Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Career Vision: From Pediatrics to Anthropology

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.

BOND: Wow.

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.