Johnnetta B. Cole Is a Force of Nature

Having turned 80 years old Wednesday, Cole, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, has a legacy that’s unparalleled.

Johnnetta Betsch Cole
Johnnetta Betsch Cole National Museum of African Art

Johnnetta Betsch Cole, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, turned 80 years old Wednesday, and the stunning educator, humanitarian, anthropologist and mentor to many says it’s wonderful to turn what she calls “40 years old times two.”

“I’m so conscious of what I would call a disconnect between the very words ‘80 years old’ and how I feel,” says Cole. The vibrant woman, who is always impeccably attired in outfits with a bit of an African flair and has a smile that lights up a room, says she might not have reached this age in a different time.

“Now it’s the new 60! So when I’m about to turn 80 years old, the first thing that comes up are images of another era. But that’s now how I feel still working full time, still taking advantage of being blessed with extraordinary energy, and feeling quite privileged to respond to my passion for the world of African art and African culture.”

Born in 1936 in Florida, Cole’s life and career have been extraordinary from the beginning. At the age of 15, she achieved early admission to Fisk University. She later transferred to Oberlin College, where she discovered her love of anthropology from the late professor George Eaton Simpson on the very first day of class.

“He told the story of how enslaved Africans had been brought to Jamaica and had taken the African expressions of religions that they brought with them, and reinterpreted them in Jamaican revivalists’ cult beliefs and practices,” Cole recalls. “I was blown away because some of what he was describing was what I knew of growing up in the AME church in Jacksonville, Fla., where folk would—’get happy’ is the expression we would use.”

Cole tears up remembering that when Simpson died at the age of 93, she received a box from his daughter with a note reading, “My father, your professor, so loved working with you as a student that he asked that his original slides from his field work in Jamaica would be put in your hands.”

Cole says there’s something powerful about being a good teacher, and her career reflects how she has made that power her own.

Not only has Cole held several teaching positions at institutions including the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Hunter College, but she is the only person to have served as president of both Spelman College and Bennett College, two historically black colleges for women. Cole, who was the first woman to be president at Spelman, calls her time there a “magical experience.”

“I don’t know what else to say—the human process of teaching and learning is magical. But what made the Spelman experience so magical for me was that it involved teaching and learning for and among images of myself and my students,” Cole explains. “What a privilege! Here were young and not-so-young African-American women who so often seemed to be a reflection of who I am … and so to be on that campus and then to have the similar environment at Bennett—I have been one very fortunate woman.”

Cole is also professor emerita at Emory University, where she retired as the Presidential Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Women’s Studies and African-American Studies. She’s received nearly 70 honorary degrees. This strong advocate for education has done research in Africa, the Caribbean and in the U.S., and she’s received numerous awards, including the Joseph Prize for Human Rights from the Anti-Defamation League and the 2015 BET Award for Education. Cole is a mentor to many, and embraces that role.

“It gives me such joy to go here and there and yonder and be greeted by, yes, African-American women, and other women of color, folk who are as diverse as one can imagine because the good Lord, she did make us human beings diverse. And to be greeted and thanked for my work, what I often feel and try to say is, ‘I thank you as well,’” Cole says. “But there are two things I’m kind of challenging here. One is that a shero must always be someone older than you, someone who has accomplished the impossible.”

Cole says that she has sheroes who are considerably younger than she is, mentees for whom she is the mentor. One of them is Sheila Robinson, editor and publisher of Diversity Woman Magazine. They first met when Cole was at Bennett College.