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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: 4 / 5)

Past President of Spelman College

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  Johnnetta Cole

Dr. Cole, you mentioned good fortune as in your life and your career. What was your first big break in your career?

Johnnetta Cole Interview Photo
Johnnetta Cole: I think my biggest break was as a 15-year-old kid, because my pushy parents, my wonderful mom and dad, sent me off to take a test that allowed me to go to college at age 15. So I never finished the 12th grade of high school. I say that was my first big break because it defined me in no uncertain terms as a scholar, as a little intellectual. So many of our images of black folk and of women, are not as the intellectual, not as the scholar. It's the athlete, it's the entertainer, it's the mom, it's the social worker, but not the intellectual, not the scholar.

In some ways I always try to be conscious about where it is that I am and how it is that I got there. I love that African proverb that says, "You can't know where you're going unless you know where you've been." We do need to think about these moments of transformation, these defining instants in our lives. That was one for me. In some ways the die was cast.

Being an intellectual was clearly being affirmed in me, and I've liked it. I see myself still in those terms. I love ideas, but as I shared with you earlier, the notion of someone who wallows in ideas and does not participate in the world of action is not the notion I want of myself.

What did your parents think when you first told them what you wanted to be?

Johnnetta Cole: I've written about this, because that was certainly one of those defining moments. I left the place that I went to study as a 15-year-old, Fisk University. It was a wonderful experience, in a historically Black university. I then went to Oberlin College in Ohio, known as one of the top small liberal arts colleges in our nation. Then I came home, having discovered anthropology.

Of course, I went to pay my respects to my grandfather. By that time my great-grandfather, A.L. Lewis, was no longer living. But his son, James Lewis, Poppa, my grandfather, my maternal grandfather, sat waiting for me to come to pay my respects.


After the hugs, and the warm exchange of greetings I declared, "Poppa, you won't believe this, but I'm going to be an anthropologist." And my grandfather looked at me -- this African-American man who had very little formal education, but who had grown up in this insurance company, and had gone on to watch his father become the first black millionaire in Jacksonville, and he walked in his father's footsteps and was now himself a man of great economic means, respected in the community -- looked and me and laughed. He said, "What's that?" And "How in the world are you ever going to make a living doing that?" I was crushed.


As best I could, I explained that an anthropologist was someone who was interested in the world, and in people, and in how people live. And my grandfather laughed further, and said again, "How in the world are you going to make a living doing that?"

I broke into tears. I had come home expecting all kinds of kudos for my discovery of this word, this field, this profession. Fortunately, my mom was there when I ran to her and related what had happened. In that setting, my mom gave me some advice I have never forgotten. She said, "Is this something that you feel passionately about?" And I said yes. And I began to talk, I guess in a way that was convincing, that I cared about this stuff. I was excited about it. I was intellectually on fire. And my mom said, "Then you had best follow your passion." And I can tell you, it is the advice that I give to Spelman student after Spelman student.


My grandfather wanted me to be an insurance executive, to carry on the family business. Lots of folk would say to my early declaration of being a doctor, "Oh, that's good. That's a good thing to do." But what I wanted to do, what I had discovered, the real passion, was for this thing called anthropology. And how fortunate I am that my mother affirmed it. That she said, "You must do what you feel passionately about." And I really think that all folk need to do that. The idea of getting up in the morning to do what you think others want you to do is not a very interesting way for me to imagine living a life.

[ Key to Success ] Passion


Have you had any significant setbacks in your life? How have you dealt with them? Have you ever had doubts about your work, your ability, and do you ever worry about failing?

Johnnetta Cole: A great question. And the answer is, of course, of course, and of course.

Johnnetta Cole Interview Photo
There have been things that have been very painful, personally and professionally. Personally, I would say that ending a 22 year-old marriage was a very painful experience. Most of us, of my age, grew up thinking that marriage was forever, that you exchanged these vows, and that was it. If it didn't work, it was a failure. If it didn't last, it was somehow your fault.

Working through that process was a very important thing for me to do personally. It's something that many folk in our society have to do, men and women. It's obviously something that our children, the children of parents who divorce, must work through. But I'm convinced that it is possible to come through that very painful experience as whole people. I look at my three sons from my first marriage and I'm really grateful that these are three young men who, obviously, have suffered in some sense from the break-up of that marriage, but ho have managed to be themselves whole human beings.


Professionally, of course, I've had disappointments. And I would say that the most painful for me was recently when, coming out of my work with President Clinton on the Transition Team, I served as the Cluster Coordinator for Education, and for Labor, and for the Arts. I was literally attacked. Attacked in the media, called names that I knew didn't belong to me. Accused of things that I knew that I had not done. It's a very painful experience to be attacked. It's not pleasant to look at a newspaper and to see people saying untruths. But it's in moments like that that I think one really comes to grips with the absolute core of who you are as a person. And it's also in moments like that, that you really discover the extraordinary power of friendships, of collegial relationships.

[ Key to Success ] Courage


Regardless of the amount of pain in both of those experiences, I feel good about the outcome. I guess that's the message, it's not what is happening through that painful experience, it's where you end up as a result of that experience.

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