Meeting Dr. Johnnetta Cole was the highlight of what might have otherwise been a very sad week. I ended up walking twenty minutes to class on Tuesday morning in torrential rainfall, and the feeling of being wet and angry did not dissipate until Thursday, when I remembered that class had been cancelled for that afternoon.
Just the day before, at a meeting I attended with primarily anthropology graduate students, the group’s advisor mentioned that Johnetta Cole would be hanging out with him in the afternoon before her Martin Luther King, Jr. keynote address later Thursday night and that we were welcome to drop in and say hello. As the group and I had read Dr. Cole’s work the previous semester, watched a documentary on Herskovits which featured her, and talked about her work as an activist scholar, I knew immediately how I wanted to spend my Thursday afternoon off from class.
Meeting her in an intimate setting was a lovely experience. She simply had to know everything about you and made it her mission to listen to our stories. However, she also had a way of getting to your core; the first thing she asked me, after my name and what sort of work I did, was where I saw myself in ten years.
Of the four of us, she turned to me first, and “Tenure-track in English or American Studies” sprung from my lips before I even realized I had said it. I qualified it, saying that I wouldn’t be happy unless I was writing and the Academy offered an unprecedented amount of creative freedom (comparative to many other jobs), but I also mentioned that it was my ambition to start a magazine someday. She smiled at me gently, approvingly and said, “You’ve thought about this.” Indeed, I had. I have host of things I want to get done in this lifetime, so I’ve got to plan accordingly.
Before long, our audience with Dr. Cole was over, and my colleagues and I left the room, feeling inspired, and in my case, heard. For all her many achievements, being a professor, a president of college, a director of a museum, she was grounded and it was so easy to talk to her. Despite only knowing her for a few moments, she felt like a favorite teacher who had known me my whole life.
Dr. Cole’s evening talk was riveting; she has such a striking stage presence. Before she even got into her address, she made a point to thank everyone who had been a part of helping her to come to William & Mary, and talked about the wonderful day she’d had. The highlight of said day, she told the crowd, was getting to spend time with her “star student,” our advisor, and his four students. I swelled with pride from my corner of the auditorium: I was one of those four students. She called us her “grand-students,” and the same warmth I had felt from her in the classroom spread into the massive auditorium. Then, she began her address, thinking about how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would feel about today’s issues. She drew not only from Dr. King but from his wife Coretta as well because Coretta had her own vision of peace and justice. She called on the crowd to affect change using a three word approach: educate, legislate and agitate. Dr. Cole reminded us that our responsibility was to speak the truth as we see it, for it matters not where we stand in moments of comfort, but rather where we “stand in moments of challenge and controversy” (Dr. King). Honoring the legacy of the freedom fighters before us means that we need to refuse to be satisfied, Dr. Cole told us. We need to fight the way of the current syllabus which is too often only “Western, white, and womanless.” Most importantly, she called on us to do the work necessary.
Meeting Dr. Cole and hearing her words made me think about my place in all of this: Am I doing the work? Am I refusing the be satisfied? Am I speaking truth as I see it? I think, perhaps, I’m trying to; I’m making a solid attempt, but I’m not satisfied with what I’ve done so far. It’s not enough. In terms of affecting change, I’ve chosen my approach, to educate, but I do little with legislating and agitating. Is it enough to chose one path, or do you need to do all three? I think a good change-maker does a little of everything. Meeting Dr. Cole has made me ask myself: what can I do to affect change?
I may not know yet, but I do thank Dr. Cole for sparking the thought.