2011 Commencement Address by Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole
Director, Smithsonian National Museum of African Art
May 22, 2011
Sister President Pat McGuire, Sister Chair Laura Phillips and members of the Board of Trustees. Sisters of Notre Dame. My colleagues of the faculty and staff. Alumnae, students, families and friends of this ever so special university. And, of course, the women and men of the Class of 2011, my sisters and brothers all: Buenos dias, y como alegra a ver ustedes! Good morning, and as one would say in the Southern African-American church tradition in which I grew up: It’s a great gettin’ up morning!
Yes, it is a great gettin’ up morning because we have gathered to celebrate the accomplishments of this 2011 class of Trinity Washington University.
I want to acknowledge my husband, James Staton, who is having his first visit to this amazing and grace-filled placed called Trinity Washington University. I am grateful to my sister-friend, President Pat McGuire and the board for inviting me to offer this commencement address. Sister President Pat, you have been called “the soul of Trinity.” And indeed you are! I also know that you are a powerful force as you continue to lead the transformation of Trinity as a Catholic college into a dynamic and diverse urban university.
Dear sisters of this graduating class and the few but righteous brothers who are among you, before I offer your commencement address, I do want to turn to your families, and ask that you join me in expressing profound gratitude to your mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers; your aunts and uncles, your godmothers and godfathers; your spouses, partners and children. You know, some of these folks have been your human ATM machines. And among your kin are folks who have believed in you when you were not quite sure you believed in yourself.
Now to what I want to share with you my dear sisters all and the “bros” of the Class of 2011. Drawing on some of my own experiences as an African-American woman, and lessons I learned when I had the joy of being the president of Spelman and Bennett colleges, I want to say to you what I sincerely and strongly believe is required of you to be the 21st leaders our nation and our world desperately need.
I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, in the days of rigid and legal racial segregation. There were two conflicting messages that were routinely delivered to me. From most people in the larger white society, I was told that no matter what I did, I would always be inferior to any and all white people. But my family, my church, and indeed, my community consistently countered this racist ideology.
My family, extended family, and indeed, my teachers, Brownie and Girl Scout leaders, preachers and librarians all taught me that not only was the notion of African-American inferiority simply not true, but that I had the responsibility to help to tear down that profoundly tenacious and harmful untruth.
My folks taught me that education would be a powerful force in helping me to soar to the heights of my possibilities. To this very day, I remain so very grateful to two of my teachers who were instrumental in setting the course of my professional and my personal life: Ms. Vance, my first grade teacher, and Ms. Morse, my Latin teacher when I was in middle school.
Because I had pushy Southern black parents, I was sent off to the first grade at age five. On the first day of class in the first grade I was genuinely scared and able to face that experience only because my best friend, first-grader Bebe Ross, was at my side. When Ms. Vance walked into our classroom, everything about her seemed so much larger than her small statue. Indeed, she appeared to be the height of a giant. “Good morning class,” Ms. Vance said with confidence and authority. “I want each of you to stand and tell us your name.” By the time it was my turn, I was a bundle of nerves, only calmed to some degree by the near presence of my best friend Bebe. When it was my turn, I stood, lifted my headed slightly and mumbled my name. Ms. Vance shot across the classroom and stood directly in front of me as she said, “Johnnetta, never again mumble your name. Hold your head up high, speak clearly, and remember, in this classroom we are preparing leaders.”
By the time I reached middle school, I had taken Ms. Vance’s instructions to heart, and I had become a young leader. One day before we went into our Latin class, I called “my girls” together and instructed them on what we would do when Ms. Morse walked into our classroom at Boylan Haven – a private Methodist all-girls school where all of the students were black and Ms. Morse and all of the teachers, save one, were white. I instructed my girls that when Ms. Morse walked into the classroom, and I gave the signal, all of us will say, “Latin, Latin, dead as can be, first it killed the Romans now it’s killing me.” The first day we did this Ms. Morse ignored us, which of course took away half the fun. The next day, again I gave the signal and “my girls” repeated the phrase, “Latin, Latin, dead as can be, first it killed the Romans now it’s killing me.”
This time Ms. Morse said quite strongly, “You girls stop it!” Seeing that she was becoming annoyed, I called “my girls” together after class and instructed them that on the following day we would not say the words, but we would just rhythmically suggest the same message. This time after I gave the signal and we all followed my instructions, Ms. Morse drew up to the fullness of her short statue and said this: “You girls stop it! You are not in this Latin class to learn, as you put it, what killed some white men. You are in this Latin class to learn that as Negro girls, you can learn anything.”
Years later, when I had the honor and joy of serving as the president of our nation’s two historically black colleges for women, over and over again I witnessed the truth of what I had learned in the classrooms of Ms. Vance and Ms. Morse. Namely, the power of high expectations and the importance of molding women leaders.
Let me share with you words of Dr. Willa B. Player, the first woman president of Bennett College for Women. She said that her mother repeatedly told her the following: “Willa, we expect nothing of you that is ordinary!” Sophia B. Packard, one of the founders of Spelman College, was fond of saying this: “Spelman women must have a loyal scorn for second best.”
At Spelman, Bennett, Trinity and all of our women’s colleges, we are in the business of developing Esthers – that is, as it says in the Book of Esther in the Bible, leaders for such a time as this. Let me indicate what I think are the attributes of a 21st century leader. To the men in this graduating class, let me assure you that our world will be far better if men folks supported the development of women leaders and indeed imitated us on this issue.
First, be bodacious. You must speak up and speak out on what is important to you as women and what is important in the world. One of my sheroes, Audre Lorde, once said, “Silence and invisibility go hand in hand with powerlessness.” Another shero, Alice Walker, has said this: “No person is a friend who demands your silence.”
Secondly, women leaders must be revolutionaries. Let me hasten to say what I mean when I call for women to be revolutionaries. A revolutionary is someone who believes that things can change and she works to bring about that change. Sojourner Truth was a revolutionary because she believed that slavery was wrong and she worked diligently to end it. And she also believed that the good Lord, She, made women and men to be equal, so she spoke out and acted as a feminist.
There is so much in our world that needs changing. Hear the words of Spelman alumna, Marian Wright Edelman, the president of the Children’s Defense Fund: “If you don’t like the way the world is, change it. You just have to do it one step at a time.”
The famous anthropologist Margaret Mead spoke the truth when she said, “Never doubt the ability of a small group of committed citizens to change the world. It is the only way it ever happens.”
Thirdly, women leaders must be of service to others. I grew up hearing repeatedly that, “Doing for others is just the rent you must pay for your room on earth.” I know that message is at the heart of the kind of education you have received here at Trinity Washington University. But I am urging you, my sisters and brothers: don’t stop now! Whether you are off to do more formal education, or you are doing your best to find a job in this difficult economic climate, you must continue to volunteer in a homeless shelter; do your best to bring comfort to women who have sought protection in a center for the victims of domestic violence; become a big sister or big brother to a child who needs you.
Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, who founded Bethune-Cookman College, was fond of saying to gatherings of “high siddity black women, go on my sisters and climb to the very top, but you must remember to lift others as you climb.”
Elie Wiesel, the great humanitarian who as a boy was put in a concentration camp because he was Jewish, once said this, “Our lives do not belong to us alone. Our live belong to those who need us the most.”
Fourth and finally, a woman leader for such a time as this must respect and celebrate human diversity. It has always been true, but today as technology transforms our world into a global village, a leader must respect the diversity of human kind and think and act in an inclusive way.
I want to share with you that there are many things I enjoy in my current job as director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. One is that I have the opportunity to continue to learn. Indeed, day in and day out, I am learning more and more about the diverse and dynamic visual arts of Africa.
In my role at the National Museum of African Art, I also fully enjoy being surrounded by visual arts that come from the only place on earth from which all human beings have descended. Whether you explain human origin in Biblical terms or by using evolutionary theory, just go back far enough in time and you must see that we are all Africans! Yes, despite our extraordinary diversity, all of us humans are from the same place.
There is a saying among the Sioux Nation, “With all beings, we shall be relatives.” Hear these words from the Quran, “We are made into nations and tribes that we may know and love each other.”
I truly believe that God does not have a favorite color for people, a favorite nation, gender, religion, sexual orientation or language. I believe God does not favor the physically able over those who are differently abled.
And I believe women leaders must understand and practice the truth that we can be for ourselves without being against others. Or to use a favorite expression of the Women’s College Coalition: At a women’s college we are never against men. But oh, are we for women!
It is time now to bring closure to this commencement address. I want to do so by recounting a story about the great suffragette and feminist Sojourner Truth.
At a gathering of suffragettes back in the 19th century, the agenda once again centered on how women could obtain the right to vote. A man came into the room where the suffragettes were meeting, and each time a woman stood to make a point he would scream out from the back of the room: “You women can not have as many rights as men because Christ was a man.” The women tried to ignore him but he persisted in screaming out those words. Finally, Sojourner Truth could take it no more, and she came before the gathering and stood there in the fullness of her tall stature and her midnight dark skin. This is what she said: “That little man back there says women can’t have as many rights as men because Christ was a man. But I want to ask that little man, where did your Christ come from? He came from a God and a woman; man ain’t had nothing to do with it. And another thing, if one woman, one day in a garden, could get the world turned upside down, then it seems to me that all the women in here can get it right side up again.”
And so, mighty women of the Class of 2011, and yes, the righteous men of this class as well, we are counting on you to be the kind of leaders that will help to get the world right side up again. Peace and blessings to each of you. Congratulations and Godspeed.
- Read more about Dr. Cole.