Welcome to our ICONversations, a series where you will hear iconic Black feminist anthropologists answer five questions about their intellectual projects and growth, what their work has meant to them, and the imprints they want to leave on the world.
In this episode, Brendane and Alyssa speak (and cry!) with Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole, a Black feminist anthropologist who has practiced within and beyond the academy. We loved how she saw the vision of our questions and how she stands firmly and powerfully in her lanes while putting joy and passion first.
In her words: “Joy is a human right.” Dr. Cole was the first Black woman president of Spelman College, served as director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, and continues to follow her passion through activism and scholarship.
Zora’s Daughters Podcast: Season Three, Episode 11
Co-Hosts: Brendane Tynes and Alyssa James
Total Length: 00:44:59
[00:00:00] JC: I was very blessed to know Dr. Maya Angelou [pause] and you can imagine how many books she signed. We know how many she wrote. We know her impact. Still in our lives. And the way she would most often sign a book was with these three letters followed by an exclamation point. J-O-Y.
[00:00:36] [MUSIC PLAYS]
[00:01:08] AJ: Hey everyone! Welcome back to Zora’s Daughters, the podcast where we share Black feminist perspectives and close read pop culture and other social topics that affect Black folks, I’m Alyssa and I use she/her/hers pronouns.
[00:01:22] BT: Hey, y’all! My name is Brendane, and I use she/her/hers pronouns. Today we have part two of our series called ICONversations. Where we asked Black feminist anthropologists five questions about their lives and careers. And today we had the honor, pleasure, all—insert all of the words, of speaking with Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole, which was incredibly moving to say the very least. Dr. Cole is an anthropologist, educator, museum director and university president. Born in Florida in 1936, Dr. Cole began university at the age of 15 with early admission to Fisk University. She later transferred to Oberlin College and earned master’s and doctorate degrees in anthropology from Northwestern University. She conducted her dissertation field work in Liberia. She held teaching positions at Washington State University, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Hunter College until 1987, when she became the first Black woman president of Spelman College. Dr. Cole has over 70 honorary degrees, like 7-0, has served as director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art and published several articles, essays and books including the groundbreaking Gender Talk: The Struggle for Women’s Equality in African American Communities, and most recently, an illustrated book entitled African Proverbs for All Ages.
[00:03:00] AJ: So, I am not exaggerating that this discussion with Dr. Cole brought us to tears. Literally, I was feeling them but being both repressed—according to my therapist—and an Aquarius—which I guess those two things are one and the same—I was pushing them away. Until Brendane. Brendane just had to let them all out.
[00:03:25] BT: [Laughter] You had to let it all out. I am a Pisces moon, which means I—and since I’ve done a lot of work in therapy on not repressing my emotions—I cry. And there wasn’t no stopping me. Like I told myself, we had a little pep talk before we entered the conversation. I wasn’t gonna fangirl. I wasn’t going to cry. But just in talking to her and talking about the impact of her work, all I could see was 21-year-old Brendane sitting in her dorm room poring over Gender Talk and trying to make sense of the way the world hurt me. And realizing that somebody had actually done that before and that I wasn’t alone in doing anthropological work on Black gender. That my work and my life mattered. And I encountered Dr. Cole’s work when I was trying to answer the question of why Black women find themselves sacrificed for Black men’s self-fulfillment. And I got my answers, or at least some of them. The answers that I needed to do the, to do my thesis. And it was just, it was so moving. I learned how to make sense of myself and my community. And honestly, that is the true power of Black feminist work. Like her work truly brought me back to myself so, whew [laughter]. I can’t even talk too much now or else [laughter].
[00:04:58] AJ: Yeah, exactly. As I was like writing up our stuff, I was getting a little bit misty eyed again and I was like no, no, stop it. And really, it’s because if I could project myself into the future, Dr. Cole is who I would want to be like. And I just wish that you all could have seen what we saw and maybe we could if we did video. But probably, probably not gonna happen, sorry y’all. But it was just the way that she moved her fabulous—I mean, these were some fabulous tortoise shell glasses that she had on. When she said that anthropology is a lens and she kind of like moved the glasses, she was like anthropology, the lens through which you see the world. When you realize just how deliberately she speaks and emphasizes with gesture, but also the warmth and the sisterly love she had for these two graduate students and all of Zora’s daughters, you know. When she responded to our emails, she was like, hey, sister Alyssa, absolutely, I will be there. I will join you on this, you know, in this conversation. And I think we’re both going to comment on this, but her humility is remarkable. And I noticed that even in the interviews I read to prepare for our conversation, she truly celebrates the talents of others while standing firmly and powerfully in her lane. And yeah, it was just awesome. And I mean that in the true definition of that word, not the colloquial way that, like, we North Americans use it [laughter]. I am full of admiration and love for having had that time to spend with her.
[00:06:36] BT: Yes, it was to speak with the anthropologist whose work like shaped my own. Like just witnessing her humility, but also to just sit there and be humble myself and be like, wow like somebody loves me enough to have said, you know this person that you look up to, you get to spend some time with. And that was a gift. And to hear everything that she’s accomplished, like the 70 honorary degrees. It just, that’s the thing that’s really sticking with me. But that’s like the base bottom level, right? That’s not even what she considers to be the most, the highest accomplishment, right? And that she, and to also know that she counts mentoring young Black women anthropologists as part of her duty here on this earth. Like I mean, it was just like, wow. Like, there are so many Black feminist scholars who don’t even hold half of the legacy that she has, right, who are not humble enough to spend time with students. And that’s not a tea or shade to them, but just to say like she believes that greatness is built in community. And that is something that I mean, of course, it’s like African tradition, but it just really speaks to the true power of her and her legacy. So, it felt like a gift to cry with her. Like I was like, you know what, I’m just gonna cry [laughter]. I’m not even gonna hold you. And to just be held like in that moment over Zoom, it was really beautiful. So, thank you, Dr. C, for the time that you spent with us, and these two young Black women anthropologists wouldn’t be here, right here without you.
[00:08:25] AJ: Alright, so, one where you might just want to listen with your heart open. Here is our eye conversation with Dr. Johnnetta Cole.
[00:08:37] AJ: Alright. Well, thank you so much for joining us Dr. Cole, we’re really excited to be speaking with you. Our first question we wanted to ask you about your research, your career. So, you’ve had decades in the field of anthropology, you’ve published numerous books, articles, and you’ve of course made a huge impact in the discipline, by which I mean using your interest in the human condition to curate, consult and lead. And something that I’ve thought a lot about in the last few years, you know, because of the windy path of my own life, is you can’t connect the dots looking forward. So, you just have to trust that there’s a through line that’s going to emerge in your work and in your life in the future. So, looking back on your body of work, what was your central preoccupation or the overarching question that you were trying to answer?
[00:09:30] JC: I love the question but before I respond, I’ve got to draw on one of my favorite African proverbs that says, it does no harm to be grateful. And so, to each of you, my sisters, Zora’s daughters, I’m grateful for this time. Just to spend with you, to respond to your questions, and to do what I try to do every day. And that is to learn. So, the question. What has been the central question in my body of work? I like the question particularly because while I am an anthropologist, my work has been, in a sense, always through the lenses of anthropology. Because I really see the field at its best like a pair of lenses to which one sees the world and tries to understand the world. But I’ve been in that space we call education as a professor and a president. I’ve been a museum director at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. I’ve certainly worked in this space that we call diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion. And yes, I have been and continue to be a social justice activist. So, what’s the central question that I bring to each of these spheres of work? The central question is, what are systems of inequality? Where did they come from? And importantly, how do we get rid of them? And that’s the question, which of course, I’ve asked, most pointedly, as a social justice activist. But it’s a question that I would hope that every anthropologist thinks about at some point. Whether one is, like I have, a cultural anthropologist or another body of inquiry. But this stuff, this human action of disrespecting the humanity of another, of building law, making organizations, writing volumes that say that some of us are inherently better than the rest of us. I’m still asking where did it come from? And how can we get rid of it?
[00:13:05] BT: And I think about the works of yours that I’ve read. And the one that really was pivotal for me as a young scholar in college was Gender Talk, your work with Beverly Guy-Sheftall. That helped frame the work that I do about gender and sexual violence against Black women and girls. And thinking also I saw the other day when I was in Target that you have a children’s book out with African Proverbs, and I gifted that to my young nephews so that your legacy will be a part of their life as well.
[00:13:46] JC: Thank you.
[00:13:47] BT: And so, just to just to hear you speak about those questions and just how they kind of pick up in, over the course of your career, it’s just really powerful. And one thing that we know as young scholars is that what’s going to happen to us over time is that we’re going to change and grow. And what we publish now as graduate students might not be what we want to say when we get to senior faculty or other levels. And so, we’re really curious if there are any of your published pieces that you would revise. And if so, which one would you change and how?
[00:14:30] JC: First of all, I want to applaud the question. Because if we see scholarship as a done deal, then I think we really disrespect what scholarship is. My answer in some ways is everything I’ve ever written I’d like to revise. Because we do write in a given moment. We do the best we can as anthropologists, or as other scholars, teacher scholars to understand some aspect of the human condition, of the world we live in. But to assume that we’ve written it. It will never be any different from the way that we wrote it. Done. Is a big mistake. I’d like to have the joy and the intense challenge of going back and redoing it, rethinking everything I’ve ever written. How much better scholarship would be if the attitude that we bring to the writing process included this is how I see it, understand it, and wish to share it at this moment in time based on the data that I have. And I would always add and my lived experiences. But to answer your question more specifically, my sister. Way back in the days when I was far younger than I am now as an 87-year-old woman, I published a little pamphlet and entitled it The End of Racial Discrimination in Cuba. Of all the things that I’ve written, I know that that wasn’t—it was a utopian view. It was more aspirational than centered, chiseled in reality. And so that would be the work that I would choose. But I go back to my major point. Why don’t we see scholarship, all of it, as up for revision?
[00:17:34] AJ: Thank you for that. I think that’s such—there’s so much humility in that response. And one of the, I guess values or themes that I live by is always learning. I’m always learning and there’s always more that I can learn and more that I can contribute. And I think that, you know, one of the things that we see among academics is they want to have that final word on everything. So, I don’t think there is one. And we’re always learning. Things are always changing. As you know, as that question suggested, we’re always changing. So, I think that’s a wonderful response and I hope that people really take that to heart. But just changing gears from that humility, we’re going to talk about, you know, your accomplishments and all of the wonderful things that you’ve done. I, you know, saw that you were writing for Essence and doing all of these really cool things as an anthropologist. And I think it’s always nice to have our work recognized and celebrated. You know, you have several tons of notable accomplishments. I read that you have more than 40 honorary degrees. You were in—
[00:18:49] JC: Actually, my sister, the number is now 70.
[00:18:53] AJ: Woah. My goodness. [Laughter] More than 70 honorary degrees. You were on Bill Clinton’s transition team. You were recently awarded the Legend and Leadership Award for Higher Education from the Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute and the award for Distinguished Service to Museums from the American Alliance of Museums. So of course, those external awards and accolades, you know, they’re not always what we’re necessarily most proud of. So you’ve, you know, and you’ve made so many transitions in and beyond the academy so what is for you the highlight of your career?
[00:19:35] JC: If you ask me the highlight of my life, it would be different from the highlight of my career. So, I’m sneaking in two questions and here comes two responses. The highlight of my life is contributing to raising three feminist sons. Now that’s a piece of work. But imagine how much better the world would be if every caretaker of children—let’s not call it women or men in a cis notion—let’s say if every caretaker engaged in raising feminist sons. Raising, if they have come into the world and categorized as white, then raising civil rights workers. Imagine, if those of us who had the privilege of so influencing somebody else’s life can be that powerful of a teacher. So, I’m the proudest throughout my life of having contributed to raising three sons who on their best days are feminist. In terms of my career? It’s really easy. The thing I’m the proudest of was going in 1987 to a city called Atlanta, in the state of Georgia, and serving as the first Black woman president of a historically Black college called Spelman. And when that happened, I was often asked, how did that happen? Spelman began in 1881. The year was 1987. It’s a school for women of color, for Black women, well, it’s a simple answer. It’s called patriarchy. But that experience of being in a teaching and learning environment. Where when I looked around, I saw a reflection of myself. Maybe darker or lighter in complexion, maybe with more body fat or less. Inevitably fall far younger than I. But I saw myself. And I hoped and prayed that what we said at Spelman was true. If you see one, you can be one.
And so, my hope was that Spelman women in seeing me understood that they too could be an anthropologist if they wished. That they too could be a determined social justice activist. And yes, they too could be the president of a college. It was, yes, a difficult job. I think presidenting a college is especially difficult because you’ve got, in a sense, such competing desires. What the parents want is not necessarily what the students or their daughters want. What the Board of trustees wants is not necessarily what the faculty wants. What the community expects is not necessarily what the President has as a vision. A tough job. Ah, but the rewards? And I have sometimes tried to summarize it by painting this picture. That I would return to campus, no doubt having spent time somewhere begging for money. Because college presidents are people who live in big houses and beg for a living. And I would return and look up on the top of a building called Rockefeller Hall, the administration building. Just to make sure that what I imagined could be up there wasn’t up there. Namely as many Spelman sisters as could fit on that roof. And they would all be doing this. Because we were showing them and teaching them that they could fly. So beautiful metaphor. I didn’t want to see my Spelman sisters up there literally trying to fly. But that’s why that experience at Spelman—and I’ve been, was blessed to have it again at the only other historically Black college for women, Bennett. But to be in a situation where young and sometimes not so young Black women were soaring to the height of their possibilities because they were surrounded by a president and faculty and other students and staff and alumni and a community that said, you go. Go.
[00:26:53] AJ: Well now I wanna go to Spelman.
[00:26:55] BT: I [laughter] it’s like, can I go back?
[00:26:59] AJ: Can I go back?
[00:27:00] BT: Can I change? I honestly didn’t even doesn’t even know about Spelman, which could be just my South Carolina education that we never really got to learn about HBCUs. So, it’s an honor to hear you talk about your time as president there and just. It’s just really just an honor to hear the ways that you touched millions of people probably like with your work and with your legacy. And our audience at Zora’s daughters is in large part undergraduate and graduate students who will be taking their anthropology training to the workforce or to the academy. Or hopefully somewhere beyond that. And I find that people who study anthropology typically want to have an impact on the world, much like the kind that you have had. And so, if you could give some advice to that young anthropologist, what would you give? How would you, how would you advise them so that they can make change and thrive wherever they are?
[00:28:09] JC: I would want to reach out and—at least metaphorically—hug any and every Black woman who wants to be one of Zora’s daughters. We need you to do that. But I also want to urge my young and not so young sisters not to be deterred from following your passion. Quick story. I come home from Overland College having decided to put aside pediatrics. I was gonna be an anthropologist—a word I didn’t really know and could hardly pronounce when I got there. And so, I did what for my generation a young college student would do. I went to see my grandpa. And Papa said, well, baby girl when are you coming into the company? He had followed his father, who had helped—with six other black men—to found the Afro American Life Insurance Company, the first black insurance company in the state of Florida. And so again, Papa said, so, baby girl, what are you what are you coming into the company? And following the etiquette and the language I was taught. I said, well, Papa, Sir. I’m not coming into the company. I’m gonna be an anthropologist. And he said, what’s that? And I did my best to give a quick version of it that I would be going around the world and studying other cultures. And writing books and helping us to understand better people and their ways of life. And he started laughing. He said baby girl, who gon make a living doing that. I was so hurt. It was all I could do to keep my composure and not just break down in tears.
And so, I found my mom, still upset, and I told her what had just happened. And she said, first of all, you know, I’m a little disappointed that you didn’t take more time to really explain to your grandfather what anthropologists do and why you didn’t find a way to connect that with what he does and with what he understands. And then she said, but he has a point. You are a woman. You are a young Black woman. And you need to figure out how you gonna be able to take care of yourself? But naturally. But. And this is the advice my mom gave me, and I give it now to my dearest young sister, anthropologist. My mom said but, if anthropology is your passion, you must follow it. And so, that is what I ask of you, dearest youngins. That you follow your passion. Because the choice of a career based on fame, or money, is not gonna last in terms of delivering joy. And I’d like to see on the list of human rights, the right to an education, the right to decent housing, the right to employment, the right to be free of any form of discrimination. I’d also like to put on that list of human rights, the right to know joy in life. I was very blessed to know Dr. Maya Angelou. And you can imagine how many books she signed. We know how many she wrote. We know her impact. Still in our lives. The way she would most often sign a book was with these three letters followed by the exclamation point. J-O-Y. Exclamation. It is a human right in my view. And I think that a career in anthropology has a strong possibility of being outrageously challenging, frustrating, but joyful.
[00:34:28] BT: I’m like, this is speaking to me [laughter]. I’m going to meditate on that because I think so much of what we hear as young scholars is so much of the kind that the frustrating, the challenges, the job market is this, the field is that. But that focus on joy is just so important and something that I know for myself, I definitely needed a reminder of today. So, thank you. Thank you, Dr. Cole and this is our, going to be our final question. It kind of, we’re talking about Zora. And we’re of course, going to ask you to talk about your career a little bit more, too. But when we read about Zora Neale Hurston, there are a few words that recur, avant-garde, iconoclast, and genius are among the three. And I often wonder whether she would identify or even recognize herself in those descriptions. And just so that we and our listeners, right, get your words right about how you would describe yourself. What are three words that you would use to describe your career as an anthropologist, professor, author, mentor, public intellectual and Black feminist?
[00:35:53] JC: Well, the first word that I would use to describe my life as an anthropologist is challenging. And while I just finished talking about joy, there is no reason that we cannot be truthful in saying that a career can bring joy but also be profoundly challenging. And anthropology is still challenging for me. It’s [pause] it ain’t doing right in some areas. And I will continue to speak up and speak out when I think anthropology is not doing what it is to do. And if I can just say quickly that, because anthropology was a challenging place for me to be, I had to find other scholarly circles to be in. And the first one that I went to was African American studies. Helped to found one of the first Black studies programs in our country. So, you can imagine what it is like for me now to be living in the state of Florida where the governor dares to say that the teaching of an African American studies AP course must not be because it dares to include such things as a focus on queerness among Black people, says he. Or that it dares to talk about systemic racism. But the problem with my going to Afro American studies was one day I looked up and said, but where are the women. And so that is when women’s studies also became a sphere of studying and learning and writing and struggle. So, challenging, that’s what my career has been, but it has also been profoundly rewarding.
And when I called on my young sister anthropologists to make sure that that they’re finding joy in their work, you can’t lead where you won’t go. I can’t ask that of my young anthropology sisters if I’m not asking it of myself. And so, yes, I’ve insisted on finding ways that being an anthropologist would be rewarding. And one of those ways is being in a sisterhood of anthropologists. I mean, I feel so wrapped in the knowledge and the caring and the love of Black women anthropologists like an A. Lynn Bolles, like an Irma McClaurin. But I also feel that same source of learning and love from young anthropologists who I’ve mentored to like a Riché Daniels Barnes, like an Erica Williams. So, there are two words challenging and rewarding. And the third may be more aspirational than true but I would describe my work as an anthropologist as ongoing. At 87, unless the good Lord she intends to send me up to glory in the next day or so, I’ve still got work to do. It’s ongoing.
[00:41:00] BT: Alyssa, I’m at a loss—
[00:41:02] AJ: Just taking my notes [crosstalk] [laughter]
[00:41:10] BT: I just, like I said, your work as a Black feminist anthropologist, as a scholar, just really is why I’m an anthropology today and do what I do. So, it’s just such an honor to behold your wisdom, to be with you, and to have this conversation with you. I just. My heart is so full. So, thank you so much, Dr. Cole. Thank you.
[00:41:44] JC: Thank you.
[00:41:46] AJ: Brendane always says the words that I’m feeling which is why we make such great cohosts.
[00:41:50] BT: You know, like, I’m literally tearing. I’m literally tearing up. I’m like, this is something that I’ve always wanted to have the opportunity to do. So, I’m just, you know.
[00:42:00] AJ: Brendane, don’t cry, because I’m going to cry [laughter].
[00:42:04] JC: So special for me, no less. I think we’re all a little moved by it. And there’s nothing wrong with caring so deeply about each other that we could be moved in each other’s presence. So [pause] if I could give you one but I can’t get it to you. So I’ll just [unclear].
[00:42:46] BT: It’s okay, my tissues are in my room, but I, yeah. It’s just this has been such a gift that I just, yeah. Thank you so much.
[00:42:50] AJ: I’m really just feeling like if I could even do a fraction of what you’ve done over your career, but also in this conversation that we’ve had today, I’ll, you know, I’ll really feel like I’ve made it. Like I’ve had success. So just being in your presence has truly been a gift. And thank you so much for agreeing to do this and sitting with us today.
[00:43:30] JC: But a gift also received. let me know when you want to talk again. Stay well find a lot of joy.
[00:43:42] BT: Thank you so much.
[00:43:44] AJ: Thank you.
[00:43:48] BT: All right. Well, that’s all we have for y’all today, so thank you for listening. This episode was produced by Alyssa James and Brendane Tynes and distributed in partnership with the American Anthropological Association. This season of the podcast is generously funded by a grant from the Arts & Science Graduate Council, the Heyman Center Public Humanities Graduate Fellowship, and donations from listeners just like you.
[00:44:17] AJ: Thank you all for your support. If you liked this episode please share it via social media, WhatsApp, or, hell, even snail mail cause why not. We would love to hear what you have to say about this episode so be sure to follow us on Instagram @zorasdaughters and on Twitter @Zoras_daughters. For transcripts, syllabi, and information on how to cite us or become a patron to access exclusive content, visit our website zorasdaughters.com.
[00:44:30] BT: And last but not least, remember that we must take care of ourselves and each other.
[00:44:40] AJ: Bye.
[00:44:40] BT: Bye.