Commentary: An Interview With Johnnetta Betsch Cole

Photo credit: Oshi Medlin Photography

By April L. Bogle

Johnnetta Betsch Cole’s lineage alone could fill a book. She is the sister of MaVynee Oshun Betsch, The Beach Lady of American Beach. She is the great granddaughter of A.L. Lewis, the lead executive of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company who founded American Beach in 1935. And, she is the great, great, great, great, great, great granddaughter of Anta Madgigine Jai, a Wolof princess from what is today’s Senegal, who was sold into slavery and eventually married her slave owner, Zephaniah Kingsley, owner of the Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island.

At age 87, Dr. Cole’s very accomplished life, full of contributions to education, the arts and social justice, is worthy of a second volume. Among the highlights: a cultural anthropologist and professor who served as president of the nation’s two historically Black colleges for women (Spelman in Atlanta and Bennett in Greensboro, North Carolina); director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art; president of the National Council of Negro Women in Washington, D.C.; recipient of a National Humanities medal presented on March 21, 2023 by U.S. President Joseph R. Biden, the 2022 ATHENA International Global Award, and 71 honorary degrees; author of many books that focus on racism, sexism and other systems of inequality, plus other leadership roles and honors that would require a substantial appendix.

I reached out to Dr. Cole to see if she would share her wisdom and guidance during these troubling political times. I am grateful she agreed.

Your family legacy at American Beach, your own personal contributions to Black history, to educating Black women, of supporting the rights of Black people is extraordinary. It’s the stuff of Super Humans.

If you are as fortunate as I am, to have the life that I’m still living, and you believe as I do, that doing for others is just the rent you have to pay for your room on earth, it’s going to take a lot of doing. I’ve been so blessed to have received so much from my rich heritage, to have a quality education, to have had the opportunity to work in exceptional institutions, to be a social justice activist. A.L. Lewis reminded me and my sister as we were growing up, “Like the good book says, those to whom much is given, much is expected.”

Many people don’t think as you do. They say, “I got it, it’s mine and I’m not giving anything back.”

Yes, that way of thinking is rampant now. I know it’s always been a part of our nation and world, and we are lacking the necessary commitment required to harness and control it. It’s almost like, “I can flaunt this.” And here’s the piece I find so disturbing: It’s the unwritten statement, the unspoken statement, “Those of you who haven’t done as well as I, it’s your own fault.”

The Federal Reserve recently reported that during the pandemic, the wealth of white Americans increased 30% more than the wealth of African Americans and other marginalized communities in our country. There are two ways to explain this. One: this is what systemic racism does, this is what systemic inattention to poverty does. Two: Or you could say, well it’s their fault. Why don’t they get out there and pull themselves up by their bootstraps and be as wealthy as I am.

As a cultural anthropologist, can you help us understand why our society is in such turmoil?

I can’t claim to have figured it out myself, but I can tell you what I think. And it’s good news and bad news.

While these are exceedingly troubling and dangerous times, let us remember, these times are in some ways in response to victories that marginalized communities and the allies of marginalized communities have gained.

Look at what started to happen in terms of African American people in the U.S. when Barack Obama became president of our nation. And I think we can see with his election, the surfacing in a vocal and disturbing way the extreme ideas, opinions and policies within local, state and federal government. With the 2022 passage of the Respect for Marriage Act giving LGBTQ+ citizens the basic right to marry the person they love, we begin to get pushback. Yes, we got Roe v. Wade in 1973, but also the pushback against it and its overturning in 2022.

I could say the same thing about this hideous effort to stop the education of all young people about Black history and herstory and to be inclusive, a word I’ve created, “theirstory.”

Something Carter G. Woodson [Harvard educated historian] started all those years ago, in 1926, with Negro History Week actually caught on and is now Black History Month. People actually began to learn from and grow from an understanding, both the trials and triumphs, of Black people in our nation.

And now comes the pushback: “How dare you teach about enslavement. And if you do, talk about the benefits of enslavement not the horrors of living in chains, of having your children taken from you, of the routine sexual abuse of enslaved women.”

It’s exhausting. How do we keep going?

It is exhausting. Nobody said the struggle would be a walk in the park. It never has been, and it never will be. What is going on now in our nation and our world will take you to your knees.

But you’ve got to get up and continue to be in the struggle. For what? To defend American democracy. Because that is what is under attack today.

It takes the visible form of these outrageous laws that say you cannot have a DEI [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion] office and programs on your college campus. It takes the form of literally banning books. What both of those and a plethora of other laws and policies are doing is attacking our democracy. And, I want to add that since I have the health challenge that requires me to be on oxygen, I have become far more sensitive about the importance of inserting an “A” [Accessibility] in the acronym DEI. Thus I always say, DEA&I. After all, disabled people like myself are the largest marginalized community in the world.

How is this playing out today compared to when you were a youth?

I grew up in the era of Jim Crow. Now this is Jim Crow 2.0. But I do again insist that we not act as if there have been no victories. Because there have been. And we must both claim those victories and be quite specific about the work that is yet to be done.

For example, when I grew up, there were not integrated public schools. Now there are laws that say you are not to send children to school based on the color of their skin. But people found a way to do it anyway. It’s called zip codes.

Nobody now can deny me the right to sit at a lunch counter or at the front of a bus or train or eat in a fancy restaurant or purchase a front row ticket to a public event. But the question facing so many people of color is: Do you have the money to be there? And if you go, will you be welcome?

Do you think our democracy will survive long enough for us to continue this work?

I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on so I could answer the question you just raised, including “How Democracies Die,” co-authored by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, both professors at Harvard, and “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present,” by Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an historian at New York University.

What we learn first of all is there’s nothing new about attacks on democracies. And can’t we learn from the past? History doesn’t repeat itself, but as Levitsky and Ziblatt say, it has echoes. We must learn from Hungary and Chile and other parts of the world that have experienced or are experiencing the chiseling away and outright brutal attacks on democracy. We must be conscious of those signs before it is too late.

As the scholars whose works I have been reading say: We will see if American democracy survives. It depends on what we, the citizens in this democracy, do. If we simply say, “Well, this too shall pass,” it won’t. If we dare to join with those who are attacking our democracy and those numbers swell, then there goes our democracy. But if we as everyday citizens stand up and speak out and always non-violently push back, then our democracy will not only not die, it will thrive.

What can we here in Nassau County do to push back, including against groups like Citizens Defending Freedom (CDF) that hold their monthly meetings in the American Beach Community Center, adjacent to the A.L. Lewis Museum?

CDF has the right to be there. This is the power and inherent challenge in our democracy. There is the right of freedom to assemble and the right of freedom to speak, and yet I would not be honest if I did not say that it makes me stop and wonder what is going on when I see a CDF sign in such close proximity to a museum that tells the stories of my great grandfather, my sister and countless other African Americans who were for so many years denied the right to bathe in the Atlantic Ocean a few blocks away, and to enjoy so many other rights that white Americans had. And I do wonder, given many places where CDF could meet, what went into the decision to meet in a Nassau County building so close to the A.L. Lewis Museum?

How do we respond? Always non-violently! I even say nonconfrontationally. And always with dignity. There is no need to speak. Stand in protest and let your signs say it all.

We have to protest and do many other things to counter the work of those trying to dismantle our democracy. We have to get people motivated to vote for who’s on the school board, in the governor’s office, in the legislature. It’s the old try and true way of organizing. That’s what worked in Georgia when Stacey Abrams and countless, countless others mobilized. That is what is working now in community after community that understands our democracy is under attack.

We need to find the way to not only organize among folk who share our values but also those who have the potential to begin to do so. If we don’t learn to talk across the aisle, I don’t know how we can save our democracy if we only talk to people who think exactly as we think, vote as we vote, live in same community as we live in, go to the same schools and places of worship as we do.

Any final words of wisdom?

While each of us has the right to be very focused in the particular struggle of the marginalized community we most identify with, we also have to be in the struggle for all marginalized people.

There’s a famous poem associated with the Holocaust by Pastor Martin Niemoller that I’d like to share:

First they came for the Communists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me

And there was no one left

To speak out for me.

To learn more about Dr. Cole’s family legacy and the history of American Beach, visit the A.L. Lewis Museum at 1600 Julia Street, American Beach, FL 32034.

(Editor’s note: This article originally ran in the February issue of The Blue Pages, the newsletter of the Democratic Club of Amelia Island.)

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Mark Tomes
Active Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
1 month ago

Wow, what a powerful woman. So good to read such insight in her words. I’m glad she mentioned the economic situation of marginalized people, as that exactly where the wealthy elite would like to keep most of us. Keep us begging for jobs, even when part-time with no benefits or set schedules. Keep the money flowing up into their coffers and out of our pockets. Folks, it all comes down to who you vote for and what do you speak up for at meetings and on the street corners. If you’re not involved, you are accepting the status quo, accepting fake culture wars used to distract us from the gross inequalities of wealth and how people perpetuate it.

Jo-Ann Leimberg
Active Member
Jo-Ann Leimberg(@jo-ann-leimberg)
1 month ago

Thank you, Dr. Cole.
Your words are truth. We all need reminding to act, not just to be aware.
Pastor Niemoller’s piece was one of my husband’s favorites as well.

Ruthellen Mulberg
Active Member
Ruthellen Mulberg(@rmulberg)
1 month ago

Great interview with a great local treasure and trailblazer.
“I want to be just like her when I grow up”.

I hope and pray that her humanity, wisdom and promotion of the rights of all people to live with dignity in a just society will inspire many others to follow her lead.