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.

By: Sophie Gilbert

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.