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What Made Me: Johnnetta Cole of the National Museum of African Art

The museum director on a favorite teacher, her great-grandfather, and appreciating art.

Photograph by Douglas Sonders.

The teacher: I went to segregated schools until middle school, when my parents put me in a school run by the Methodist church. All of the students were black girls, and all of the teachers were white women. My buddies and I decided to mess with our Latin teacher, Miss Morse, by saying, “Latin, Latin, dead as can be. First it killed the Romans, and now it’s killing me.” We carried on until finally she stood there and made eye contact up and down the rows and said: “You girls listen to me. You are in this Latin class not to learn a language, as you put it, of dead Romans. You are here to learn that as Negro girls you can learn anything.”

The family figure: I grew up in a setting where the message was: You can’t go but so far—just do your best to be a good second-class citizen. But I always had a counter-narrative from my parents, who were college-educated, and from my great-grandfather, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, an extraordinary businessman who founded the first insurance company in Florida.

The failure: My sister was an amazingly gifted musician, a double major at Oberlin in piano and voice. Having been a total failure at the piano, I decided to take up violin. One day when I was practicing and squeaking away, she came up and said, “Let me try.” Having never had a single lesson, she started to play. The lesson for me was that you don’t have to command every skill, know every fact. It’s possible to just enjoy the accomplishments of others.

This article appears in the September 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.

  • Christian Chenard

    To those of us given more talent, more is expected "for the good of the order". One of my mentors used to say that when he felt we were not giving it our all. I was a gifted little guy until the age of 6, almost 7, when my teachers and parents forcibly switched me from lefty to right hand use. I refused to change. They hit my left hand every time I picked up a pencil or crayon to write with or draw with. They tied my left hand to the back of my pants with a belt I went from being a talking kid to a stutterer and stammerer until about age 13. The quiet years. My parents thought I was getting back at them. Now we know that messing with the natural priority of choice of hand, one disturbs the wiring in the brain lobes and their dominances. I was treated worse in white schools by white kids and staff. I've been making up for it ever since! In reading Ms Jonnetta Cole's musical instrument story with her sister, it reminds me of how my parents wanted me to be a calc of my older brother who was an A student and right handed. Nature has given me two out of three daughters who are south paws as is one of our granddaughters. Fortunately for them, times have changed and we are at least half out of the middle ages!

  • @luvumama

    This is a message to inspire a generation of young people who may have lost that unique motivating factor of generations past, any of us who need to push harder and be motivated by the urgency of now.

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