In the field of higher education, there is no one more iconic than Dr. Johnnetta Cole. She is revered for her achievements as the first African American woman president of Spelman College and Bennett College. Throughout her lifetime, she has held undying devotion to serving others through higher education. More importantly, she is committed to empowering the African Diaspora through the many programs and initiatives she's created for the study our history over the past twenty years. Whether she's accepting awards from BET or earning over 68 honorary degrees, she epitomizes black excellence through her work to uplift her community through both the arts and education. In the third chapter of her life, she has left academia to serve as the Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.
From the classroom to the art gallery, Dr. Cole is now using art to teach the world about Africa's global contributions. In this position, she works to create spaces where museumgoers can enter the Smithsonian and visualize a positive image what Africa was, is and has the potential be. Dr. Cole believes, "in the importance of education in this museum. We see ourselves both as a place that does exhibitions and a place that educates our visitors about the very dynamic and very diverse visual arts of Africa."
Simply, Dr. Cole is showing that an artistic focus on Africa will display the greatest of the continent that is the cradle of civilization and the birthplace of humanity. Under her leadership, African artists are given a platform to thrive and this is illuminated in the Smithsonian's Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists. This exhibition features works from 40 artists from 18 different African countries. These sculptures, paintings and photographs will showcase the diversity in the heritage, politics and cultures of African peoples. In addition, the museum is revolutionary in the manner in which it displays through the Connecting the Gems of the Indian Ocean: From Oman to East Africa Project. This virtual exhibition displays African artwork through online mediums under the umbrella of a three-year educational project sponsored by the Sultan of Oman.
The museum's work does not stop within the space of its exhibitions alone; Dr. Cole's team does substantial outreach to youth that live in the Washington, DC metropolitan region. She enthusiastically proclaims, "I am mighty proud of our exhibitions but no less proud of our educational programs that includes such things as working with Smothers Elementary School children, 5th graders who are introduced to African and learn on the very first day that they are with us that Africa is not a country. Africa is a continent and we do that program in collaboration with African American women's organizations called the Lens. We do really serious educational work because we have to the best we can to counteract such longstanding and tenacious stereotypes about the continent."
When she speaks to you and the students in her programs, her words reverberate through your spirit and inspire you to discover your passion and challenge you to be greater than what you are in this present moment. She advises to those who wish to follow in her footsteps:
"Don't follow in my footsteps, make your own. I really believe that a footstep [or] a footprint is unique to an individual. Each of us will walk in our own footsteps. While you can with other young women admire who I am. I can also admire young women, especially young women of color who simply refuse to let bigotry to get them down. So the advice is don't even try to be a clone of someone else, find your own authentic self, train who she is [and] identify what is your passion. It's with a sense of optimism and hope fueled by work that I believe a young woman can go where she determines to go."