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If you like Johnnetta Cole's story, you might also like:
Rita Dove,
John Hennessy,
Susan Hockfield,
Wendy Kopp,
John Lewis,
Jessye Norman,
John Sexton and
Oprah Winfrey

Johnnetta Cole also appears in the videos:
The Content of Your Character: A Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,

Making a Better World: What is Your Responsibility to the Community?

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Johnnetta Cole in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Justice & Citizenship
Freedom & Justice
Black History Month

Related Links:
National Museum of African Art
Spelman College
Bennett College

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Johnnetta Cole
 
Johnnetta Cole
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Johnnetta Cole Interview (page: 3 / 5)

Past President of Spelman College

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  Johnnetta Cole

Dr. Cole, as an anthropologist, I'm sure have many observations about our present society. You've said one of your roles as President of Spelman College is to shatter myths and ignorance. Recently, I saw an African-American woman wearing a tee-shirt that said: "Danger! Educated Black Woman." What is your vision for African-American women in the future in this country?

Johnnetta Cole: Well, I really hope for a great society. I mean, show us a part of the world that doesn't, in some way, admire American society.


I hope that what we have is just the beginning of what it is that we can become. Because what it is that we say and what it is that we do, must absolutely come into greater harmony. This is a nation whose spoken and written vision is chillingly beautiful. That each should have an opportunity. That work will get you where you need to be. That we need to respect each other, including our differences. That's a mighty vision, it's a precious way to talk about the American democracy.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream


I would be dishonest if I said that I thought we had it. If nothing else, look at the recent burning of sacred places. If it were the first time, we might say, oh shame, and let us correct it. But too much of the history of our nation is connected with the burning of churches, and synagogues and other places of worship.


What I hope happens for Spelman students, what I hope happens for all young Americans, is a sense of absolute responsibility for fixing what is not working. I'm really very fond of saying that, you know, the educated person has to have come to understand the world better. But if you only understand the world, and you feel no responsibility for helping to change the world, then I really am not prepared to give you the label of educated woman or man.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity


The struggle, for those of us who are educators, is to help young folk appreciate that very important balance between theory and practice, between knowledge and action. Because if we do not, then who will help reinvent that which needs reinventing in our society, at the same time that we hold onto that which is in good order.

Johnnetta Cole Interview Photo
This is tough stuff. This is not easy work, this business of educating young folk, especially at a time when there is greater discord among us. The quotient of hatred and of bigotry, of mean-spiritedness, is just so intensely high.

Recently, I had the experience of simply being in the presence of Rosa Parks. As I walked just a little ways, holding her, pretending to help her in her 83rd year, but really wanting all that she is to help hold me up, I couldn't help but think about that moment when she simply said, "I can't move. I can't move. My dignity says, I can't move."

It's a long way from there to now. We can get on any bus, go to any restaurant (if you can afford it), go to any school. But what does it mean in our nation to have folks still hate each other? There's work to be done by young folk and us old folk, too.

This is a tall order. What do you think can be done to improve race relations, and perceptions, and ignorance. Obviously, you feel very strongly about this.

Johnnetta Cole: The first thing is to believe that we can change. It's so easy to sit down and say, I don't like this, I don't like that, and I don't like the other. The central question is, what are you prepared to do about it?

One of the folk that I have read and respect most greatly is Margaret Mead. For obvious reasons, as an anthropologist. I think she was the single most influential anthropologist in 20th century life. I also deeply respect the way that she pioneered as a woman.


Margaret Mead once said, "Never doubt the ability of a small group of committed individuals to change the world." It's the only way it ever happens. I think once you believe that, once you believe it really is possible -- to use the most frequently articulated phrase --"to make a difference," then you become an empowered force to do that. Surely, that's what was a part of someone like a Martin Luther King, Jr. He could not have done what he did if he didn't believe in the possibility of change. How could Nelson Mandela have sat for 27 years in prison if he didn't believe in the possibility of change? How could those great sisters, suffragettes that they were, have held on -- until finally in 1920 we women folk got the right to vote -- if they didn't believe that their action could lead to change?

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance


We've got to rev up a genuine belief in our ability as thinking, and caring, and rational human beings to make a change. Who would have believed 10 or 15 years ago that South Africa would be the South Africa of today? Who would have believed the extraordinary changes in Eastern Europe? Who would have believed even 10 years ago that we women folk would be in the places of influence we are in today?

That's my first message to young folk, you've got to believe in the possibility of change. Secondly, you've got to engage with others in meaningful -- please make it legal -- morally sound action to bring about change.

You mentioned Rosa Parks, which brings me to the question of how we select our heroes and sheroes in this country, and who people look up to. Do you have any observations on role models, as far as our values and priorities are concerned?

Johnnetta Cole Interview Photo
Johnnetta Cole: It does worry me, who we project as our heroes and sheroes. It's not as important what folk look like on the outside, as what folk really have as the texture of the soul inside of them. I think this is a meaningful way to present folk. Not by the size, as Martin Luther King once said, of our automobiles, but by the size of our hearts and our souls.

Rosa Parks touches each of us not only because of that very courageous act, not only because it set off a civil rights movement that literally transformed our society. She surely touches us because she is so humble, so lacking in arrogance, so gentle and yet, so exceedingly strong.

John Mack, the President of the Urban League in Los Angeles, has said that his work will not be over until African-Americans in this country go from the back seat of the bus to the front seat of the space shuttle. What is your comment on his observation?

Johnnetta Cole Interview Photo
Johnnetta Cole: First of all, I'm going to steal it. I like it. From the back of the bus to the front of the space shuttle. There's so much in that, not only the notion of moving forward, of getting rid of some idea of second class status, but it also reminds us that not a single one of us is going anywhere without a sense of comfort with technology.

It's something I struggle with. It's not the first thing that I used to think of, to go through my little antics with my computer. But I have come to have enormous respect for what that stuff can do. My caution to all of us is that we use it, that we exploit it, but that in the process we not forget to take care of the human condition.

I was teasing not long ago about my wish to go to my computer and to create a document that would capture all of those ways in which some of us define the rest of us as "the other." All the ways in which people who are Black, or Puerto Rican, who have a sexual orientation that is not heterosexual, people who are older than other folk, people who are differently abled, are somehow cast aside. And, having created a document about all these isms -- racism, and sexism, and anti-Semitism -- then, with delight, I take my index finger and I push "delete" and it all goes away. We aren't there yet. Technology can't do that for us, and until it can, there is still work to be done on the human condition.

Looking back on your own experience, what setbacks did you have along the way? What did you learn from them, and how did you master them?

Johnnetta Cole Interview Photo
Johnnetta Cole: I have been unusually fortunate. Perhaps it's being an anthropologist, where the comparative method is embedded in how you look at the world. When I compare my life with the lives of so many people, I think I have had extraordinary fortune. What I have had, of course, are these characteristics that, not only in our society, but throughout the world, folk want to tell me are handicaps, things which make me less than the best: being African-American, being a woman. There are countless examples that I could give you of ways in which I have had to overcome the images that others have projected onto me.

But in the process of overcoming those images which others project on me, I have an enormous responsibility not to project myths on others in turn. I say that because I think what we're experiencing now calls on each of us to respect difference, not to assume that incorrect notions about gender are the possession of men alone, or to assume that it's only white folk who can project notions of bigotry and hatred. This is something we all better check ourselves out on.

So in the process of rejecting all that has been put on me, I also accept the responsibility not to project that stuff on other folk. I will tell you though, that the assumption of who I am because of the way I look is unending. As the president of a very distinguished women's college, I can't forget what happened the other day in the airport. It seems I live my life in the airport. I'm with my husband and he's accompanying me on a trip a to raise funds for the college.


A woman comes up to me (I'm in the Atlanta Airport) and she says, "I saw you yesterday, how are you?" And I said, "Well, it's nice to see you, but I don't think we met yesterday." "Oh, yes, we did," said she. "You were at the Cherokee Country Club." I said, "Oh, I can assure you, I wasn't at the Cherokee Country Club." She said, "Now come on, I saw you yesterday." At which point I said, "You know, I have a very dear friend -- a Spelman graduate -- whose name is Veronica Biggins. Each of us is tall, each of has a sort of long face, graying hair. You probably saw Veronica Biggins. In fact, I think she may belong to that club." "Oh no," said the person. "I saw you. You were the woman who waited on our table." Now, what do you do with that? You could scream at her, you can get your adrenaline all up, or you can really say, "How sad, that your only image of an African-American woman is someone who waits on you." Rather than spending my energy that way, I'd rather spend my energy helping young folk -- look like me, usually thinner, no gray hair -- helping those young women to go on, to prepare themselves, not to wait tables, but to figure out ultimately the real cure for AIDS. Or to find, perhaps equally significant, why it is that this disease called racism persists.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity


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This page last revised on Oct 09, 2006 16:02 EDT