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Johnnetta Cole

Interview: Johnnetta Cole
Past President of Spelman College

June 28, 1996
Sun Valley, Idaho

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Let me start by asking you about your early years, where you grew up and where you went to school.

Johnnetta Cole: I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, in the intensely segregated South of the 1940s. I grew up under conditions that fortunately no longer haunt our nation. The end of segregation is something that each of us should never forget. We also need to remember that segregation's end does not mean that bigotry, and hatred, and racism are over.

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But I also grew up in an extraordinarily warm and reaffirming family. It's perhaps because of those dualities that I am who I am today. I think, in part, it's because so much of that larger world said "You are second best," that my folks managed to say to me, "You are the best that you can possibly be and become, if you work at it."

I grew up in the African-American family in Jacksonville. My great-grandfather on my maternal side was Abraham Lincoln Lewis. A.L. Lewis they called him. Talk about an entrepreneur! Talk about a man of vision! In 1901, he had the wisdom, somehow with a group of other African-American men to start a company. As an anthropologist, studying years and years later, I came to understand that what they had actually done was to pull on an old African pattern of having folk pay a little each week, to draw out what was there when the need came. He and his colleagues actually founded the very first insurance company in the state of Florida. Not the first black insurance company, the first insurance company.

Despite the fact that ours was a family of means, there was so much that we could not do. There was a swimming pool across the street that I couldn't go in, it was for white kids. There was a library that bore my great-grandfather's name, the A.L. Lewis colored branch of the public library. But I knew that in the main library there were newer books and more books besides. And so I grew up with this duality, again, of a family that was strong and encouraging, deeply involved in notions of faith, and of community service, but in a society that challenged my worth because of the color of my skin.

I am eternally grateful to my family for teaching me to believe in myself. And to indeed become who I am.

Beside your great-grandfather, what person inspired you most as a young person?

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Johnnetta Cole: My great-grandfather, A.L. Lewis, had a very close friendship with a woman who today I would call one of my sheroes. Her name was Mary McLeod Bethune. A woman who herself came out of conditions of poverty, but who believed in the power of education. She started a school which still exists today, Bethune-Cookman College. I admired her greatly. I used to have the privilege of going to Daytona Beach to see her. When I was a little kid, I think what I loved most were those great hats that she wore. But as time passed, and I learned of her relationship with President Franklin Roosevelt, and with Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, I came to see this woman as a giant.

I saw her as a public expression of all that I saw privately in my own mind. I saw a woman of enormous strength, and ability, and compassion, and wisdom. Mary McLeod Bethune said, "One must lift as one climbs." What I saw in her, and what I admired so deeply about my own mom, was this belief. That one has the right to lift oneself up, that aspirations are perfectly normal, to be encouraged. But to soar oneself, with no regard for others, is irresponsibility.

In a way that continues to echo in my own life, I see that the public figure of Mary McLeod Bethune, and the private, the loving, the intimate persona of my own mom, Mary Frances Lewis Betsch, really set what it is that I wanted to become.

You mentioned the library and the value you've always placed on higher education. What book did you read when you were young that inspired you in that library?

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Johnnetta Cole: First, I must tell you that the librarian was my mom's dear friend, Olga Bradham, and I admired her, too. I read anything Olga Bradham put under my eyes. But I do remember having a very early sense that I wanted to read books that were about my folk. I wanted to read books that said in some sense who I was. Reading about Dick and Jane who were white and perfectly happy with their little dog was fine. But to read of things that reflected who I was meant an enormous amount to me.

I was fortunate, I was given books. I was given biographies about Marian Anderson. I learned early in my life that Frederick Douglass had tricked a little white boy into teaching him how to read, and that he went on to write. So African-American history books, no matter where they came from, were the kinds of things that I loved to read very early on, books about the culture of a people who in fact were so old, so ancient, and the source, in a sense, of all humanity.

Do you think those early passions have influenced your career and your present position as President of Spelman College?

Johnnetta Cole: It's always easy to make things go together and say, this is the cause and this is the effect. The truth of the matter is that while I loved to read those sorts of things, I would always say I wanted to be a doctor, a baby doctor. In those days, if you were a girl, somehow you weren't going to be a neurosurgeon, or a vascular cardiologist, you were going to be a baby doctor.

So, although the things that I read were so often about Africa and about African-American people, I was going to be a doctor, until I went off to college. I chose a course one day at Oberlin. It seemed like a perfectly good course. It met at a decent hour. The prof was said to be okay. It would satisfy my social science requirement. I walked into a course that changed my life.

George Eaton Simpson, who I am still in very close touch with, in his 90s, stood up, this tall, lanky, white American man, and he put a record on the record player, started to simulate hyperventilation. Music was playing, which I learned later was the music of Jamaican cults, and he began to hyperventilate in a simulated way, to move to the music and to talk about what were the retentions of African culture in the New World ways of Black folk.

Well, good-bye medicine, hello anthropology. I had never heard of such a word. What was anthropology? But it was in that extraordinary moment of intellectual excitement that I discovered a field that has become, not just a way that I make a living, but a way that I carry out my life. So, it is tempting to say that the sorts of things that I was hungry to read as a youngster came full circle into the profession of anthropology.

Would you say it was this teacher, George Eaton Simpson, who most inspired you, or challenged you and opened up these new possibilities to you?

Johnnetta Cole: Surely, it was George Eaton Simpson. It was also Milton Yenger at Oberlin, a number of professors. But I inevitably go back to my first grade teacher.

I give Mrs. Vance all the credit. Because, as if it were this moment, I remember my first day in first grade. And Miss Vance (She was called, by her friends, Bunny Vance. Not very tall in stature, but a giant in terms, it seemed to us, of knowledge, and compassion, and wisdom) asked that each of us should say our name. And we began to go around the classroom. And I remember it came to my turn, and I stood up as I had been instructed to do and sort of bowed my head a little and mumbled who I was. And Mrs. Vance came directly in front of me, looked me directly into my eyes and said, "Never, ever again mumble who you are. Stand up, feel good about who you are and speak to the world."

We've got to remember the tremendous influence and power of a single teacher, at a given moment, in a child's life. Although I can't say that I have always followed Miss Vance's advice to the tee, I'd like to think that I've tried. And I know that there's a feeling of deep love and gratitude for the influence that she's had on my life. So I pay tribute to those teachers in my early years. Despite our criticism of what's going on in so many areas of public education in our nation, there are still teachers with that wonderful, revolutionary idea that every child is educable.

How did you get along with your classmates in school? What were some of your activities in those days?

Johnnetta Cole: I loved school. I thought school was just great stuff. And somehow, I don't remember being teased because I liked school, being isolated, being called a nerd. And I remember now, and remember with a kind of mixed emotion, that I was growing up in the segregated South, going to segregated schools. There was a point when we went to school only half of the day, because the school board in Jacksonville, Florida said that was enough for colored kids. They'd learn all they needed to learn in half a day. I loved school and I think surely a great deal of the explanation must be in the Mrs. Vances of the world. That these were women, rarely men in my early years, who honest to goodness had a revolutionary idea. That every child is educable. That there's no such thing as a child who cannot learn. And so, learning was an activity that one wanted to engage in. Going to school was fun. And I guess, in a sense, I've never given up that passion.

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Just this last semester at Spelman, I did not teach, as I have traditionally done over the nine years that I've been a president. I didn't teach Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, or Introduction to Women's Studies. I took a course. I actually did all the work. My paper was two days late, but I got a forgiveness from my professor. Mary Catherine Bateson, known by many as the daughter of Margaret Mead, was in residency at Spelman. She taught a course called, Women's Life Histories. I was absolutely ecstatic. Here I was, doing what I loved to do most: learning, challenging ideas, rejecting easy answers, looking for what might be another way to understand.

Dr. Cole, when did you first know that you wanted to be the president of Spelman College?

Johnnetta Cole: I was a very happy professor at Hunter College, where I was teaching anthropology, doing the sorts of things that made me intellectually and personally very happy, when the word came to me that there was an opening for the presidency at a place called Spelman College and I should apply. My first reaction was to fire off the letter that I had fired off to other schools making an inquiry and say, "Thank you very much, I'm honored, but no thank you."

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Then it began to strike me that this was no ordinary school. I talked with two women in particular, each of whom is quite close to me as a mentor, and each of whom I would define, again, as a shero. One, who was then the President of Hunter College, was Donna Shalala, later the Secretary of Health and Human Services. The other, a Spelman graduate, was Marian Wright Edelman, the President of the Children's Defense Fund.

Those were the two women who convinced me that this was no school to turn away from. I cannot ever express to each of them -- and to others who encouraged me -- my gratitude. Because it has been one of the most satisfying and exhausting things that I've ever done in my life.

Being the first African-American women to head the college took courage and strength. Could you tell us what it took to attain that position?

Johnnetta Cole: Ours is a nation that loves the first. We really do relate to the first to do this, and the first to do that. In one way it's very exhilarating. You can almost take yourself too seriously, until you realize that something is probably wrong. Being the first probably says, "Why has it taken so long?"

I pose that question to myself, why, in the 107 years of the history of this historically Black college for women, there had not been an African-American woman president. I asked myself that question and came up with the answer that there were actually many women, many African-American women, who could have done it. Our society had made the mistake of not giving them the chance. And so, what that does is to give you a sense of enormous responsibility. Because what you're really doing is carrying out this job, not just for yourself, but for all of those sisters who were denied the opportunity to do so when they were really quite prepared.

It's been a very special experience. Spelman, an outstanding, small liberal arts college, really belongs not just to the 1,900 women who are there. It belongs not just to African-American women. It really belongs to all women. And what belongs to women, at least in my world view, must belong to men also. So it's a treasure. It's a special place. It's an institution that challenges so many of our myths and absolutely inspires, by what these young women are able to do.

After recognizing the absurdity of a predominantly African-American women's college never having had an African-American woman as president in 100 years, it sounds like perseverance was needed to correct that absurdity.

Johnnetta Cole: It's easy to talk about perseverance. One of the great expressions of my Southern upbringing is that one should stick to a task "like white on rice." Every now and then I experience what this means in real life.

I was asked to give a speech. It was graduation time. And for this particular high school I said, of course I would. The schedule worked. And I went and I sat, waiting for my turn to speak, when I noticed that we were about to hear a song. And one of the graduating seniors stood, a young man went to the piano, and she began her song, and then she broke down, emotionally overtaken. And the audience clapped and she went back to her seat. I was then introduced to speak. And it hit me that I could not go and give that commencement speech, not at that moment. And so, I went to where the young senior sat and I reached out to her and I took her, literally grabbed her and brought her back to that microphone. I put my arms around her and I said, "You've got to try it again." And the young man looked at me as if to say, "This is a little out there, but I'll go along." He began to play and she sang. She was immediately overtaken again by the emotion. And I held her tightly, helped her sing it, encouraged her classmates to join us, and together we got through that song. I went to the microphone and I said, "Well, young graduates, that is your commencement message."

It's about perseverance, it's about not giving up. Of course, I'm a college president, you know I had to give the rest of the commencement address. But I use that example to say that there's probably little in life that matters more than first believing in one's ability to do something, and then having the sheer grit, the sheer determination, the perseverance to carry it through.

Do you recall what that song was?

Johnnetta Cole: Yes. The Wind Beneath My Wings.

What was the reaction of the audience?

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Johnnetta Cole: I don't think I have ever had such an overwhelming reaction to something that I have said or done. And I give a lot of speeches or, as one of my sons says, I'm forever speechifying. It was a very moving moment for all of us. There's a huge file now, of letters from parents, from students who were graduating, from people in the community who simply heard about what was done.

I take those letters not as tribute to something that I did that was so great, but that it touched a deeply human emotion and need: the need to persevere. I'm convinced that, if you look throughout American history at all the folks that we so deeply admire and love, you will not see in a single one of them the absence of perseverance.

At the college, you are affectionately called Sister Prez. I understand you have this name because of your love for your students, considering them daughters, who look up to you as a role model.

Johnnetta Cole: I really do love what I do. It's impossible to love being a college president without loving the students who are there. These are young women, young African-American women, like young women all over the world, struggling to find that set of possibilities that they can soar and touch. But these are young Black women, so they have at least two challenges: a challenge to who they are, based on race, whatever that is, and based on gender.

How can you not love these young women who day after day destroy myths? At Spelman College, 38 percent of these students major in mathematics, biology, chemistry, computer science, and a dual degree program in engineering.

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What does it mean for a young African-American woman to major in physics? It means she rejects some notion that women cannot do science. She is totally unimpressed by ideas that African-Americans are not good at math. How can you not love folk who smash myths that ultimately destroy us all? How can I not love these young sisters, who are so bright, who are off to be doctors, and lawyers, and business folk, and poets, and philosophers, but who also care about folks other than themselves.

Granted, we put a great emphasis at Spelman on community service. But the truth of the matter is, these young women come there already involved in doing for others. They seem to have gotten, in their own family settings, in their schools, in their churches, in the Girls Scouts, in the Y, wherever they've been hanging out, they have gotten this notion. Let me use the words of Elie Wiesel, who said, "Our lives belong not to us alone. They belong to those who need us most."

To see these young, really brilliant, accomplished women spending their time rocking babies in the special pediatric ward of Grady Hospital, or serving up food in a homeless shelter, or tutoring little girls and boys in an after-school program, that to me is to see human beings that you must love.

So, I agree. I feel close to these young women. They are, in many ways, the daughters that I did not have. I count on them. I believe in them, because it really is their generation. It represents the only future that I've got.

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.

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.

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.

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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?

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?

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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?

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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?

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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.

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

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

Dr. Cole, let me ask you about an issue that's often discussed on your campus, that is balancing family life with a professional life. What advice do you have for men and women faced with that?

Johnnetta Cole Interview Photo
Johnnetta Cole: I'm going to draw on the works of a dear colleague and a friend, who I mentioned a little earlier. One of my closest friends in the world is Catherine Bateson, also an anthropologist. Catherine wrote a wonderful book called, Composing A Life. It's a book about five women, she's one, I'm one and there are three other women.

It's a complex book, but if I can try to say in simple language what it's about, it really is about women and all that we do. Catherine (and I share her view) rejects this notion of us women folk as jugglers. You know, that gives you the image of all these things up in the air and something is bound to fall. Rather, the image is one of improvisation. Of taking what is there at any given moment and creatively finding ways to make it all work. Composing our lives.

The message that I want to give to young women, and to young men as well, and to us older women and men too, is that a consciousness about what we're doing might help us see that uniformity, that singularity, that oneness of purpose, may not be the best for these times, maybe for any times. Perhaps we should learn from women who are multiple in who they are, and what it is that they do.

Johnnetta Cole Interview Photo
I appreciate that in putting a value on complexity and multiplicity, I may be ignoring what it means for my sister who has just come in from work, as has her husband, who has a mound of work to do tomorrow. Who must now get the kids fed, get the homework overseen, clean the house, put a load of wash in. Perhaps I'm simplifying things, when what I should say is, why doesn't he come and help?

Suppose he too had more than one job to do. Suppose his life consisted of creativity and improvisation, and composing in process. Obviously, my goal is for each of us to participate as parents. For men and women to nurture, for us to co-nurture. We're going to have a much richer world when each of us is involved in a diversity of ways of being human.

Dr. Cole, you said one of the adversities you overcame was the criticism that you sustained when President Clinton first took office. How has the criticism of your work or ideas affected you? How have you changed, and how did you deal with that criticism?

Johnnetta Cole: What I learned most of all during that period was the power of belief in self. A belief in one's self is not the same thing as arrogance. A believe in one's self is not the same thing as ceasing to care what others believe. But if you really know yourself, if you believe in who you are, it's amazing how much criticism you can withstand. I was, again, exceedingly fortunate.

The charges that were leveled against me, I found it important to say very little. The folk who spoke were amazingly effective in saying how they perceive me. The Atlanta Jewish community, responding to some unbelievable charge that I was practicing anti-Semitism. The Atlanta business community, responding to a charge that I was a communist. And so, others spoke up. And I think the lesson to be learned there is that when we are connected to folk who are being charged unfairly, it is our responsibility to speak up.

Do you think your upbringing and your early years have prepared you to deal with these important questions and adversities that you faced later on?

Johnnetta Cole: I don't think there's any question about that. It would be rare for a day to go by without my having a flash from Mt. Olive AME Church, in which I sat as a kid, often too long. It seems to me church went on forever. Or a flash of some moment of counsel that I got from my mom. Or some instruction for a given moment in a day, that comes from a recollection of an experience with my sister, as we grew up, or with my younger brother.

Johnnetta Cole Interview Photo
I think who we become is strongly shaped by who we were, but I don't think it determines all. That's important to say, because I think we're constantly working on ourselves. We are works in progress. To say that who I am was set in those early days in Jacksonville, Florida would give me little credit for the human capacity to learn, to change, to grow.

Regardless of what field someone chooses, what personal characteristics do you think are most important for success?

Johnnetta Cole: I think it is impossible for someone to succeed in anything if that person lacks integrity. If it's a person without a moral core, without a center, without a set of beliefs about what is right and what is not right.

I happen to think that we can live in this world together with different values, but you've got to have some and you've got call them your own. And you've got to be true to them. So I think a sense of personal integrity is absolutely key.

I would add to that. I think it is impossible to succeed at anything without perseverance. It all may look easy, it may look so almost dramatic to be in a place with these important lives. But these are folk I'm sure...I know I can say it for myself, who have spent enormous numbers of hours working, persevering, not giving up.

What advice do you give to young people just starting out, looking back on your own successes and failures over the years?

Johnnetta Cole Interview Photo
Johnnetta Cole: My advice to young folk is that of all the things in the world that will happen to them, I just hope in those later years they will be able to say, "Somebody was a little better off because I was around." You can't see yourself now at that age, but do your best to live this life so that when you get there, you feel good about it all.

What do you know now about achievement that you did not know when you were younger?

Johnnetta Cole: I've learned that achievement is a process, not an event. I think we often create this notion that you do all of this stuff and there, 4:30 on a Thursday afternoon in the month of October, you have arrived. I don't think that's the way it goes. You get there only to use it as a platform, to go again. That new arrival, if it has any meaning at all, inspires you to take off again.

What do you think it takes to achieve in America, and what does the American Dream mean to you?

Johnnetta Cole: The American Dream really means to me, no more and no less than what Dr. King captured in that incredibly moving Washington speech. The American Dream means to me that little girls and little boys who are Black will be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. That's the American Dream.

Johnnetta Cole Interview Photo
What does it take for all of us to achieve it? A whole lot more hard work. I think it takes our government's involvement, because it's only from that broad macro view that a body of legislators, and a president, and a set of judicial systems can do the things that need to be done.

I think it involves our corporations, and our foundations, our institutions of education and of culture, committing and recommitting to this dream. But if government did all that it can do, if corporations, institutions and foundations did all that they could do, there would still be a lot of work that can only be done by us, as individual Americans.

The challenge is for each of us in our own way to make sure that our daily lives, our daily action is in valuing others, not by the color of the skin, not by the shape of the body that creates a gender, not by what we think are the beliefs and the religious way of a person, but by the real content of that person's character. That to me is the American Dream

My final question, Dr. Cole, going back to the library for a moment, what one book would you select to read to your grandchild?

Johnnetta Cole: The one book that I would want to read to my grandchild is the book that I have yet to write. It's a book about friendships that cross lines. Friendships between folk who are black and white, or Jewish and gentile, or young and old. Books about friendships between people who are rich and poor.

I'd want to read that book, because I think the message I want my grandchild to get is that one of the most precious things in this world is to be able to genuinely appreciate difference, and to strike to the core of being human, and that is to engage in a true friendship. Lots of folk have, in a sense, written those books, but I'd like to write it for my own grandchild.

Dr. Cole, is there anything else you'd like to say before we conclude our conversation today?

Johnnetta Cole: Just one thing. This is really a privilege, and I'm grateful.

Dr. Johnnetta Cole, President of Spelman College, thank you very much for this wonderful time together.

You're welcome.




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