This Masterclass in Activism brings together in conversation Johnnetta Betsch Cole and Celeste Watkins-Hayes, director of the Center for Racial Justice. October, 2021.
Celeste Watkins-Hayes: Welcome to our inaugural masterclass hosted by Center for racial justice at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. I am Celeste Watkins-Hayes director of the center, Associate Director for Academic Affairs at the Ford School, and a professor of Public Policy and Sociology. At the Ford School and at the Center for racial justice, we seek a world in which people are able to achieve their full human potential, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and other categories that have been used to divide and systematically marginalize people. We train leaders here who understand the critical role of public policy in improving our world. We recognize the power of public policy to bolster or undercut our life opportunities and experiences, and we see policy analysis as a critically important tool for us to measure, reflect, historically examine and help us define the way forward.
CW: As we examine the fraught histories and consequences of some of our policies and the transformative power of others, we learn a valuable lesson, effective and just public policies can only be achieved if we bring diverse perspectives to the table. This fall, the Center for Racial Justice has a feature a cadre of speakers to deliver virtual presentations on the historical roots and contemporary currents of race and economic criminal justice, education and immigration policy. We encourage you to review our website at the Center for racial justice at the Ford School of Public Policy for the dates of our upcoming events and to see recordings of our past events. The masterclass in activism is a widely advertised series, in which the center director interviews and is in conversation with a noted activist and thought leader who has made significant marks on the policy landscape. I'm delighted to introduce our first, our inaugural speaker for the masterclass in activism at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole.
CW: Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole is a noted educator, author, speaker and consultant on inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility in corporations, educational institutions, museums and other workplaces. After receiving her PhD in Anthropology, Dr. Cole held teaching positions in Anthropology, Women's studies and African American studies at several colleges and universities. She served as the President of both historically black colleges for women in the United States, Spelman College and Bennett College for Women. This is a distinction that she alone holds. She's also served as the Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African art, as a principal consultant at Cook Ross, and as a Senior Consulting Fellow at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. She currently serves as Chair and the seventh president of the National Council of Negro Women, an advocacy organization for women's rights and civil rights. She also serves on Special Counsel of strategic initiatives at the Baltimore Museum of Art, a member of the board of the Maya Angelou Foundation, and also the Dean of the Herndon Board Institute.
CW: She's authored and co-authored and edited several books and numerous articles for scholarly and general audiences, and her latest publication is called Racism in American Public Life: A Call to Action. Dr. Cole has received numerous awards, over 70 honorary degrees. Throughout her career and in her published work, her speeches and community service, Dr. Cole consistently addresses issues of race, gender, and all other systems of inequality. Dr. Cole, sister president, known to many, it is good to see you.
Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole: My Spelman sister, Celeste Watkins-Hayes, if I can just edit that much-too-long introduction, you need it to say ever so clearly, your college president, your sister friend, your colleague, and I dare to probably say, one of your mentors.
DC: This is what some folk in my community would describe as being some time filled with pure deep joy, that we could just converse. So I'm in your hands.
CW: Absolutely. Thank you, Dr. Cole. And in a full circle moment because we met when I was about 19 years old, a student at Spelman College. I had been elected to the Board of Trustees at Spelman, and that is where I became passionate about higher education and the power of higher education to change lives. How did that connection to higher education come for you?
DC: Easily ____ because... I'm so sorry, I'm hearing some...
CW: Oh, we don't hear it, don't worry.
DC: Oh good. Good, good. So Celeste, my parents were a bit unusual for their time. Two black folks, each of whom had a college education. My mother went to Morris Brown as a high school student. Of course, that's because our family was steeped in the AME church, some folk would say church. But she then went to Wilberforce, one of those historically black institutions that isn't in the South, and Wilberforce is so high up, again AME related. My father went to Knox College in Knoxville Tennessee. So when my sister, 18 months older than I, and I, my brother, who came along nine years later than I, got the talk about education and you and I know there are many different kinds of talks that black and other marginalized parents must have with their children. It wasn't about, will you go to college? Would you like to go to college? It was when do you go to college. Very quickly, and I know you know the story, but you know a good story is kind of worth telling again.
DC: When I was 15, and I'd had some extraordinary educational experiences, I had finally convinced my parents to let me go to the Stanton high school that had all kinds of folk, all African American in those days of discrimination, but no longer would I be at ____, the girls school, where methodist teachers did an extraordinary job of helping us to center ourselves. So I get my 11th grade at Stanton. Until my parents said," Johnnetta, you will go downtown in Jacksonville, Florida, you'll take a test, if you pass it, you will go to Fisk university." I said, "But why do I have to go Fisk?" They said, "You will go and take the test." Well, being the A-type, I don't have to explain that to you because Celeste Watkins-Hayes you're A+ type. Rather than just marking all the wrong answers, you know I sat there and did my best. So I went to college call it Fisk University, when I was 15. And I can just come full circle by saying, among the countless blessings that I've had in my life, certainly to be educated continuously is among those.
CW: Such a powerful story. And starting college at 15, my goodness. Activism, did you always have a passion for activism, did you know what it was growing up?
DC: I had to, because I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida. So close to the Georgia border that we said you know, "They might as well call us Georgia." Celeste I grew up as you know, in those wretched frightening days for black folk in the South. And so my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, my teachers, I knew folk in the post office, my neighbors, were activists. Because you were one thing or the other. You were actively pushing against the vileness inhumanity of racial segregation, or I guess you had turned off. My parents were unusually active. I even remember the red feather in the window, the red feather was for community chants that became United Way. But Celeste, I remember on more than just a few occasions, a knock at our door at 1817 Louisiana Street. And if my sister and I did what we weren't supposed to do, which was to listen out to hear what was going on. We heard that once again, my father was being asked to leave our home to go to get somebody out of jail who had no business being there, because they were unjustly put there. But even if I go back to my great grandfather, and we can talk about him when you wish to. He was clearly the most prominent African-American in our community, born in 1865, named like many a black man, born in 1865, in and around that period, Abraham Lincoln Lewis.
DC: But you know, I must sneak in now that Abraham Lincoln Lewis, was an incredibly close colleague, business collaborator and friend of the legendary Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune. So that gives you that sense that my village, as we like to metaphorically talk about, "Who raises one" was full of activists.
CW: And what's so striking to me, Dr. Cole is how your family was engaged in public policy, even as so many of us were operating outside of the traditional power structures. And it's so much a part of the tradition of black people, but so many marginalized groups that even when they are not in positions of great power nationally, they're still constantly in conversation with public policy. They're protesting public policy, they're advocating for local policies that can be impactful in their communities. They are about the business of policy making and policy advising, even if they are not in the biggest seats of power.
DC: Excellent point. And I'm thinking now of ways in which... Especially my great grandfather, and you know that story... I might as well just stop and quickly tell it and then pivot into what I think is so interesting that you just raised. Abraham Lincoln Lewis, born of enslaved parents, in an area called Madison, Florida. Poor, but with a drive that I hope I managed to get just a teenee ninchee bit of. Abraham Lincoln Lewis went on to build a relationship with six other African-American men in Jacksonville, Florida to found the Afro-American Life Insurance Company in 1901, a year when white insurance companies wouldn't think of writing a policy for a black family or a black individual. And so Abraham Lincoln Lewis not only helped to found, and it was he, Celeste, who named it Afro American, but he went on to become Jacksonville, Florida's, but more importantly, the state of Florida's first black millionaire.
DC: And so at some point, we might wanna talk about for an activist, what did it mean to be black, cis-female, but not poor. So who did Abraham Lincoln Lewis marry? Well, in 1793, a young girl, she could have been 13; she could not have been more than 15. We know that she was a royal lineage from Senegal on the West Coast in Africa. She was captured, shackled, her neck and her ankles and drug from her home among the Wolof people to Gorée island, which you know is that island off of Senegal. Put in the bowels of a ship. And you and I both know the almost unimaginably horrible circumstances of that Middle Passage. Her name was Anta Majigueen Ndiaye. She was off-boarded in Havana, Cuba, and from a place in Florida called Kingsley plantation went Zephaniah Kingsley... He went to Havana for the expressed purpose of human beings and proceeded to do so.
DC: He had some strange ideas, like slavery was just fine, but you kinda should be nice to your enslaved people. He wrote that he saw Anta Majigueen Ndiaye on the auction block and vowed that she must be his. He bought her. This young girl was impregnated before they reached Florida and the Kingsley plantation. Now, sister professor, good Dr. Celeste, if you're gonna tell the story, you got to tell the whole story. Anta went on to become so important on the Kingsley plantation, that in fact, she owned herself a few enslaved people. Every year I go to the Kingsley plantation. My husband and I go there because we must. My niece goes there, my sister, that's another story, would always go there and we look like the rainbow, the descendants of Zephaniah Kingsley British enslaver and Anta Majigueen Ndiaye, his common law wife. That was a long story. Are you ready for the kinship?
DC: Abraham Lincoln Lewis, my great-grandfather married Mary Sammis, the great-granddaughter of Zephaniah Kingsley and Anta Majigueen Ndiaye.
DC: And so, Celeste, I grew up with this story before we as African-Americans, and now people of other marginalized groups have become really clear that knowing as much as they can about their families is an empowering, although sometimes a very frightening experience.
CW: Right. 'Cause that is an amazing story, and it's a fraught story. So does it inform how you think about... How does it inform how you think about your place in the world, how does it inform your sense of commitment to social justice? Do you see your family story as foundational to the work that you've gone on to do?
DC: Absolutely, and it is, Celeste, the work that I hope to do in this last act of my life, and that is... Well, first of all, I hope the curtain doesn't come down any time soon on this last act. But I am committed to telling this story through my experience as a social justice activist. There are books. I have enormous respect for Professor Daniel Schafer, retired from the University of Florida, historian who has done similar work on the Kingsleys. But I've got to tell this story, and a piece of it... You thought I forgot, your college president. Don't forget. Part of my story will tell how extraordinarily my family and many other African-Americans of that era did inform public policy. And sometimes did things that are truly extraordinary. Just one example, Abraham Lincoln Lewis in 1935 went to the board of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company and said, "I propose to withdraw money from the Pension Bureau. Look at this, they have set up a Pension Bureau for their employees." He said, "I propose to draw funds from the Pension Bureau, and I'm gonna buy a beach. I'm gonna name it American Beach." Interesting.
CW: American beach.
DC: Afro-American Life Insurance Company bought American Beach.
CW: American Beach.
DC: 40 miles away from Jacksonville, and said Abraham Lincoln Lewis, "Black people need recreation without humiliation." Because remember, in those days, I couldn't go to a white people's beach. Every now and then, somebody would actually trying to draw a line in the Atlantic Ocean to say black people have to stay over here, white people. Alright, so buying that property, yes, led to public policies. And there are other examples.
CW: That is such a powerful story and is such an example of black people and other historically marginalized groups, nevertheless finding ways to circumvent public policy, to create our own policies in order to advance equity, to give people access to resources, to give people freedoms that they were otherwise being denied within the "legal system". So, Dr. Cole, do you think the word activism is overused, do you think it's underused? Do you think it's... First of all, define activist for you, and do you think we now over-use it or do you think we actually under-use it and need to call more things activism?
DC: Ooh. Gotta think a moment on that one. I think we need to use it more. I think we don't need to reserve it, so that it can only be applied to Dr. Martin Luther King Junior. It can only be applied to our sister, Gloria Huerta, and our brother, Cesar Chavez. We can only use it for someone so committed to change, like Audry Lloyd. This is a word that we will reserve for those who are the Sheroes and the heroes of our various movements. No. If you are at the University of Michigan and there you are somewhere on campus, and you overhear somebody using the vilest of terms for our siblings in the LGBTQ community, and you say not a mumbling word, you are not an activist. But if you find a way to say, "Excuse me, I overheard the language you used, I would be really appreciative if you could just hear me for a moment as to why that is so hurtful. I'm not a member of the LGBTQ community, but I am a part of another marginalized group." That's an activist, that is an activist. So it took me a minute, but I'm coming down on the side that says, own the word. Because if you own the word, yeah then you can be what the word says.
CW: Yeah. How... And so much of what you're saying is about finding your voice, finding your voice in that moment, to speak up, finding your voice in terms of understanding what you're passionate about, finding your voice in terms of understanding what disrupts you in a way that you wanna inspire change, how did you find your voice?
DC: Well, I have thought about it. Of all the things you've asked me, I would say I have thought about it, because I actually remember having my voice fairly early in some circumstances. Now, I did grow up the younger sister of a diva, alright, who infact is in my view, one of the great social activists of her era. Just quickly, my sister was born incredibly gifted, she went on to Oberlin College to be a double major in voice and piano. Graduated from Oberlin and went to Europe. She studied with the great African American singer, Roland Hayes. She went on to do lead roles in German State Opera. It's not clear to us what happened but she came home certainly to help because my mother was ill, but she turned into an activist of extraordinary proportions. My sister, with others, because nothing worth doing is done by a single person, but with others, saved American Beach that our great-grandfather founded, as the developers decided they would come and eat it up.
DC: She became such an environmentalist that she took whatever was willed to her and literally gave it away. There is a right-wing whale named after my sister who changed her name to be Marvin Oshun, for the Nigerian. You know what I'm talking about?
CW: Yes, yes.
DC: Deity Marvin Oshun Beach. Anybody in this area where my husband and I now live, as we prepare to build our home on America... No, we are building our home on American Beach, will say, as I'm walking down the street, "Oh, you're the beach lady's sister." Celeste she was a sight to behold. My sister who was six feet tall, that's considerably taller than I, had a single dreadlock from the top of her head down to six feet where her feet were. And one of the most moving moments of my life was certainly when we knew that she was about to... As black folk would say, Go to glory, and sisters of the Yoruba community of Nigeria came and took her to the ocean. She lived on American Beach, didn't listen to me that she should be in a house, finally, I convinced, but she for many a nights slept on that beach. And these Yoruba women bathed her and prepared her to go to glory.
DC: And then when she did pass, and the communities, especially the environmental communities came to bid her soul to rest in peace, I remember the Sierra Club sending the largest basket of butterflies I've ever seen. And we released them in to tribute to my activist sister. And we took her ashes following her will, and some went into the Atlantic ocean and some went into the Dune System that she is credited with saving on American beach. She named it NaNa. So I come from a family of activists.
CW: From a family activists. You sure do. You sure do.
DC: Maybe it was in the water. [laughter] I don't know.
CW: So how did you determine that your activism would be channeled through women's issues, through the women's movement, through feminism, and then we'll talk about your connection to issues around racial justice, but talk about how feminism and women's issues became a core part of your activist identity.
DC: Not initially. Except for that story I forgot to tell you, and it's so quick, here it goes. We are playing in the yard, a bunch of kids, and this little boy... I don't know how old I am, Celeste maybe, I can't be more than five. But this little boy says, na na na na, Looking dead at me, you can't climb a tree, you can't climb a tree, 'cause you're a girl. Celeste Watkins-Hayes class of '96 of Spelman College. [laughter] I climbed that tree.
CW: You climbed that tree. [laughter]
DC: I climbed that tree. Growing up in those really horrific days of racial segregation. Celeste I grew up when the Klan marched. I have stories to tell about the Klan. But the point I wanna make is that I think I had a generalized sense of injustice. But it took me a while to really focus on feminism. And that's because... And we all must do our best to avoid making less of who is the most discriminated against, 'cause that doesn't get us very far. But I was initially so centered in opposition to systemic racism that it took me a while, and I think... And you, the academic, the public intellectual, as we both are can grab a hold of this. Because it was really through the academy that I began to own who I am in terms, not just of race, whatever that is, but in terms of gender, and the ways in which gender is expressed with such enormous fluidity. And so I go to the 1970s when I'm at Washington State University, I've just... With my late husband, gotten a job... I mean we've done field work in Liberia. He has a PhD in economics. I got a PhD in anthropology to earn... When we can get this thesis written. But I have a teaching position, and not only that, I am really fortunate to be selected to head the Black Studies Program, and so it is at Washington state. That with my colleagues we literally organized one of the first black studies programs in the United States.
DC: But I started to notice something. And I increasingly asked if this is black studies, where are all the women? Fast-forward, I go to the University of Massachusetts and have the extraordinary privilege, and yes, a lot of joy of helping to move forward the W.E B Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies. It's there in the late '70s that I'm beginning to really ask this question, like, "Where are the women?" Even in our department, you talk about some stellar names, literally this roll call, I am in a department with Chinua Achebe.
DC: I'm in a department with Max Roach the drummer of all drummers. I'm in a department with Achi Chep. I'm in a department with Playthell Benjamin and with Michael Thelwell and John Bracey, these are names you know.
DC: In African American studies. And then there are two of us, Esther Terry, and John Anna Cole. Until we are joined what a day by Shirley Graham Du Bois. But it's there at UMass that I began to wander over there into women studies, and by the time I left in 19... I'm having an intellectual interlude, which is better than a senior moment. When I left UMass, brought to Hunter College by Donna Shalala one of my mentors, it is 1983.
DC: And it is there, Oh sister professor Celeste that somebody got a hold of me. And if I ever thought that I could avoid centering myself in my womanness, Audre Lorde sure showed me how I could not. Audre Lorde was at that time, the Poet Laureate of the State of New York. Audre Lorde was Hunter College's most distinguished public intellectual, poet, writer, lesbian, as she would always add. Warrior. And it was Audre who helped me to not only pose really unnerving questions about myself as a woman, but about sexuality, and certainly about that intersectionality that allows us, if we can be brave enough to own our multiple identities. And Audre did it. And I just gotta do this, and I've probably written about this a million times, but I gotta do it 'cause it's so wonderful. Audre didn't particularly want others to introduce her, she preferred to introduce herself.
DC: She had such a deep and commanding voice. And depending on her mood, which could sometimes be very playful, she might get up and say, I am Audre Lorde. I want you to know I do not get up in the morning and decide from 8:00 to 9:00 that I will be black. But of course I must hurry because you think that at 9:00 I will all of a sudden turn into a woman. I've got an hour at 10:00, I become a lesbian. 11 o'clock I'm scheduled to be a mother. And you know what? As the day passes, you think I've become a poet. And did you dare to imagine that I become a warrior? Your mistake is not knowing that I am all of those, those are my multiple identities. And so imagine having Audre Lorde as a teacher. Alright, she's a colleague. We are both professors in Hunter College. Audre Lorde was my teacher. And I don't know if you know that story, about Spelman and Audre?
DC: So Audre and I became incredibly close. And because of my long-standing relationship with a great, black woman scholar, activist, Gloria Joseph, who became Audre's partner in the last years of Audre's life, I would often... Not often, I would sometimes even go to St Croy, where Audre and Gloria were living together. But when that day came, Celeste Watkins, now Hayes, sum cum laude...
CW: You remembered.
DC: Suma cum laude graduate in the Olympic class of '96.
CW: Olympic class of 1996. [laughter]
DC: When you and your sisters and all chose me to be your president. One of the first things I did was get to my girlfriend, that's the person you do pinky promises with, that's the person from whom you have no secrets, that's the person might be fortunate enough to even write books with, her name for me is Beverly Guy-Sheftall.
CW: Shout out to Beverly Guy-Sheftall.
DC: So I get to Spelman and one of the first things I did was to say, "Beverley, we gotta bring Audre to Spelman." She said, "Audre won't come." I said, "What do you mean Audre won't come?" She said, "The time Audre was here, the homophobia was so big, the heterosexism was all over this campus. She said she'd never, ever come back." Well, to an activist, if you say never, that means, "You mean you wanna talk about when?"
CW: Right, you gotta try, yeah.
DC: So I got on Audre's case, and, Celeste, I wouldn't give up until finally Audre said... And now remember, I'm at Spelman, she is at Hunter. Audre said, "I'm tired of you. I'll come just to make you stop." So you will remember this, Celeste, I created... Yeah, I think you'll remember, I created something called "Speaking in Spelman, Readings and Rentals." And we'd have some of the great activists... Not just of our country but the world. I'm thinking about the day that Elie Wiesel spoke at Spelman. So I convinced Audre to come to Spelman, she would speak in the chapel, and then in the President's home, Reynolds Cottage, there would be a selected group of students just to have that unimaginably, wonderful experience of being with her. So there we are in a room you know, so well.
DC: I mean, come on, you served on the board of trustees for 10 years, you ought to know the President's home.
CW: Yeah, been there many times, yeah.
DC: And Audre is holding forth as only Audre can. And I'm sitting there and Celeste, I'm just, ooh, I'm on a high, but I hear... A student is like, she's crying. And at the exact same moment, Audre and I get up and we go to her, and this Spelman sister, I mean, Audre and I are... Finding where each of us can rock her until she calms down. And then Audre and I just take our seats and we just wait. And then with a voice, so clear, so strong, so determined, the whimpering has ceased and she says, "Thank you, Audre Lorde, you have given me the power to claim my sexuality, I am a lesbian." Now, Sister Celeste, the power that colleges and universities have for that kind of transformation, that kind of...
CW: Self reflection.
DC: I don't wanna use the word emoting but allowing activism to rise. We need more of that. Isn't that what you're all doing at that place with that fancy name I can't even call... [chuckle] Where you are, the University of Michigan?
CW: We try, we try and we try to think about how do you train leaders, how do you train leaders who can claim their whole selves and bring their whole selves to activism, to claim their voice and to build their leadership experiences? And as I listen to you weave together the personal and the political and how they're intertwined... And how that's so clear in your story. And also the interdisciplinarity. Part of what we're also working through at the Ford School is deepening our interdisciplinarity to understand that we've got disciplines like economics and political science that are key for our understanding of public policy, but also disciplines like anthropology, the discipline of your training, sociology, the discipline of my training, African-American Studies, Women's Studies, Queer Studies, also have something to say in the policy conversation.
CW: And I think about both of your training, but I also think about your network, 'cause you snuck in there, Donna Shalala is your mentor, so while all this is happening in these conversations within African-American studies, the feminist studies, and the networks you're building there, and then you've got these networks headed for Washington DC.
DC: Well, anybody who ever gets anywhere, I am convinced did not get there on their own, and if they tell you they did, don't believe them. Each of us, each of us, if we can just find the language to say it, each of us gets grown up by, gets educated by, gets mentored by others. And when I think about all of the folk who've contributed to growing me up, I do inevitably call the names of the two mentors in my academic life. Which I have to always add has been grounded in my activism life, and my activism has been grounded in my academic life. And those two women are Donna Shalala and ____, a woman you know exceedingly well. And one way that I can quickly share with you their role is that I, at Hunter, worked with a very distinguished professor from Sri Lanka, Archie Sing to create a program that took students from across the system, you know, the New York system of colleges and universities, so Hunter, Lehman, Brooklyn College, we chose students, we took them to São Paulo, Brazil to do a comparative study of Brazil and the United States in terms of enslavement, the woman question, racism. And it was an extraordinary experience. Many stories about that, I won't tell, but when I came back... Oh, oh, I gotta tell this part, Celeste. Are we doing okay the time 'cause I don't have anything...
CW: Yeah, I'm good if you're good. [laughter]
DC: Oh, I'm good, I'm good. Alright, so Celeste, the program is over, it's been very successful, and an anthropologist whose name was or is Savita. Savita and I became fairly close. I do not speak Portuguese. I used to have a passable street knowledge of Spanish. I mean I really could get around pretty well with it 'cause the accent wasn't bad, the conjugations were horrific, horrible. So Savita who spoke Portuguese obviously, Brazilian woman, also spoke Spanish. So she said to me, "Before you leave São Paulo, would you like to have a reading?" Now Celeste Watkins-Hayes, if you say to an anthropologist, "You're in Brazil, do you wanna have a reading?" What do you think the anthropologist...
CW: Right, the answer is yes.
DC: Alright, the sociologist might say, "Well, I'd really prefer to do a survey and if you could wait, I will... "
CW: Can I interview you?
DC: And I'll interview... "I'm going for the reading." So we get in Savita's car we drive up to the house that she tells me is the home of Maruka. Maruka does readings. And so we get out of the car, we walked into the very modest working class home, and there are nothing but women there. But I can kinda make out that Savita is being told by the women, "We see there's a stranger, she should go first." So we just sit there. The door opens and it's like this force comes in, it's Maruka and she just greets and goes to her bedroom. And then she says to Savita in Portuguese, "Bring the visitor." Savita turns to me and says...
DC: Savita is sitting next to me. There is a trunk in front of us, and then there is Maruka bed. So Maruke is sitting on the edge of her bed, there is a trunk and then Savita and I are there. On the trunk, are things that I recognize. I did field work for two years in Liberia. You know, I'm an anthropologist, so you would expect me to recognize that there's water there, for the water spirits. Of course, I see this image. There's a snake plant. There are cowrie shells. I wore cowrie today, they are cowrie shells. And so Maruka just sits there. She just looks at me, and then she says to Savita, ask her, what is her name? So Savita turned and says...
DC: So I said.
DC: She looks at me again, she grabs the cowries, and what I expect her to do is to throw the cowrie shells. And based on what is up and what is down in different configurations, she is going to tell me who I really am and what is waiting for me. But Celeste when she grabs the cowries, she becomes possessed.
DC: And I got a reference, well you know better than I, that you left Spelman College and went to Ghana. That your own experiences are such that when I say this Brazilian woman got possessed. I know when you went to Ghana you know what I'm talking about. So she grabs the cowries and she begins to become possessed. And I recognize what's happening, and then when she is deeply into it, her eyes are closed, and she says to Savita, what Savita translates to me to say, "You, when you return to your country, you will do what we... " And she takes her hand like this Celeste rubbing to show her pigmentation, she said, "You will do what we... And I mean, we black women, rarely do. You are going to be a special leader." Oh my goodness. That is not exactly what I thought I was gonna hear. But it's what she said. And so I managed as best as I could. Savita and I left. We actually took a trip together to Bahia, which of course is the place with the largest the black population, Brazil, but Bahia is where the retentions of African culture are so intense and so visible. But let me get back home. So I returned to Spelman... I'm sorry, I returned to Hunter college, right? Trying to figure out, "Oh my goodness, what is she talking about?
CW: What did that mean? Yeah.
DC: I'm a happy professor. I teach anthropology and women studies, and I am the head of Latin American and Puerto Rican Studies at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. I am a leader.
CW: And I'm settled and I'm comfortable.
DC: And I love being a activist professor.
CW: Right, I got this.
DC: All right. My first day back at Hunter, I go on the elevator. Now the sister on the elevator and I got a real real relationship. And I'll never forget the first day I got on the elevator and it was so cold in New York. And I said, "Oh, my sister, it's so cold out there, it's the hawk." And you being a north-western person and I being a north-western person, we know about the hawk. I said, "Oh, my sister it's so cold out there. The hawk is out there." She said, "Yeah... And the hawk... The hawk, she brought her whole family." So I get on that elevator and I'm just feeling I'm back at Hunter, and I'm gonna take this elevator up to the floor, and I'ma get off and I'll be in my office in anthropology, and I just had the greatest experience in Brazil. I walked into my office and there are two notes, one says, "Johnnetta, see me immediately, Donna." The other note says, "Call me the moment you arrive, ____." What are these women doing to me?
CW: Those are two notes. [laughter]
DC: When I got to each, each said, "You will put your name in, for the residency of Spelman College." And I pushed back and I said, "I love my job. And not only that, what I'm doing allows me to be an activist, anthropologist, anthropologist, activist. I've got all kinds of stuff going. Thank you, but that... " You will put your name in. That sometimes is what mentors do.
DC: Because mentors have the ability to see in a mentee what they cannot see in themselves. The rest is history. Better put her story.
CW: Wow. And at Spelman, one of the things that I got to observe about you was your willingness to mentor people who would go on to be great activists themselves and to be great leaders themselves. And I remember sitting in Spelman board meetings next to the SGA President. And you would invite us into all of the rooms where it happened. Nothing was off limits, you trusted us in terms of confidentiality and to deal with... And to think about really complicated issues. Not just in terms of the functioning of the college, but how we thought about the role of the college, vis-a-vis activism, and that SGA president went on to change the world herself and that's Stacey Abrams. So can you talk about how activists raise activists?
DC: Oh, Celeste you know you got so many books in you... What a great title of one of them, how activists raise activists, Yeah. Well, I know you call the name of your dearest Spelman sister friend, and yes, it's sometimes a little daunting for me to talk about Stacey, and for me to talk about you, and for me to talk about so many Spelman women who I just, you know, I just... I have to almost shake my head about. You've heard me say I think that, I had a fear when I was at Spelman. My fear was in one day, I would return to campus clearly from being somewhere begging for money. What else did I do? I mean, that's what college presidents do, they live in big houses and they beg for money, but my fear was one day I would return to campus, and there on the top of Rockefeller Hall, which you know so well, the administration building, there would be all of you Spelman women all up there, and you know what you'd be doing, you'll be going like this, because you believed what we told you, which is that you could fly.
CW: You could fly... Yeah.
DC: And you believed it. So I guess this book, how activists raise activists begins with, tell them, tell them, but I think it also has to write or has to present... You can't just tell them. You gotta show them. And you and I have exchanged these words, if you see one... You can be one. And so there on your campus, not only were we saying to you and as Spelman students began to say under the presidency of Sister President Beverly Daniel Tatum and as it continues with President extraordinaire, Mary Schmidt Campbell, we make the choice to change the world, but you gotta see people who are already doing it. If you see one, you can be one. And so, I've never quite thought about this 'cause I've never heard the question before the way you posed it, but that is probably what I think is at the core of raising activists, you gotta surround them with activism. They gotta see it and come full circle to Stacey. First of all, you wanna talk about in the water... How about in the water in Gulfport, Mississippi? When two civil rights workers showed their children how to be activists, when Robert Abrams was beaten for his activism and Carolyn Abrams messed with because of her insistence on where she was gonna sit on buses and in other places, their children saw it, and look at the six of them. So by the time Stacey gets to Spelman, she's ready. The question was, were we ready for Stacey.
CW: Right. [laughter]
DC: And you have probably got even better stories that I have to tell.
CW: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
DC: She came there ready. There was a time and I gotta get her tied down and say, "Okay, Stacey, exactly when did this happen?" 'cause I know what happened. You looked at me, and you said Sister President, I'm gonna be the Governor of Georgia, Stacey's at Spelman College. For fun, Stacey would write out her plans.
DC: Yeah, and read The Economist.
DC: And read the economist. And then think about maybe she could write romance novels under a pseudonym, so Stacey came to Spelman having seen activism. She is in her freshman year, she is outraged by the merciless beating of Rodney King and organizing students about it. She was there... Let me tell you something, Stacey was ____.
DC: So all the way back to, and I love your language, out of activists raise activists by being one and by supporting.
CW: Dr. Cole, do you ever get discouraged in terms of your activism? And what advice would you give to me, to students, to all of us who are doing this work in whatever form it takes, and hoping that that arc continues to bend towards justice, but sometimes feeling discouraged when it doesn't always seem to be?
DC: The honest answer is, I can get discouraged but I can never lose hope. And more than discouraged, I find that I get outraged. And it is better to be outraged than to be discouraged. What is going on now, and this is not just a partisan statement, what is going on in my country right now in terms of assaults on democracy, I'm not discouraged about it, I'm outraged. And anyone who doesn't understand the relationship between voter suppression and destroying our democracy, I just don't understand how you can't see that. And so this is a period, Sister Celeste, when we better be what ever combination we need to be of outraged, fired up, whatever. But in my 84 years of living, I'm willing to call the period that we're in, one of the most dangerous in American history.
DC: When we listen to conspiracy theories being propagated by members of Congress, when we have an attack on the capital of the United States of America by, not people in defense of our democracy but people convinced that they must destroy it. So these are very, very, very troubling times. These are times when activism must, must be just a part in some way of the lives of increasing numbers of Americans. And I'm not saying that activism only takes one form. But I do believe that, and this comes right back to where you are, I do believe that there is an intimate relationship between education and activism. And you must believe it too, or you wouldn't be in that place whose name I cannot ever remember, with all those titles you have.
DC: And so if at the Ford School, if at the University of Michigan where you are, even that class on activism, more and more attention can be given not just to the theoretical notions about activism and education, but real stuff. If students at the University of Michigan, in that school, find the particular way that they can make the choice that Spelman women make to change the world, and maybe we should edit and say, "help to change the world." But you know Spelman women, I mean, they didn't even put the "help" in there.
CW: Oh, well we do not.
DC: You're not... You all just do not play. So, yeah.
CW: This has been so enriching on so many levels, and part of the beauty of your journey, your career, is the ways in which the personal becomes the political, becomes the educational, the way that so many disciplines come together from anthropology to African American studies, to policy analysis, to women studies, and they all... All of that coalesces in your journey and your story and the impact you've made in so many different ways and in so many different environments and venues. My last question for you is, as you think about your legacy, because we know that you have many, many more chapters left, where are you headed next? And what will you most wanna be remembered for after all of your many, many chapters to come play out?
DC: You had to go there, huh? Well, first of all, I do want to just say how special you are in my life, especially right now, when I have just spent three whole weeks in a hospital with a terrible case of pneumonia. And you can see that I'm on oxygen now as I recover from that. That pretty is... That was the most serious challenge to my health I've ever had, and you're so special in my life, Celeste. I can't imagine anybody else who I would have done what I've done this afternoon with, because of all the things that you love and admire about your college president, you know she is a little vain.
CW: And now I'm gonna cry. Okay, I gotta get my Kleenex.
DC: So here we are on this program because I had so looked forward to this. But let me just say, there is something so full of joy that we are both involved in that I just gotta speak its name.
DC: Two Spelman women, Celeste Watkins-Hayes and Erica Williams, the chair, the sister chair of anthropology and sociology at Spelman College, in cahoots with me. And if that ain't something else, there is this sister academic, activist by the name of Dominic...
CW: Adam Santos.
DC: Who I have named Dr Dee.
CW: Dr Dee.
DC: I am just beyond happy about what we are doing, 'cause we are in cahoots to do a book called... You should give the title.
CW: Speechifying. So please tell people about Speechifying, and one of I think your most powerful tools, the power of speech and the power of your oratory skills in social activism and social change.
DC: Well, it began with you Celeste. Some years ago, you sent me an email, My dear Dr Cole send me your speeches. You know, I'm at North Western, I am... And you might even have used the word, I'm privileged to work with graduate students. We can organize these. Well, I was so happy to get all of that paper... Box it up, send it.
CW: Absolutely, and the idea came from Spelman sister, Alicia Alexander Harvey, who called me and said, Where is the book on Dr Cole speeches? And I said, I don't think it exists yet. And she said, It needs to exist.
DC: But Celeste, you heard that. And a few years later, here are the four of us working on Speechifying. It is... When I think about it, I light up like a Christmas tree, a Hanukkah bush, even the Kwanzaa, what do we call it? This is of all the books that I've done, whether it's the Audrey Lloyd book or it's the anthropology books, or the book I just did on racism, or my very first of a children's book, which comes out next month, which will be the first children's book ever, is called African Proverbs For All Ages, the first children's book ever with the open stamp. But I gotta be honest, the one that makes my heart sing is Speechifying. And it's not just because it's about my speeches that are. A medium for expressing and calling forth activism. Is that you and Erica and I, with the great support and assistance of the good Dr. Dee can remind those who give speeches, whether it's like our sister that you and I are so proud of now with her new book ____ Just whipping it up in the EEANI space.
CW: Yep, Way Makers.
DC: Way makers. But you know... I think we are subtly, and not very subtly saying to professors, "You're in the classroom, you're speaking. We pray you're not lecturing every day." Look at the power you have, to describe. If you dare go there, to encourage the kind of activism that would dare to say every marginalized community, black, brown, LG... ____ deserves justice. Must have justice.
DC: So onward with Speechifying.
CW: And onward with Speechifying. And Dr Cole, this has been an amazing conversation. It's been intimate, it's been personal, it's been inspiring. It's been perhaps a little different from what we have done at the Ford School, but that is the beauty of bringing us into the space. [laughter]
DC: If we came into this space and did the ordinary, how would we feel about ourselves?
CW: Right. How would we feel about that? Right.
DC: But you know one thing Celeste I just gotta get this in, and I know we're over time, but I was thinking about you and activism. And I kinda wanna sneak this in, because the one thing we haven't talked about, and maybe you all will invite me another time to do this, but you are now on a board at a museum.
CW: Yes, and the interesting thing about museums, the thing that I love so much about the work is museums are about representation. They're about history and the histories that we preserve and choose to preserve. They're about the fraught dynamics around how things were acquired and under what circumstances. Museums are sociological spaces that represent human life, human potential in all its forms. So I was on the board for about three years at the Detroit Institute of Arts. And now I'm working at a macro level with the Black Museum Trustee Alliance. And this is a group of museum trustees, of art museums who are thinking about social justice, who are black and are thinking about how do we make sure that efforts around diversity, equity & inclusion permeate throughout the museum world.
CW: Not just in terms of what we show in our collections, but who are the people in positions of authority within museums, what artists get lifted up, what resources get distributed within the museum world and how that happens. And this is the beauty of activism, you develop these skills that are transferable. So through my work on Spelman's Board, I'm now bringing that to the Black Trustee Alliance for art museums, even though I don't know a whole lot about art, except for having an appreciation for it. But those skills around, "How do we think about a vision?" And a vision that is grounded in an equity, a vision that is grounded in inclusion and a vision that is grounded in justice, whether we're talking about the work we did together at Spelman, to the work I'm doing with the Black Trustee Alliance, to the work that I'm doing now at the University of Michigan, with the Ford School, the goals are all the same. To help people reach their full potential, and to make sure that there is equity and justice in all of these different institutions and in all of these places. So that's what I'm up to.
DC: Well, you know, it's a space that I share with you. Those years being the director of the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian. But you know, I'm thinking now, and I guess we should roll off on this. I'm thinking about our sister Toni Cade Bambara. And she once said this... She said, "Artists make the revolution irresistible." And so there're those who can say, you know "Let somebody just do nice sunflowers like van Gogh." You know, "Why do you all keep trying to destroy all of our master works to bring all of these other people in here to be represented?" And the reason is because artists are potentially some of the great activists of the world. And imagine if Toni Cade Bambara is right, that artists can make the revolution irresistible. So anyway, revolutions are just about change. Good change, good change. Justice for all of us.
CW: Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, I love you.
DC: Celeste let me just make it clear. [laughter] You have a great imagination. You are trained at Spelman Collage and Harvard University. Formerly North Western now of University of Michigan. You are a scholar and activist of great imagination, but you cannot even imagine how much I love, respect and cherish you.
CW: Thank you.
CW: Yes, soon. So thank you for being our inaugural speaker for our Masterclass in activism. At the Center for Racial Justice at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. Thank you for being here. Thank you for the team behind the scenes that made this happen. Our amazing Associate Director Dominique Adams Santos, Dr Dominique. Our Student Engagement Coordinator, ____, who is an alum of the Ford School. Our amazing tech team, thank you so, so much. And to you Dr Cole, thank you so much for making history with us at the Center for Racial Justice. And to all of you, thank you for joining us.