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BOND: Dr. Cole welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership. Thank you very much for being a part of this.
COLE: You're welcome.
BOND: We're curious about the origins of prominent black leadership figures. And, of course, your origins are in Florida, in Jacksonville, in a remarkable, remarkable family that you call "the" black family in Jacksonville. Tell us about your family.
COLE: Well, first I really should be careful with "the." It's like "the" black woman. But certainly I grew up in an extraordinary family that I think in many ways had ordinary attributes and characteristics. And I'll try to explain. On my maternal side my great-grandfather shared a name with many, many black men of his era. He was Abraham Lincoln, in his case, Lewis. And Abraham Lincoln Lewis became a man of, I think, exceptional service to his community. But he was also a man of entrepreneurial interest and great business skill. With six other African-American men, A.L. Lewis began an insurance company. The first insurance company in the state of Florida. He named it Afro American Life Insurance Company. And he went on to become Jacksonville, Florida's first black millionaire. So I grew up clearly black. I grew up female. But I did not grow up poor. And I have commented often that growing up black, female and of this family gave me, I think, an unusual sense of the tenacity of racism. Because there was simply no amount of money that could buy us out of Jim Crow-ism in Jacksonville, Florida.
BOND: At the same time it must have given you some, I hate to say, protection, but some sort of shield that wasn't available to other black people in Jacksonville.
COLE: True, true. For example, I didn't often sit on the back of the bus, because we had a car. And, in fact, in the family beyond the natal family there was more than one car. I remember very distinctly, Julian, that someone would call my mother and say, "Mrs. Betsch, we're having a particularly good sale, you might want to bring the girls down after hours." In other words, because black folk could not try on clothes in a store, we were being given the privilege of coming to try on clothes after hours. So, I don't want to deny the privilege here, but I do want to say that in an interesting way, the privilege only made the basic, tenacious presence of racism even more obvious, Julian.
BOND: I was going to ask what was it in the family and in the larger community that kept the privilege from making you feel like the privileged person, the privileged family, the special people? How did you resist that?
COLE: It wasn't hard to resist, because A.L. Lewis insisted that we resist, as did my mom, as did my dad. Well, first of all my great-grandfather was a race man. In the classic sense of a race man. He was a very, very close friend of a great race woman, Mary McLeod Bethune, who indeed gave the eulogy at my great-grandfather's funeral in 1947. So I grew up with these things being said constantly: "Doing for others is just the rent that you pay for living on this earth." Mary McLeod Bethune was quoted incessantly: "You may climb, but remember to lift others as you climb." So I remember a very conscious effort on the part of folk in my family to say "Now look 'a here. You may have a little more money than anybody else. But let me explain to you what that means is greater obligations, more responsibility than perhaps other folk have." And so I watched my great-grandfather use his wealth in the interest of the race. Buying property for American Beach to which black folk from all over the South would come. I watched him start the pension bureau of the Afro. So that employees could put in a little and when they retired have something. And I certainly watched that community spirit right in my family with my mom and my dad.
BOND: You mention your mom, your dad, your grandfather, Ms. [Mary McLeod] Bethune -- What other figures in this community, or people coming in and out of this community laid their hands on you?
COLE: Well, I think of a great, great, great shero, Eartha White in the city of Jacksonville. One of those women who just seemed never to run out of compassion, out of goodness, out of -- out of social service to others. And so I had the large figures, the Eartha Whites, the A.L. Lewis, the Mary McLeod Bethune. But I also grew up with those extraordinary, ordinary folk. I mean, I think of Olga Bradham who I have also written about, the librarian, in which library? The A.L. Lewis Colored Branch of the Jacksonville Public Library. I don't think that it would be possible to count the number of African-American women and men of my age who were influenced by Olga Bradham, who simply loved books, who believed that every black kid had the possibility of just surrounding themselves with the magic of learning. And so to go to that library after school, after the colored schools to which we went, was to continue what, I think, was a constant message of denial of second-classisms.
BOND: Now the sociologist Aldon Morris writes that black people of our generation and people older than we grew up in what he calls a protest community, that constantly reinforced the need to protest against the circumstances of our lives. And I guess my question is, Is Jacksonville that kind of community? Where all about you you see examples of strivers, of hard workers, of people who have risen above circumstance, who fought the odds, people like your grandfather and your own mother and father? Are these abundant figures in the community, both well-to-do and not? Both low-income and --
COLE: I like the notion of being a part of a protest generation. But I qualify that by saying that protest wasn't always -- in fact, not very often, compared with Montgomery or Atlanta or Selma -- it wasn't often in Jacksonville in the most visible form as I grew up in the '40s and the '50s. But, you see, I remember the protest that took the form of the dignity of black domestic women workers. I think about protest simply in the form of my mother saying, "No, you can't go to the symphony, but we can listen to a sympathy" -- excuse me, "to a symphony here." And so I think that we still have a lot of work to do, Julian, to capture those forms of protests.
BOND: Yeah. Yeah, I think that he probably meant it in this larger sense, not marching and sitting-in and so on, but these ordinary, every day protests where people say "I'm not what the larger world thinks I am." And it strikes me that all over the country, but the South particularly, that there is a large body of people raised up in that community, both family and extra-family relationships that say "You're not what the world thinks you are, you can do better than that."
BOND: So your parents are dissatisfied with the public education in Jacksonville. You only go to school half a year and they send you to D.C. to go to school, you and your sister, your older sister. Are you happy about that? Are you eager to do that?
COLE: Oh, I don't think that I was very happy about that at all. I mean, I'm a kid. I'm eight years old. I want my mommy and I want my daddy. And I wasn't so sure about Grandma Betsch. Now Grandma Betsch, my paternal grandma, was the head of the household into which my sister and I would live. And I knew Grandma Betsch and some of the things that I remembered most about Grandma Betsch I wasn't so sure about. And she lived in North Carolina -- Henderson, North Carolina -- and we would visit during the summers. I had two strong memories. One, Grandma Betsch would get us up early in the morning. And whenever we asked the question, "Grandma Betsch, why do we have to get up so early?" The answer was so simple, so clear in her mind: So we could get the beds made up. And so I knew that there would be a little more discipline, a little more of a regimented life than I was used to. I also remember the standard luncheon at Grandma Betsch's house, which was two slices of white bread and a sandwich spread. And I kept looking for what was going to join the sandwich bread. So I went with some hesitations. I really, really did. It turned out to be a wonderful experience. To have a day-to-day relationship with a grandma. I had missed that on my maternal side, although I had been taken care of by my maternal grandmother's sister, by Aunt Nyna. Washington was -- it was fun in a lot of ways. It was about snow. There were kids on the block, including someone that you know, Art Robinson. Who later re-entered my life and we are now married. Washington, it was a good period in my life. But I was not at all unhappy when at age ten my parents said, "Enough of this, we're bringing you home."
BOND: So not happy to go, and not happy to leave and come back.
BOND: Could you at the time realize that the kind of education you were receiving [in Washington, D.C.] was better than you would have received in Jacksonville? That you were in some ways getting a higher level of education and training?
COLE: There was no question about that to me. I mean, the notion of going to school half a day never made sense to me. I loved school. But one thing that I must say is that in those colored schools of Jacksonville, Florida -- and remember in D.C. there were still schools of colored kids -- there were teachers who profoundly believed in us. First of all they believed that there was no such thing as an uneducable child. There were only teachers who did not teach. And so my years in the colored schools of Jacksonville had a kind of duality. I was aware that the books were hand-me-downs. I knew that we didn't have enough gym equipment. I knew that across town in the white schools that they were enjoying many, many more material things. But I always felt deeply appreciated. I felt people telling me I was good and smart and that I could do things in the world. And sometimes I fear that a lot of that is no longer a part --
BOND: You tell about a teacher, Bunny Vance, who says never mumble who you are, stand up, feel good about who you are, speak to the world. Why is that -- if it's true, why is that not happening today? Why aren't there Bunny Vances today?
COLE: Well, there are. And I think that we do a great disservice, myself included when I critique American public education with too large of a brush. There are Bunny Vances. Our task is to socially reproduce the Bunny Vances. But there are so many non-Bunny Vances. So many teachers who really have decided that the easiest way for them to get through a day is to color code their kids. And so the brown ones and the black ones will never achieve what the white ones will. And so out of a kind of least common denominator of thinking they begin to give off the signals to these kids as to who can and who cannot. I think in these days, teaching no longer has the prestige. It no longer has by comparison with other occupations even the material rewards. Teachers in my community, these were heroes and sheros. I mean, little kids wanted to grow up to be a doctor or a teacher. These were wonderful, wonderful people. Now our kids tell us they want to grow up to be the CEO of General Motors. That they want to be a Johnnie Cochran and be a great lawyer.
BOND: And they can. And they couldn't before. Now some of this creates in some people a kind of nostalgia for the segregation era. Now, as someone who --
COLE: Oh, don't misunderstand me!
BOND: I'm not. I'm asking. As someone who lived in the segregation era what do you make of these people who say "Well, we need to go back to the good old days. We need to go back to where Granny sat on the porch and watched Junior as he walked down the street and paddled him if he misbehaved"? What do you say to those people?
COLE: I say we've got to be far more careful about what we want from the good old days. How can we be selective? That is the issue. How can we recreate for this era some of those amazingly positive attributes of a segregated community in which I lived? For example, it's been clear to me that these days folk don't live in a mixed class neighborhood as I did. Granted, I was the great-granddaughter, one of the great-granddaughters of A.L. Lewis. But I played with kids who had not an inkling of what I owned in terms of my family. I lived on a block where in a given block there could be someone who worked in construction, a postal worker, a school teacher, a prominent doctor. We as a people as an African-American people now live in very class-based communities, including those that are gated, walled off, from others. And so how do we selectively have some of the real value of cross-class community without going back to the fact that that's the only place that black people may have been able to live?
BOND: Yes, and it's a big dilemma which we may not solve today.
BOND: I want to go back to your earlier education. You go to Fisk [University] at age fifteen, which is young. What was that like? You've already had this one experience of going away to school at an early age. And now you go away again? And you find yourself in a very different circumstance than was true in Washington.
COLE: Well, in each case my actions are the result of pushy parents. Pushy black parents. And I'm grateful to them. Fisk was an exceptional experience. I was too young really to know the full scope of what I had access to, of the extraordinary historical context in which I had been placed. But I wasn't so out of it. I mean, I knew that there was something special about going to a library where Arna Bontemps was the librarian. I knew when I first stood and looked at murals done by Charles White that I wasn't just seeing ordinary stuff. And because the woman, the marvelous African-American woman in charge of us all as these young entrants, Margaret Simms, had such a sense of the moments in which we were being placed, I think I did gain an enormous amount from that Fisk experience.
BOND: And from Fisk, Oberlin. Why Oberlin particularly?
COLE: Very easy to explain. Toward the end, well, in the middle, rather, of that year at Fisk, in January, my father died. And I was my daddy's baby girl. It was the greatest tragedy that I had ever known. And out of an interest in healing, and feeling -- family --, I decided to go to where my older sister was. And my older sister was at Oberlin. And so I went to Oberlin and it's from there that I graduated.
BOND: So you go to Oberlin and that's a different and new experience. What's Oberlin like?
COLE: Cold. And white.
BOND: And rural.
COLE: And rural and absolutely fantastic. For a youngster -- I'm sixteen -- and to be placed in an environment that was so profoundly challenging, that was so diverse in comparison to the way that I had grown up. I think that I may have written somewhere that, you know growing up in Jacksonville, if someone had asked me about religious diversity, I thought that that would mean "Are you AME or CME? or one of the Baptists?" But that I would now go to school with individuals of the Jewish faith, of Islamic faith, with folk who were of Hindu faiths. I mean, this was, this was startling for a young Southern black woman. It was also a place that was deeply challenging intellectually. And I don't want to, in any way, imply that Fisk was not. One of my strongest memories of Fisk is that I was intellectually set afire in that place. But Oberlin did nothing to put out that fire. In fact, it simply fanned it. They were good years for me. And I've always felt particularly fortunate to have had both the experience of a historically black university and of a major outstanding small liberal arts college.
BOND: Liberal arts also suggests, at least at Oberlin in this period, a kind of political liberalism that you're not likely to have found at Fisk or I didn't find at Morehouse in the same period, a kind of a interest in a larger world, not to say that Fisk restricted that interest, but a different kind of political liberalism.
COLE: Oh, absolutely.
BOND: Did you find that?
BOND: Did it challenge you or shake you in any way?
COLE: Oh, very much so. And I'm sure much to my mom's concern. I fell into it. Oberlin was a place that it seemed to me questioned everything. And I loved to question. And so Oberlin began to feed that. There were issues that I hadn't even thought about. Because growing up in the South at the period during the period in which I grew up, race was so omnipresent that there were times when we really did act as if there were no other issues. Oberlin presented me with a smorgasbord of issues and of organizations to respond to those issues. So it was a place of great political agitation and I absolutely fell right into it.
BOND: Did you feel in any way -- well, torn that "Here's something new to me. I'm engaged in it, I'm interested in it. I want to jump into this. But here are these old racial concerns that seem so important and remain important." How did you begin to sift through these? A, B, C, D --
COLE: Well, I think because Oberlin had such a long history and tradition of addressing the race question it was possible for me to move within a larger sphere of political activism without feeling that I had to give up the race question. Certainly the place where I put most of my energies at Oberlin was on the so-called Interracial Committee or the Committee for Interracial Relations, whatever it was called. But the point is that that issue was now being addressed not just by black folk but by all kinds of folk. And being addressed in a context that suggested that there were parts of the world, like in Africa, like in South Africa, in particular, where similar kinds of issues existed. I remember for the first time really being introduced to a place called Brazil. How could I have been that old, and yet not have understood some of the intriguing complexities about the race question in Brazil?
BOND: So you enter Oberlin at a time when Brown v. Board is being announced, the first Brown decision. What do you remember about it? Hearing about it? Talking about it? What do you remember about it?
COLE: I remember just extraordinary jubilation. I remember, I remember folk thinking that this was a victory of unusual consequences. And for those of us like myself who had gone through segregated schools, I think at that moment I really wasn't in the position to think a lot about all of the values that I had been taught of the lessons I had learned in the colored schools. I think that I really, I think I really fell for it. I think that I thought that at that moment, like many, many others, that this was the great victory that would lead to enormous progress.
BOND: And did you think that it would be a quick victory? That segregation would just crumble over and fall?
COLE: I didn't think that it would just die quickly, but I sure didn't think that it would go on and on and on. And that the reality of schools today would be that they are still profoundly segregated.
BOND: Some of them even more so.
COLE: Even more so. Without the advantages, by the way, that we spoke of for the earlier years.
BOND: Yes, and as you said a moment ago the great dilemma is how do you get the opportunity and retain the advantage? But I don't know if we can even begin to talk about that.
BOND: In addition to these complexities about things that you are learning and being introduced to, did you think at the time that this engagement in these other issues and in race were somehow part of leadership training that you were learning how to run an organization that you were learning how to marshal your thoughts? Did you think then or can you look back on it now and say what you took away from this? And in addition to these specific issues, what this experience taught you?
COLE: Well, I think that I always had, from the moment that I had a consciousness about self and surroundings and the world, I always had a sense of high expectations. I mean, I wouldn't say that my parents or my great-grandfather in particular sat me down and said, "Now, little Johnnetta, you're going to be a leader." But yet it was almost like it was in the water. It was all around me. How could I do less than my folk had done? How could I have all of this and not do something with it? How could I sleep with myself, with the privileges that I had unless I was figuring out how I was going to do something for somebody else? So Oberlin in a sense simply encouraged all of that. There was never a question about whether I was going to go to college. The issue was where. There was never a question, I think, about whether I should be in organizations and be in leadership roles. The question was which organizations, which leadership roles? And yet I don't think -- I may be fooling myself -- but I don't think that I had an unbearable amount of pressure on this question. I mean, I'm very conscious of this, Julian, that sometimes we really do overdo it with our children. And we set goals for them without any participation on their part.
BOND: Could it have been so subtle that you didn't realize it, and still don't?
COLE: Well, it was there.
BOND: And benign, benign.
COLE: But I think that it was dished up with lots of sugar coating or with -- with an image of it that did not make it seem unbearable. It really wasn't subtle. I mean, it was -- if I had to hear A.L. Lewis tell me one more time, you know, in Micah, "What does the Lord require of thee?" I mean, the message was just delivered over and over again. I mean, Sunday School every Sunday where he was the superintendent. And we're being told one more time what we're to do for the race. So it's not that it was subtle. It's almost that it was painted as inevitable and really doable.
BOND: That you had no choice.
COLE: Yeah, I didn't have any choice.
BOND: This was going to happen to you. And these experiences, going away to school first to D.C. at this early age, and going to Fisk at this early age, and then transferring to Oberlin -- I'm just curious as to how these shaped the kind of independence of thought and action in you? So in addition to this home training, if you will, and home nurturing, if you will, these other experiences, particularly at a young age of being on your own, and I know that you're not alone, your sister is with you, being on your own, what does that do for you?
COLE: Well, I have often thought that my own development as -- let me use words that I self define by, as a public intellectual and politically as one who is progressive -- I have often thought that there is a pattern here, and that while Fisk was not a place of hot bed lefties, it was nevertheless a place where I did begin to get certain messages. You know, both from white and black faculty. Oberlin -- it was out. It was all out. I mean, Oberlin was then, and is still today, one of the most liberal-minded, liberal arts colleges in America. And I'm picking all of this up, and I'm not rejecting it. It is feeling all right to me. And while there were certainly moments when I would think, "mmm, I wonder what the folk back in Jacksonville would think about this?" Again, it seemed to have happened at a pace and with an intensity that I was able to, not just take in, but to really claim and to find a kind of authenticity with -- I didn't feel, in other words, that I was now learning to play the role of the little radical student at Oberlin. It just seemed that I was a rather standard Oberlin student, all of whom were pretty radical.
BOND: And then how do you stumble into, or not stumble into, but how do you fix on the profession and the training that you are going to follow after Oberlin? What puts anthropology into your mind?
COLE: Well, it took a lot to put it there, because one of the ways in which I think that I did grow up as an upper-middle-class black kid was in terms of what I was to be. And I was to be a doctor. No question. I was to be a pediatrician. Although my grandfather by that time -- my greatgrandfather was no longer living-- had a different plan. I was to go into the insurance company, in his mind. But my parents, the circle around me, all applauded when I said, "and I'm going to be a pediatrician." Well, it took a lot to move that out of my head. But it moved and it moved suddenly. The lot, what it took was an encounter with anthropology through a particular professor. And if I've ever, ever doubted the power of the teacher I have only to remember my own journey. Because it was George Eaton Simpson, a very tall, lanky white sociologist who in his heart, and really much of his training, was an anthropologist, who, in one class, moved me from pediatrics to anthropology.
BOND: And how did he do this?
COLE: He did it in a very dramatic way. First of all, I had to choose a class. So one night in what we called the bull session, I'm saying, "Okay, you guys be quiet, help me find a class. I need a class that doesn't meet before 10." Big requirement that semester for me. "I need a class that will satisfy a social science requirement and I don't want a bore for a prof." Somebody said, "Look at this, why don't you take this?" Julian Bond, I had to sound out the letters. I said "cultural an-thro-po-lo-gy." I didn't know that word. Lately I had heard it. But I don't think that I knew it. So I said "Well, why would I want to take this?" I don't even remember which friend. "Oh, Johnnetta, take the class." So I walk into the class. And there I am with a group of students and we're just sort of sitting there, probably with that look of you know "I wonder if Teacher is going to be able to show...
BOND: Yeah, show me something…
COLE: Simpson walks in; a record player is already set up -- I'm dating myself; a record player! Doesn't say a word. Goes over to the record player, puts a record on, the music starts and we're looking at each other like... This pulsating beat of what I would learn is Jamaican revivalist cult music. Simpson has still not given his name. He still has not announced the goals of the course. He simply begins to move around the room simulating hyperventilation. So to the beats of this music George Eaton Simpson is going -- [gasps for air several times] -- and we're just getting more and more wide-eyed. Finally he takes the needle off and he says, "You have just heard Jamaican revivalist cult music. I have simulated hyperventilation that would lead to my being possessed. You are now seeing and hearing what this course is about. This course asks questions about where black folk in the New World have come from. What they brought with them." And he goes on and I'm saying "Oh, oh! This is what cultural anthropologists do." By the end of that class I knew that I would not be a doctor. That I would be an anthropologist.
COLE: And I became his student, almost in the old European guild way. In the African apprenticeship way in which a young person is taught what the master knows. And because there was no major in anthropology -- there was only a sociology department in which anthropology was taught -- Simpson took me on in a very, very intense way as his student.
BOND: So you graduated from college and then go on to get a master's and begin, I guess field work, your first fieldwork and what's that?
COLE: Well, I'm sent by [George Eaton] Simpson to [Melville J.] Herskovits and Northwestern --
BOND: Oberlin to Northwestern, Simpson to Herskovits -- ?
COLE: To Herskovits, and my doctoral dissertation is based on work done in Liberia. My master's, however, was on a church on the south side of Chicago at a time when anthropologists weren't encouraged to do what we now call native anthropology, that is, studying among one's own people. Because the assumption in the discipline was that it would be impossible to be objective, studying one's own folk. And the great advantage of anthropology, so it was thought, was that one from a particular culture went to understand the world through another culture. Well, here I was insisting on the right to study my own people.
BOND: And what kind of resistance did you --
COLE: Terrible resistance from himself --
BOND: Oh really, from Herskovits himself?
COLE: From Melville J. Herskovits, who after all had pioneered in the study of African-American cultures in the United States and in the so-called New World. And as you may remember that 1941 publication, Beacon Press, The Myth of the Negro Past had documented the very -- the very fundamental notion that Simpson had illustrated in that first class. That black folk had come into the New World carting culture, carrying life-ways: dance, music, political institutions, religious beliefs from Africa. Not only that, Herskovits had clearly documented the -- particularly in the religious life of black folk in Haiti, in Jamaica, yes, in the United States -- we were continuing to express Aficanisms. So why won't the man let me do it? Why can't I go?
BOND: Hypocrisy here, that it's okay for him to do it and not for you?
COLE: Clearly, clearly. But how do you confront your major professor? So the time is running out. I still can't get permission from Herskovits to study Greater Harvest Baptist Church on the south side of Chicago -- Reverend [Louis] Boddie's church. Finally time has really run out and so I've been encouraged by my schoolmates, "Just confront the man." So I go into his office -- now, I'm five feet-eight, Herskovits was five-two maybe, on his tippy toes, and I quickly get my seat, and get in the, you know, position that all graduate students should get into. And I just finally said, "Professor Herskovits, I cannot leave your office until you give me permission to do this study." And he finally said, "Miss Betsch, I think I will give you permission, and I will direct this thesis. But you must know that I have a fear that if you do this study, Reverend Boddie will gain a parishioner and I will lose a graduate student."
BOND: Oh boy.
COLE: Anyway, I got his permission and I did this study. It's not a work I'm particularly proud of, it is so Herskovitsian. I mean it just drips with, of course, imitative passages from Herskovits' theories. But on the other hand it was an important lesson, not only that I had to stand up for my own way of engaging in intellectual work. But it was an important -- it was an important demonstration to me of some things that I continue to admire about African-American culture because I saw in that church not just what I went to look at, namely the possession complex and the way in which people got happy and the prominence of water and all of those Africanisms. I saw Reverend Boddie creating a parallel system of institutions to provide for black folk. Because when people got sick in that neighborhood, the ambulance didn't come very quickly, so Reverend Boddie bought an ambulance. And when folk lost their jobs and couldn't get work and couldn't get on welfare, Reverend Boddie had a way of providing, and so I never wrote a great deal about that, but I've thought over the years about that again as one of those things that was a by-product of segregation and of racism that we might do well to think about again.
BOND: I wonder also if this isn't -- first, this confrontation with Herskovits and then the study where you don't write about the ambulance and the welfare system and so on, but you see them -- if this isn't some kind of predictor for you of leadership battles and leadership styles yet to come. After all Spelman is an alternative institution -- this struggle with Herskovits -- you must have had these other similar kinds of struggles as your academic career continued on, and I don't imagine then you said, "Well, gee, I'm going to do this again," or "This is good training for the next clash I'm going to have or -- "
COLE: No, and this is, this is the real power of the interview, because I'm really having now a much stronger sense of the connectedness between exercising my own power in that situation and the continuity of that act, of seeing the importance of an alternative way to doing intellectual work, which it really was. I mean I've never made a big thing of -- and I did early native anthropology, but it was -- I mean, there was simply not that many black folk who were anthropologists, and the notion that we could study our folk as opposed to white folk studying our folk, was really, at that point, a very radical idea.
BOND: Have you ever wondered what would happen if you'd gone to Herskovits and said "I want to study the first white Christian church of Skokie, Illinois?" Might he have, although they wouldn't have been open to it, might he have been more open to that?
COLE: That's an interesting question. I think the answer is yes, because he really did believe that I could not be objective. And you see my position is that no one really is. I'm very fond of language that -- I'm pretty sure its the language of C. Wright Mills, I should go back and check it. But the line is this: "I will try to be objective. I will never claim to be detached and I think that my work really falls under that banner." Sure one should attempt to be objective, but some notion of being so distant from what one is studying, from being intellectually detached and detached in the sense of not allowing one's humanness, one's ability to care, to be outraged, to be exercised, I'm not interested in that kind of work.
BOND: Back to your progress of your academic work, you do your Ph.D. work in Liberia and then later as your career continues on, Cuba and other Afro-Caribbean countries, talk about these. What do you learn -- I don't mean the fieldwork and so on -- what do you learn in Liberia about yourself and your own capabilities, what does that teach you?
COLE: Well it was -- it was another of those important moments along my journey.
BOND: You're married and have children then.
COLE: First of all, I am married, and it's important to say that it is an inter-racial marriage. And so in the early '60s, in fact in 1960, I'm off to Liberia, my -- at that time, my husband, a white graduate student in economics and as well in African studies -- we were a part of a research team that Northwestern University organized in response to a request to do an economic survey of Liberia. But Robert, myself, and a third graduate student, are told, "Look, do the work and you can use some data for your dissertations," and we did. The Liberia experience was startlingly important for me because remember it's 1960 to '62. We know what's happening in the U.S. And I am in a country where for the first time in my life, I am seeing relationships of power, and of oppression, that do not have to do with white folk, in the most immediate sense, oppressing black folk. I am looking at black folk oppressing black folk. Now that's stark language, but it's accurate language. For much of what is going in the relationship between Americo-Liberians, these descendents of slaves in the United States who have come back to Liberia and the indigenous people of Liberia who never had the experience of American slavery.
BOND: Now I'm -- you had some intellectual understanding of this long before you went --
COLE: Of course.
BOND: And when you arrive, does it sort of slap you in the face?
COLE: Because intellectual understanding and experiential understanding are sometimes so radically different. I had read everything I could but to see it, to be in the presence of an Americo-Liberian sitting as close to me as you are and to have a glass of water there, but to have him call for one of the tribal people to fetch his water was -- it was an amazing thing for me to witness. And then because of the nature of the work that I did there, which yes, at a certain point involved the more classic kind of setting -- anthropologists, up country, in my little village. But much of work took me all over the country as I looked at the movement of men out of traditional labor into the wage-earning economy. And so at the same time that I'm seeing these power-privileged relationships of Americo-Liberians with indigenous people, I'm also very, very aware of the presence of international capitalism in the form of Firestone, in the form of European iron-ore corporations, and it's, frankly, mind-boggling. I had lessons in political economy in Liberia that no course could have taught me.
BOND: And how does that inform your world view, how does that shape you as a person? I understand it's important professionally to learn these lessons and to write this thesis, but this larger lesson -- international capitalism, the movement of indigenous peoples from rural to urban, the disruption of society -- what does this --
COLE: I think it had -- I think it had an enormous effect on me. Had I done a different dissertation in a different -- or done different field work in a different part of the world, I may have ended up with a very different world view. In far too simplistic language, let me say that the experience of doing fieldwork in Liberia introduced class into my world view in a way that it had not been there before. Now I had lived class, to the extent that you know now my background as I know yours, and so yes, we knew the nature of class to the extent that one could use that accurately within the black community. But the Liberia experience began to show me class -- chiseled in far more definitive lines than I had ever experienced it before.
BOND: Now maybe I'm making a big jump here, but you go back to Washington State and your husband's career continues on and you are for a period wife and mother. And there's a period where you take a long time to finish this dissertation.
COLE: Seemed like forever.
BOND: Does -- do notions of gender begin to raise -- rise up to a more prominent place in your life then because of: he's doing this, you're doing that? What's --
COLE: No question, I would and I'll come to that very, very quickly, but I'd also say that, that I first had some inklings about some gender questions in Liberia as well. Women of my age who grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, and other Southern cities in the middle of racial discrimination, I think we were slow learners about gender. We were certainly affected by it, as were men folk, but race was so overpowering in its presence and its consequences. In Liberia, removed from the immediacy of the race question, I not only was hit by the class issues, but I began to first ask notions about the woman question. Not in loud voice, but at least I began. Yes, it struck me as frankly unfair that I should have to go where Robert Cole had a job, and that I was then to scrounge a job. Did I make a major protest about it? No. But it did grab me: "This doesn't -- this doesn't seem so fair." At that time however, we had one son -- David had been born in Liberia -- and another son. And so there I am stirring pots, writing a dissertation, kid on the hip, and beginning to get myself back really into the academic stream. The time really demanded that I get back into that stream because it was 1962 and there was a lot of agitation, even in an isolated place called Pullman, Washington, at Washington State. As black students were raising their voices, as black faculty in small numbers were saying, "Why aren't there more of us?" As even the issues of the civil rights and the black power movement came across the country into the Western part where we lived.
BOND: Now back to gender for a moment: housewife, student, mother. There have to be other wives undergoing this same thing. Their husbands are pursuing their degrees and following their careers, and do you find any kind of reinforcement among them, common source of irritation that you all share that sharpens your feelings about gender?
COLE: It is very clear to me that it would take another hunk of years before this entrapped labor force -- women typing, and I don't mean word processing, typing dissertations of husbands, using White Out to get through the process -- would finally say, "Wait a minute, why are we doing this?" And, "You know what? I've got a dissertation I would like to write one day." The voices were not strong, there was not a great deal of gender consciousness in those years in which I lived in Washington State. By the time we come across country to Hunter College, the voices are very strong. And so it's really -- not even Hunter College, I'm sorry, come across country to Massachusetts but the voices are getting very strong.
BOND: Before you go to Hunter?
COLE: Before I go to Hunter. So it's really in this early '70s that I begin to listen to my own voice and to hear the voices of other women -- and I don't just mean white women, I mean women of color as well -- raising the gender question.
BOND: Even though there is agitation in Washington State, there's so much more agitation in Massachusetts. I mean it's so much more a hot bed than Pullman, Washington. So you find yourself in this more aroused community, racially, gender-wise and so on -- and that must have been very exciting.
COLE: It was, but I don't want to minimize what happened in Pullman, Washington.
BOND: No, I know.
COLE: There was an intensely active anti-Vietnam War movement of which I was strongly a part as well as my ex-husband. In fact, he was the advisor to SDS [Students for a Democratic Society]. There was a lot going on in the black student movement at Washington State. I mean it may seem a little strange for folk who were doing much more dramatic things, but there we were, off to jail as well, in Pullman, Washington. And so coming across country to the University of Massachusetts was, yes, to come to a more aroused place politically, but we really hadn't left a desert. And I had the feeling and I remember being very conscious of this, that it really all was a part of a pattern. One of the things that was really important in being isolated geographically was to keep in touch, to know what was happening, particularly in the Black Power movement -- in the anti-war movement across the country.
BOND: And in Pullman, how did you get information about what was happening other places? I've been to Pullman, I know it's not an isolated place. But it is isolated.
COLE: But it is. But it is.
BOND: It is isolated. It is remote. How did you keep in contact with the larger outside world?
COLE: Both through the kinds of organizations that I was a part of --
COLE: -- as well as just -- as I think, is more important in a geographically isolated place than others -- through networks. People who would travel, who would come back, telephone calls, letters -- this is before the e-mail era.
BOND: And before faxes --
COLE: And before faxes. But the progressive, that is, left-of-center faculty during the 1960s, really were very much in touch with each other.
BOND: And when you come to Massachusetts, I mean, that universe is just broadened and widened.
BOND: There are many, many more people, first right at the place, and many more people in and out and in and out, this kind of cross-fertilization. And that's got to be fairly exciting?
COLE: It was. It was an exciting period in Massachusetts. I'm still very, very much in contact with folk in that five-college area. And it's been interesting for me to be aware of the kind of concern being expressed in that community about the aftermath of September 11th, that I don't think I've sensed with the same intensity in a place like Emory, or in Atlanta, in general. Now part of this is that the five-college community of Massachusetts really is in a wee bit of a time warp. I mean, it's sometimes called the "Happy Valley." But it's a place of unusual activity. There is Northampton, with a very, very large and highly politically active lesbian community. There are the colleges, two of which are women's colleges. You've got both Mount Holyoke and Smith. So that, you know, that's not an ordinary piece of land there. And what has pleased me is to hear more questions being raised about the current state of the world and the role of the U.S. -- my country -- in that world, hearing more questions being raised from there, than I'm hearing from many other parts of the country.
BOND: Do you think that it is, in part, a geographical closeness as well to New York City, as opposed to Atlanta or even Charlottesville or -- ? I was in California and it just seemed to me that people there were less engaged in discussion about these events in any sort of way. In favor, against, opposed, supporting any way. That the geographical closeness created different reactions in them?
COLE: I think so. I was recently with someone from Texas who said "Oh, well, basically we're just living our lives the way that we used to." I mean, we're conscious of it. But, yes, I think it is that. I think it can also be -- I think the history of tradition and of challenge that exists even at a place like University of Massachusetts, but certainly in a town like Northampton. You don't get rid of that tradition when all of a sudden we're in a post-September 11th mode.
BOND: In its own way, that's the protest community.
BOND: That transmits from generation to generation --
COLE: Exactly. Exactly.
BOND: -- to generation that we were talking about earlier.
BOND: But let me come back to your academic career. You become an administrator. Is that a big, big step? Surely it's an exercise of leadership of an entirely different kind than in the classroom.
COLE: It was the second time for administering for me. The first was when I helped to start one of the first black studies programs in our country.
BOND: Back in Washington?
COLE: Back in Washington. And that, it was hard for me to think of myself as an administrator. I mean, I really thought of myself much more as an activist and an advocate. An activist with black students, and progressive white students, black and white faculty, demanding that program. And then an advocate for the program. And so all of the trappings of, "Well, she's an administrator" never really grabbed me. I felt more of that at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. But interestingly, because I was in the post of associate provost for undergraduate education, with the primary assignment to help develop general education, I was again in the mode of an advocate and an activist. And so what I was doing more than almost anything else was trying to find allies, trying to organize faculty, trying to advocate for a form of education that a lot of folk weren't interested in having. I hope that I'm not being disrespectful of what I think is the day-to-day work in the bursar's office or the vice president for financial affairs. But I'm saying that those two roles, were because of the time and the space, were not typically administrative roles.
BOND: Well, I'm wondering if this provost position is naturally preparation for being a college president later?
COLE: I sure didn't think of it.
BOND: No, you didn't think of it then, but I'll bet you, like me, knew when you were younger, both because of your mother's job at Edward Waters and because of the community in which you lived that you knew the names of black college presidents?
COLE: Oh, absolutely.
BOND: In a way that we do not know their names today. In fact, I bet you were, at Spelman, the only black college president that most people ever knew or heard of. But when we were young, you knew Benny [Benjamin] Mays at Morehouse, you knew somebody else here. You knew somebody else there. You knew all their names.
COLE: Of course I did.
BOND: And having known these names as a youngster and then having moved over many, you know, life changes and so on to this administrative position, surely way here in the back of your mind there must have been an idea when you look at the president of UMass, "I can do that."
COLE: Well, I sure at times thought I could do a better job than that. But in all honesty I never thought of myself in a college presidency. It's true I was very aware of HBCUs. Look, I knew Mary McLeod Bethune. Literally had sat on her lap. And though folk have asked if I didn't at that moment have this great inspiration to one day be like Mary McLeod Bethune, the truth of the matter is I was awestruck by her. But largely because she wore such fabulous hats! I mean, I wasn't thinking I want to be like Mary McLeod Bethune. I knew about HBCUs. My mother went to Morris Brown College as a high school student and then to Wilberforce. I mean, it was unusual in a sense that I ended up at Oberlin. At least I came by way of Fisk. My father worked for a number of years at Howard.
But I really never -- I never thought of being a college president. I was too busy being a very, very rewarded professor. It's a -- it's a way of looking at the world and moving through the world that I think is my natural stroke. So much so that I think the parts of presidenting where I was best were those parts where I used the worldview, the strengths, the almost instincts of a college professor, not an administrator. So when the letters would come, as they began to come, when I was at Hunter -- "Dear Professor Cole, we have an opening for a college president. We would invite you to be a candidate -- " I had a place for those letters. I mean, that was simply not something that I planned.
BOND: But surely one letter must have come some day and you said, "Hey, this is something."
COLE: Well, it wasn't a letter that came in quite that way. It was pretty dramatic in the sense that I had gone to Brazil, and had agreed, willingly, to go for a divination -- anthropologists can't resist these opportunities. And ended up in a room where Maruca "read" my life and told me that I would shortly change my career. I said "This woman has got to be meshugganah. I'm a professor. I'm going back to Hunter. I like my work." She also told me that I would shortly remarry. Then I knew she was off. That was not an institution that I intended to be engaged in again.
I returned -- oh, she also said -- she was a black Brazilian woman, holding her hand to her other hand she also said " -- and you will do great things for our people. And you will do work that women in your country rarely do." So I thought "Well, this has been interesting, but come on."
I leave Brazil, São Paulo, actually went into Bahia and then back to Hunter, when I walked into my office my desk was filled with little notes saying "call Donna Shalala" about the presidency of Spelman. Donna at that moment was the president of Hunter. "Call Marian Wright Edelman about the presidency at Spelman." So I thought, "Why do I have all these notes?" Well, when I began to return the phone calls it was clear that I was being asked to consider being a candidate for the presidency of Spelman. The rest is "herstory". Except -- that I need you to know that, before I began the presidency, I had one more trip to Brazil that I had to take. It was a promise that I had made to take Betty Forbes, who you may know is married to James Forbes of Riverside Church --
COLE: -- to take Betty and the Ecumenical -- Ebony Ecumenical choir to Rio. So I did. And I had a window about like this. And I got on a plane and I flew to Sao Paulo and I went right back to the home of Maruca. And I'm getting out of the car screaming "Maruca, Maruca, wait 'til I tell you about the presidency of Spelman!" because I had been appointed -- and she just said "Shhh -- I know."
Now do with that as you will. I can only tell you that I did not consciously think I want to be a college president. And when the presidency of Spelman was at least a possibility for me, it was not a college presidency that I was interested in. I was interested in Spelman.
BOND: Well, it's interesting to look back over your life up to becoming president of Spelman and say that everything prepared you for this. If not president of Spelman, president of a university. Everything led towards this. But it could also be just happenstance, fate, kismet, what have you that all of a sudden the opportunity comes, the presidency is open, people say "Oh, Johnnetta Cole, she would be great." So you get there. And I heard you say recently that that while these HBCUs are wonderful places, they are far from perfect. And Spelman is both a wonderful place and it's far from perfect. What did you find?
COLE: Well, first of all, it took me a while to really settle into that this had happened. I mean, by any theoretical reckoning, this was not supposed to happen. My politics, it seemed to me, were far too progressive. I was a divorcee. A self-defined feminist. What was I doing in the presidency of Spelman?
BOND: It was a relatively conservative black women's college --
COLE: A relatively conservative black women's college.
BOND: When I was at Morehouse you couldn't take a Spelman girl out on a date. You had to take her and a friend out on a date.
COLE: There you go. So one of the things that -- I've never quite used this language before, I think Julian, but you have this way of bringing out insights in an interview. I think I realized -- when I finally had to accept: I am the president of Spelman College, even though I have progressive politics, I'm a feminist, blah, blah, blah, blah -- I think it was one of the first times that I really confronted that while I was all of those things, and they sat and moved so comfortably within me, that I also had a gift of presenting both myself and the ideas that I believe in, in both meaningful and non-threatening ways.
BOND: Well, there comes a time later, that I want to get to later, where your politics become a big issue --
COLE: Oh, oh, oh, oh -- let's talk about Cuba and the red baiting --
BOND: We'll come to that. But immediately you're coming to Spelman progressive, divorcee --
BOND: Feminist. Are these obstacles in any way to your becoming the president of Spelman? Obviously not, because you did.
COLE: I just have to give a praise song to Marian Wright Edelman, who was the chair of the board, and the chair of the search committee. And Marian believed in me. I'm not sure she knew the extent of all that I believed in. But she believed that I would never, ever, ever, ever consciously do harm to her school.
BOND: And she thought that you would be good for her school --
COLE: And she had a vision, that I'm not sure that I had, that I could do wonderful things with and for her school.
BOND: Do you think that she saw, in you, something you didn't see in yourself? And saw you there, in a way that you hadn't seen yourself, there?
COLE: No question.
BOND: How long had you known her? How did you meet her?
COLE: One wasn't an active person in this country without knowing of Marian. And I had interacted maybe here or there, but it was really through the search process that I came to know and more deeply love and respect Marian. And once the appointment happened it was often a struggle. I mean, Marian's life as you know is so focused, so relentlessly dedicated to the Children's Defense Fund, that it finally reached the point where I insisted that we had to have 7:30 am weekly telephone meetings. I mean, she was engaged, but never to the extent that I wanted and needed. I was a new president. I was a novice at this. I hadn't been a dean and a provost and a vice president. And so I was always trying to get more, perhaps out of my own insecurity about the presidency.
BOND: Except for your mother's experience and your year at Fisk, you never had this experience. You'd been at Washington, you'd been at UMass, you had been at Hunter. This is very, very different from those --
COLE: It was very different. And I have thought a lot in retrospect about my mom: registrar, English professor, at Edward Waters. But you know in those days she was so much more my mom than a professor. But I did grow up in many ways on that Edward Waters campus, you know. I would go there to meet my mom. I was aware of it. And I grew up by the way with many, many, many, many, many experiences at Bethune-Cookman. Because we would drive to Bethune-Cookman. My mother had close friends there. Because of the relationship between my great-grandfather and Mary McLeod Bethune. So all of that was a part of my growing up. But I never took myself and placed myself within those contexts. Myself as a professor, but not as a president.
BOND: It's very different to be the president, and particularly to be the president at this Southern, black, women's school.
BOND: -- that's used to doing the things a certain way. A good way, I'm guessing. But those may not be your ways. What kind of challenges did you meet and face and when?
COLE: Well, because you know the South, you will know that one of the first challenges that I confronted at Spelman was stonewalling. You know, Southern folk -- and I want to say particularly Southern black folk -- really don't like conflict. As opposed to, and I'm really using huge stereotypes -- I'm coming from a northern school, I'm coming from Hunter, I'm coming from New York City where a lot of it is "in your face."
BOND: That's right.
COLE: And, "You want to fight about this theory? I'll take you on about this theory." "And you want to have this change in the administration? I'll tell you why it's wrong." Not at Spelman. Very, you know, "Let's not have any conflict here. Let's just -- " And so I'm raising ideas. I'm suggesting things and I'm just getting -- I'm not getting resistance in the sense of taking me on. I'm just getting "let's just avoid this."
BOND: They don't want to engage --
COLE: "Let's not engage in this." And so in many ways I had to reconnect with my southernness. I had not lived in the South since that one year at Fisk, 1953 to '54. And so I really took some counsel there with myself, and I started reading about and thinking about "What is the nature of being Southern?" And once I reconnected with a good deal of that, I'm not saying that it solved the problem, but it helped me to administer far better. Secondly, I really think that my own openness was useful. It made me accessible. It diffused some of the sense of "Here comes the president." Which is somewhat assumed to be the proper stance within our HBCUs. And it made for an early, I hope I'm not overstating this, it made for a kind of early affection that I admit I took full advantage of. It was so clear with the students, I mean the love affair that I had with my young sisters, I think, is to rarely be matched. A faculty ain't the same thing.
BOND: I was just thinking that the students naturally would be happy to see you. Change for them is four years. And so whatever you do can't be very upsetting or threatening to them and you're a welcoming person. But the faculty, they have a longer view than four years.
BOND: And the administrators --
COLE: And some very peculiar things happened as a result of Spelman's history and mine coming into the same place. For example -- this may be my best example, in fact -- I remember saying to colleagues from around the country "You know, I am surprised, to tell you the truth, shocked, by how little faculty governance there is at Spelman. There must be more faculty governance." People are saying, "Johnnetta, now wait a minute. Do you know what you're asking for? You've got a situation of, in quotes, "power and authority," and you're asking to share this?" And the answer for me was, "Yes." Because my long-term view of that school and of the academy is that without genuine faculty governance, not over- exercised, not exploited, but appropriately engaged in, is essential for the health and the success of a college or university. So who becomes the major proponent of faculty governance? The president.
BOND: But what else did you find lacking at Spelman or missing at Spelman that you had expected to find from your experience at other institutions? What was the norm elsewhere that wasn't the norm at Spelman?
COLE: At the risk of reducing things to simplistic lines, there wasn't as much intellectual fervor, as much intellectual agitation, as much intellectual life as I had been used to. And this is not to say that all professors were just sort of taking the, you know, the easy road and not really raising questions and moving to points of real change in terms of their thoughts. But it did grab me as being pretty -- as a pretty quiet place intellectually. I'd like to think that I was able to stir that pot a little bit.
BOND: In this country we measure success of college presidents: "Did the SAT scores go up? Is the endowment richer than it was when you came?" And using those measurements, you're a fabulous success as president for ten years at Spelman College. What other way would you like to be judged, looking back on your tenure, what other measurement can we apply to you, success, failure?
COLE: Well, I would again give voice to a more active intellectual climate. Number two, I'd like to think that those Cole years led to a far greater openness to difference. When I arrived at Spelman I was rather surprised by what I would call the inhospitable climate. For example, for Muslim students, who really were being told, with too many messages, that they ought to consider Christianity. I was shocked by the depth of homophobia on that campus. I was surprised by the absence of -- of questioning of different ways of explaining the world. And so I'd like to think that in a number of ways, Spelman has a greater interest in and respect for human diversity.
BOND: Those are hard to quantify. You know, you can measure endowment. You can look at SAT scores. Is it possible to quantify that in some measurable way? I know that you can walk around the campus --
COLE: Only by vignettes. I can only give you vignettes that Audre Lorde had been so insulted on that campus that she vowed she would never, ever, ever return. While I was at Spelman, sister Audre not only gave me the greatest gift of returning to that campus. Julian, the majority of her papers are in the archives --
COLE: -- of Spelman College.
BOND: All right.
COLE: You know, Spelman under my administration -- that's a word that sounds so funny, but I'm supposed to use it -- permitted the establishment of the lesbian and bi-sexual organization. You see that is measurement.
BOND: It had been previously prohibited? Not only prohibited, but frowned upon.
COLE: It did not exist. So these things again --
BOND: So black women were not lesbians?
COLE: Oh, no, no, no, no. That's white women stuff. No, that's white women stuff. Black women aren't feminist either. So these are things that are very meaningful to me. The intellectual climate is more agitated. Respect for difference became higher. And then, thirdly -- and this was always there -- and I think that I simply had the gift with others to lift it up, and that is that whole question of service. You know, which -- which is so fundamental to being a race man and a race woman. This idea that, yes, these students should do everything in their power to be successful -- get money, have great jobs -- but they need to think about what they're going to do to make life better for most black folk. And so making service a centerpiece of my administration was very important to me. When I left, and the board asked if there was anything that I wanted, I said, "Yes." I didn't want a building named after me. I wanted a program. And so there is at Spelman, the Johnnetta B. Cole Office of Community Service and Community Building.
BOND: Now, you know, your use of the term "administration" leads naturally to the Clinton administration. You become a part of the transition team for education for incoming President Bill Clinton. And immediately a firestorm erupts.
COLE: Too mild a word.
BOND: An explosion, your politics. Cuba. What did that do to you? I imagine this had never happened to you before.
COLE: It had not. I mean, nothing that was even close to the intensity, and I would say the viciousness, of that red baiting. It was horrible. There is no word that I can use more accurately than horrible. And for me, Julian, it was horrible fundamentally because I was the president of Spelman. And so here was a moment when my worst nightmare could come true. And that is that I could bring harm to Spelman. Remember a little earlier I had said that I was convinced that Marian [Wright Edelman] not only thought I could do good for her school, but I would never do anything to harm it. And it just -- it was a horrible nightmare to live through. And I must tell you that not only Marian but at that time Robert Holland, Bob Holland who you may remember for a while was the CEO of Ben and Jerry's. And that board stuck by me in a way that was truly admirable. And that I am convinced cut the possibility that I could bring harm to Spelman. When they came out immediately in my support, then where could anyone go with this? But it was a wretched period to live through.
BOND: What about students? I imagine for students this is an unusual thing for them to find themselves in the middle of. These young people -- this is unusual for them to find the head of their institution under, subjected to this kind of attack. And it may be that they're saying, "You know, could this be true? Is she a bad person?" How did they react?
COLE: Hate to be schmaltzy, but they reacted lovingly. You know, it would have been hard I think for Spelman students to really convince themselves that the person that they knew, who they saw walking around campus, and who they would vie to walk with in early morning walks, or with whom they sat in open office hours or who led them to the polls to vote, that all of a sudden this woman was the most dreaded thing in America: a communist. It was just -- it did not compute for them. And so, you know, I got a lot of "Dr. Cole, don't you worry, I'm with you. This is nonsense." But I'll tell you the truth, a whole lot of students just saw it -- to use their language -- blew it off.
BOND: But it's amazing how much salience red baiting had in this period, this modern period. I mean, the menace of the Soviet Union we've got to think that's yesterday, that's history. Why was this bite so strong? Do you think that it had anything to do with both your race and your gender? That you somehow the combination of female, black and red, was just too much?
COLE: I think a lot of things --
BOND: Or was it too easy?
COLE: A lot of things contributed. Do not underestimate the Miami Cuban community. Do not ever underestimate that community. The proximity of Atlanta to Miami, I think, was important. Secondly, perhaps I overstate things, but I think a lot of folks saw the Secretary of Education post as having far more influence than it really does, ever did, and ever will. And the notion that, you know, someone they could so dread would be in that position. And then, thirdly, I think that it was an early sign that Bill Clinton was going to have some folk coming at him in all kinds of ways. It was an experience I do not want to live through again. It was also an experience that I think with the end of the Cold War and that the, in quotes, "dread of communism." We should not take deep breaths over and say -- [deep breath] -- never to happen again, because what I went through can be reconfigured. And it can be reconfigured in the area in which we live where to question things that are going on now in the aftermath of September 11th is to set one's self up to be unpatriotic.
BOND: We already see people losing jobs and being condemned and threatened and so on, because they do dare to question. It's a scary, scary phenomenon. I had not thought of the possibility of replicating this Cold War hostility in a new phase, under a new guise, in a new way.
COLE: Under a new guise.
BOND: And it is amazing that Clinton seems to me to attract a higher level of enmity for relatively little cause than any public figure in my lifetime.
COLE: In my lifetime as well.
BOND: It's just amazing.
COLE: In my lifetime as well.
BOND: I don't know what it is about him.
COLE: I don't know either. Sometimes I think it might be a touch of color there. He's just going to attract it. I don't know.
BOND: Maybe so. Well, I think that surely part of it that he does have this, for better or worse, strongly, weakly, this affinity for African Americans, and that's got to be so upsetting to so many people.
COLE: Got to go to the last nerve of lots of folk.
BOND: Back to Spelman. So, high SATs, high endowment, fabulous improvements on the campus, intellectual climate, heightened, improved. What didn't you do that you wish you'd done? What didn't get done?
COLE: What didn't get done, and the easiest way to describe it, is greater institutionalizing of those things. You know, things can change very quickly.
COLE: And I think that perhaps more years would have allowed what I hoped to do to become more solid.
BOND: But -- so, why then just ten years? I'm guessing you could have had another ten, or another ten, or another ten after that. Why were ten years --
COLE: There is no question I certainly could have had more than ten. I mean, the board I think the point when I went to them and said I thought it was time I know the board was prepared for me to stay for another hunk of time. Julian, I had this dread of staying too long.
COLE: And when I look at our institutions, our colleges and universities, and our organizations, I am really convinced that we have done great harm by staying too long. And so I've always wanted to go when people still wanted me to stay. I went to Emory. Three years, folk were asking me why did I need to retire. Because folks still wanted me to stay -- best time to leave.
BOND: Yes, I'm just reading it's best to leave while people still want you to stay.
COLE: It really is.
BOND: But how do you know when they still want you to stay?
COLE: Well --
BOND: And are they sometimes just saying, "You're great, you're wonderful, you're fabulous."
COLE: There were many signs. I mean, it was, in my view, a magical era. It was a very special presidency. And when I think about why -- you know, I really have to go to general biblical expression: "The least among you." And in real terms, one can say that African-American women have been put in the position of being the least among us. Black, female, and so often poor. And so to lift up a place of African-American women is to do a mighty task.
BOND: Let me touch on something I missed when we introduced the subject, you are the first African-American woman to be president of this African-American women's college? Not the first woman --
COLE: In a hundred and seven years of its history.
BOND: The first three presidents are white women.
COLE: First four.
BOND: First four. So you're guessing that the founders said: "Women's college, woman president." But in this era, a hundred-plus years ago, they got to be white women. And then a period ensues, a number of people come along, but none of them is an African-American woman. Why did it take the college so long?
COLE: Simplest answer: sexism. And racism. And the way that they combined in a black woman's presidency. I just think the prevailing notion was no one is worthy.
BOND: But you know, you think about the other, about Bennett. And Bennett had black women presidents. Why couldn't Spelman?
COLE: Good question. And I'm sure with complexities that we can't go into now as to who were the folk who really determined who would be Spelman's president. The forces, the families that had a great deal to say about all of that. But it is a shocking notion that it took a hundred and seven years for it to finally happen. My predecessor, Don Stewart, was so wonderfully gracious as he left Spelman and I came in. There was a period of time there when Don and I were together in Atlanta. And he just had a wonderful way of being in a setting and sticking out his hand and saying "I'm Don Stewart, the last male president Spelman College will ever have." No, in fact, he would say "the last black male president Spelman College would ever have." Don, I think, really went through a tough period there, because as you know when he was going through the process, the students -- they locked up the trustees --
COLE: -- for hours! And protested. And so I never forgot that my presence on that campus was directly related to the activism of students -- black women students.
BOND: At the same time one gets the feeling, and I get the feeling being on a majority white campus, that today's students are nowhere near the activists they were in the period you're talking about, or in the previous 1960s. It's a different world, different demands on them, different expectations of them. But nonetheless the level of activism much, much lower.
COLE: Way down.
BOND: What accounts for that and how, if at all, can it be brought back up again?
COLE: If I had the solution to that, oh, would I spread it around like raindrops. I'm particularly conscious of this now in the aftermath of September 11th. You know, where are the teach-ins? And I'm not saying that we should have organized teach-ins that condemn the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Where are the teach-ins, where both sides are raised in support and in opposition? Where are the questions that were so much a part of the academy that I grew up in and that I participated in? Frankly, folk have gotten kind of comfortable, and in many ways I think more afraid to raise questions now than ever before. Perhaps students are right. Perhaps to do so means that they won't get into law school like they want to get into law school. Perhaps faculty are right; to raise those questions at a time when jobs are being frozen may mean that they get in fact frozen out. Perhaps it is a climate now, both of comfort in their new career possibilities, and fear that to raise questions will threaten all of that. That may be a part of it. Secondly, though, I think the end of the Cold War really did create a sense that everything is all right. You know, we have no more enemies. There is nothing to protest against anymore. The war in Vietnam is over. America is just fine -- that's really shameful for us to fall into that. And by us, I do mean the academy.
BOND: Do you think that it also may stem from young people thinking that while earlier generations were able to shift things, change things, end segregation, that they are not capable of doing it, that you can't fight City Hall now the way that you used to be able to? That institutions are more rigid, more resistant? So not only is the danger to your career, your life choices, so on, but it's futile?
COLE: I really do. And I'm really grateful to you for raising it, because it is a strong sense that I have, that students, and unfortunately too many folk in communities have lost the sense of power. The notion that they can be change agents. See I grew up -- to bring full circle to an earlier part of our conversation -- where it was assumed, it was only a matter of time we were going to get rid of Jim and Jane Crow. And today folk don't act as if they feel they can really re-invent their lives, reformulate their institutions. I think you're very right. It's a feeling of "this is just sort of the way it is."
BOND: Do you have a philosophy of life that has guided your life? Almost everyone does. But what is it for you? Is it possible to put it in a few words? I've got this amazing list of aphorisms: "Never acquire a lifestyle that you're willing to sell your soul to keep." "Never let an injustice become yesterday's news." And on and on and on and on. You know these are going to be easily absorbed and adapted.
COLE: I'm struggling to find language for it, but -- but the philosophy I think that really does guide me is that I will do well if I can just find ways to do good.
BOND: And where does that come from? Is that from family?
COLE: A.L. Lewis. Mary Frances Louis Betsch. John Thomas Betsch, Sr. Aunt Nyna. Grandma Betsch. All those folk.
BOND: Because you saw A.L. Lewis doing well and doing good. I know it's -- suppose you just see him doing well, and he wasn't doing good? Do you think that you would be a different person?
COLE: Yeah, substantially. Because you see, when I say "well," Julian, this is important, I don't just mean material resources. There are some folk in this world who are doing very well and doing substantial evil, doing very well financially.
COLE: For me doing well, not only means on a level of comfort, it means a level of peace, a kind of inner peace. It means moving with a sense of joy. And so that kind of doing well only comes, I think, when you're doing good.
BOND: Let me read you something about making of leaders. And you are a leader. And have demonstrated this leadership in all your public career, and I dare say, even in your college and high school days. You get to be a leader one of three ways: Great people cause great events. That's one way. Movements make leaders. That's another way. And the confluence of events creates leaders appropriate for our times. Where do you fit?
COLE: I refuse --
BOND: Don't be modest, don't be modest.
COLE: -- the American way of "Choose one of the above." I can give you examples of each. Easily I can give you examples of each. And what I think we don't yet understand is how to socially reproduce each of those possibilities.
COLE: But I'm not prepared to choose among the three.
BOND: Now looking back over these years, are there times -- there must have been times when you said, "Gee, what is this all about? I can't keep doing this. I need to either do something else, or certainly I need to stop doing this." Wherever it was you were in your career -- what kept you at it? What kept you going when you were tempted, I'm guessing, like many people are, to just throw up your hands and say "To hell with this"?
COLE: Run off to a nice island somewhere --
BOND: Which you might have done --
COLE: Haunted. I would have been haunted and I knew it and it wasn't worth it. Haunted by -- and this is very difficult for me because it comes out so rhetorical -- but really haunted by what other folk had done which seemed so proportionately more engaged, more involved, with more sacrifice, with more human harm to them, than anything that I'd ever done. I'm not a historian. But I will tell you, Julian Bond, keeping grounded in history will keep you on a decent path. Because it will never allow you to isolate yourself from what already has taken place. So there was just no choice. It wasn't worth it to be haunted by all them race women and race men who had done so much more than I could ever conceive of.
BOND: I meant to touch on this earlier. But what role do you think the AME church, as opposed, let's say, to the Baptist church, plays -- AME is a race church, is a race, race church --
COLE: Richard Allen made it so.
BOND: -- what did the church do to you? Or do for you?
COLE: A lot. A lot. And I've been through, by the way, the whole cycle. I mean, from growing up in the AME church to deciding it wasn't high sidity enough and becoming an Episcopalian and going through my little agnostic stage. I've been through all of that. And I am now in a situation of great tension and joy with the church. I mean, tension around some issues that I've still got so much problem with. I mean, the woman question in the black church is a big question for me. And yet I find myself constantly renewed in those gatherings, because when the black church is at its best, it's off the chart. You know,when it is -- when I am literally participating in serving homeless men and a few women in First Congregational Church in Atlanta, Georgia, that's at its best. This church assumed to be high sidity with all the yellow folk in it, serving the homeless, that's the black church at its best.
Yes, I think the AME church will always have the distinctiveness of being the race church. It also has a much more progressive history than the Baptist church on the woman question. The Baptist church on the woman question is in another era. And so to be now in a place where I can imagine the black church actually taking yet a new leadership role in this era is very exciting to me. Let me give you an example. Sunday morning, the first Sunday morning after September 11th, I heard Norman M. Rates -- pastor of First Congregation, on the ministerial staff, was the college minister when I was at Spelman -- give a sermon that I still can't get rid of. And Julian, I don't care how much time we've got I've got to give you this from that sermon:
Reverend Rates stood in the pulpit of First Congregational Church and he said, "Let me tell you a story. A child only one year old is hit by a car, is in the middle of the street, the sirens are going off, the police are rushing there, the crowd is gathering around. A woman in her home sees all of this, rushes to the scene, grabs the baby, puts it into her arms, holds it to her breast, and then she moves the baby back, looks at it and says 'This ain't my baby!' And puts it down." He said, "America, when all of the children of Africa have been suffering you said, 'That's not my baby.' When there was terrorism in country after country in Europe, you said, 'That's not my child.' When the people of Latin America have been devastated by what they've gone through, you said, 'That ain't my child.' Well, America, on September 11th, that was your baby."
Now the ability of black ministers, men and women, to speak that kind of truth. You see, that is a role that the black church can play that even we academics --
BOND: Cannot play.
COLE: -- cannot play.
BOND: We don't have the language.
COLE: Listen to James Forbes in Riverside. Hear Barbara King in Hillside in Atlanta. Listen to Calvin Butts. These are voices trying their best to speak some truth.
BOND: Very quickly in the short minutes we have -- we haven't talked much about class. We talked about race, we talked about gender. If somebody said you see race and gender under every tree, where do you see class? Or when do you see class?
COLE: I tend to always see class. But I confess that as I age I see it with less -- I still see it, but my language becomes less stringent perhaps. That's happened to all of us who grew up in the era in which we grew up. But it is so ever-present. What else is it if not class to see this enormous chasm between black folk who got and black folk who don't have? What else is it but class? When we turn on the TV and watch the people of Afghanistan. That's not just a country that is a country under a given regime, that's also a country that is so poor. When we pick up a newspaper, and today read about some CEO who turns down an $81 million parachute, is that class? Of course it's class. And we as African Americans have yet to fully come to grips with the influence of class in our own community.
BOND: You know, there are some people who want to substitute class for race --
COLE: Oh, yeah.
BOND: -- particularly the affirmative action debate. Why don't we have class-based remedies? And, of course, people who study this tell us that they'll achieve less of an effect than race-based remedies do. But somehow they think they will be more acceptable. Do you think so?
COLE: I can only quote the good doctor, W. E. B. [Du Bois] It's -- and I will murder it, but -- a terrible choice of terms, I will not do justice to it -- "It's one thing to be black in America, oh, but to be black and poor." And, of course, I would always add "and a woman." And so I don't understand what makes us think that the realities in African-American life are now captured either in racial or class terms. They are captured in both. And gender matters, too.
BOND: Now when you look about black America today, African America today -- many, many problems -- is there a leadership problem? I've often thought that we have more leaders per dozen than any other people on the face of the earth. But does it seem to be some sort of leadership problem, this desire to have a leader. This seeming competition today between Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton? Who's going to win out? Who are they competing amongst? What kind of crisis, if any, do we have in leadership?
COLE: It's there. It's there. And I go to the phrasing you just used, this need to have a single leader blinds us to the presence of leadership all around us. I also think that there is enormous ageism that we tend to suffer from in the African-American community. It's a good thing to respect our elders. But I am absolutely smitten by the young leaders that I know. I saw them at Spelman and at Morehouse. I see them now out in the community. They have a hard row to hoe. "They ain't old enough," we tell them. "They haven't had enough knocks," we tell them. These are extraordinary leaders. And so one of the things that I'm trying to do is not to go anywhere without making sure I'm bringing along with me one of these emerging leaders, because they have enormous possibilities.
BOND: You talk about writing the textbook for black studies in the 1970s. Do we need a textbook for this kind of leadership in the year 2001, 2002?
COLE: I don't think we need a textbook --
BOND: Maybe not in the formal sense, but --
COLE: -- but we need some institutes. We need some training grounds. I can't tell you how much I'm thinking about this these days. Because leadership really can be taught. Yes, I think people grow up with certain kind of characteristics and circumstances. But we can teach folk how to be leaders. I think that we can do a better job of teaching leadership skills to our HBCU folk. I think that we got a bit of a crisis there. For our national organizations we can teach leadership skills. Certainly for civil service and civil servants we can teach folk how to be better city council folk, how to serve on school boards without bringing all of their personal stuff in there. We can teach this. And I continue to think that in this phase of my life, if there is one thing that I would be willing and interested in doing that would be in the form of a major effort it would be around this question: How do we teach leadership?
BOND: When you find the answer come back here and tell us. Johnnetta Cole, thank you very much for doing this. It's been a great, great pleasure.
COLE: You're welcome, brother Julian.
BOND: Thank you.