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.
“She’s my shero, and it’s lovely to hear she thinks the same thing of me,” says Robinson about Cole. Robinson says that she tells women looking for mentors and role models to offer themselves up—as she did with Cole.
“I went to some of her events, introduced myself to someone on her team, and I offered myself up,” Robinson says, “Meaning, 'How can I support this amazing woman?' At the time I had a regional magazine, North Carolina Career Network. ‘Can I feature her in the magazine? Can I offer any public relations and basically do you need any cabinets moved? I’ll sweep the floor!’”
Robinson calls Cole an inspiration who has taught women the importance of education and learning. She says that every life Cole touches is inspired to learn more and to find value in what education means.
“Our relationship was from afar for years because I guess I was always on the sidelines … but she knew I was there, and that’s a beauty in itself that Dr. Cole is so awesome that she recognizes the little people around her,” Robinson says, adding, “Now we sit beside each other everywhere we are.”
Arcynta Ali Childs feels the same way. The Spelman graduate met Cole in 2011, at a crossroads in her career, and reached out for help.
“She is a very gracious person, and I think the more you know about her, certain people seem inaccessible, but Dr. Cole will welcome you in, and we just talked,” says Childs. Childs adds that after an emotional conversation, Cole not only offered to send her résumé around but also offered Childs a job writing speeches for her.
“She was more than a mentor for me. She was a listening ear,” says Childs, who is now on the strategic-communications team at the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance. “She is someone who is willing to speak up for people and speak out for you. … She came into my life at a moment when I needed her and did not know her, and she was just willing to be there for whatever it was I was asking.”
Cole has been that for many, and now, at the age of 80, she has powerful advice for those coming behind her, particularly for women.
“The goal in no way is to do what I’ve done—it’s to go on and soar to the height of her possibilities in a world that is so different than the world I grew up in,” Cole muses. “Many a mama said this: ‘Never should you be willing to sell your soul for anything.’ … So I would wish for my younger sisters courage. That would include speaking up and speaking out whenever they encounter injustice, whenever their humanness is being challenged, ridiculed or questioned. … Passion to me is timeless.”
Allison Keyes is an award-winning correspondent, host and author. She can be heard on CBS Radio News, among other outlets. Keyes, a former national desk reporter for NPR, has written extensively on race, culture, politics and the arts. Follow her on Twitter.