Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership Development

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.