded of that fact in late March, during a virtual conference hosted by Boston University, where historian and writer Jelani Cobb was discussing what he called the “particular power” of narrative.
“We make sense of the world through narrative,” Cobb said. “We create a beginning, middle and end of a set of events and, through that beginning, middle and end, [we] convey values, ideas, perspectives about the world we’re inhabiting.”
At the time, we were deep in the process of developing this issue of Williams Magazine. Building on the success of the fall magazine, we cast a wide net to students, faculty, staff and alumni—never expecting that, once again, so many would graciously answer our call to share their scholarship and their ideas, their struggles and their experiences, to help us make sense of the times.
As we did in the fall, we offered writers the emotional and intellectual space to share what was in their hearts and minds. And yet the magazine you now hold in your hands is nowhere near the whole story. Nor is it an unvarnished story. From our selection of writers to their choice of topic and words, from the order in which stories appear to how illustrators and photographers bring them to life, narrative storytelling involves decisions that manifest the conscious and unconscious biases of all the people involved at every step of the process.
In his address, Cobb spoke of another complication of narrative storytelling: “Even in our best strivings, there are questions we don’t ask, and it’s in the unasked questions that we wind up creating a perspective by omission, even if we don’t want to create one by commission.”
While we can never eliminate any of these imperfections, acknowledging them helps blunt their power to exclude. So, too, does expanding the kinds of stories we tell and who tells them. As we embrace the diversity of thought and experience of Williams’ many communities, let us always strive to ask as many questions as we can—and appreciate the answers we receive.