The Power of Diversity
a speech by Johnetta Cole
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following is a transcript of the keynote speech delivered by
Johnnetta Cole at the 3rd Annual Women & Power
Conference, organized by Omega
Institute and V-Day in
September 2004. To order the CD of this speech or to purchase
other CDs from this event, please click
all, what women of grace. Amazing grace. An extraordinary grit is
Tulani. Well, my sisters, what a gathering. What a gathering of women
folk. Those, whom Native American people remind us, hold up half
of the sky. And what a time in which we gather a moment, historic
and herstoric. The day after. The day after.
But let our remembering and our learning and our transformation
because of a day called September 11 never be the day after, but
When I look out at a gathering like this, I must tell you, that
yes, I’ve got to go and bring her in here again, that righteous
abolitionist and feminist, Sister Sojourn.
Because you see there was a gathering at that moment in the 19th
century. Not as large as this. But I must tell you the look was
probably like this. A group of women absolutely outraged by the
notion that they had to be, were destined to be second best. But
into this particular gathering on that day came a man who decided
that his role in life was to torment those women. And he proceeded
to do so. Screaming out in response to whatever the suffragists
were saying as they reinforced themselves to demand the right for
a woman to vote. But Sojourn after a while could take it no longer.
So she came forward and you couldn’t miss her. In this room overwhelmingly
of white women Sojourn came forward and stood in the fullness of
her six feet and her midnight black skin. And said Sojourn, that
man, that little man back there, he says women can’t have as many
rights as men because Christ was a man. But I want to ask that
man, that little man where did your Christ come from? Where did
your Christ come from? He came from God and a woman. Man had nothing
to do with it. And besides, said Sojourn, if one day, one woman
was said to have turned the world upside down. I figure all these
women in here can get it right side up again. Now, let’s talk about
who are we women folk. We’re such an awesome task. The awesome
task of feeling our own power, moving to join with others collectively,
to get this world right side up again. And I’m going to tell you,
good Lord, she knows this world needs to be right side up again.
Let me tell you that clearly one of the most important things
that can be said about who we are, we women folk, is to say this.
If you have seen one of us, you ain’t seen us all. Of course there
are extraordinary ways in which we women are similar, have commonalities.
First of all, to go to the negative, not a single one of us with
a grain of consciousness could say have never known sexism, known
gender and equality. So clearly that is something that we share.
For those women who happen to be in a traditional relationship
with a man, they may have even put something on it called marriage—all
of those sisters also share something. They must have some kind
of special honing device so that when the man with whom they’re
living says—or it could be one of those children—where are my socks?
She knows exactly where they are. Yes, there are things that we
share. And though we acknowledge the horrific brutality that many
boys and men can experience sexual, physical, emotional violence—it
is indeed we women who unfortunately disproportionately know the
most of it. And indeed, among us, there are those who clearly bear
children who bear children. But I can’t remain on this theme of
commonality and similarity without saying it will be a better world
when we cease to assume that every woman wants to bear a child.
We are bound by the absolutely outrageous reality that for doing
similar work—in fact, usually better work than a man, and we’re
going to get paid less.
We are bound, we women folk, by this difficult to describe, but
clearly powerful notion of connectedness to each other. When it
is at its best, we call it the sisterhood. And I think that we
women must remain bound together by the sensitivity to an alternative.
Always an alternative to what is. And yet while we are bound together,
we women folk, what an incredibly diverse bunch of humans we are.
Here we are of an extraordinary array of colors, of ethnicities,
of races. As an anthropologist I’m not sure what that is, but I’m
supposed to say it, of nationalities, of different sexual orientations.
Here we are despite all that Madison Avenue wants us to believe
we are not all frozen at a magical moment in our chronology, neither
young nor old, just perfectly there.
We are, we women folk, of all religions, of all political persuasions.
Yes, we are all along the continuum of the rich and the poor and
we are differently abled. When I hear myself do that literally,
the way is in which we are different, one of the attributes stands
out like the proverbial sore thumb. You see, I have no interest
in making magically women of color turn to be white women. And
despite the fact that some wish to do so, I am not praying today
or any day that lesbians, bisexuals, and trans gendered folk will
somehow get religion and become heterosexuals. I’m not doing that.
The nationality, the religion of every woman should be celebrated.
No is the answer that each of us must give to designs and policies
aimed at converting every culture and nationality in the world
into makeshift Americans. No must be the answer to—to proselytizing
to all who are not Christians into some denomination of Christian
faiths. Even the assumption that all folks who have disabilities
wish to immediately eliminate them is something to think about.
I had an exceptional experience of serving on the board of trustees
of Galaudet University, the only university in the United States
with a mission specifically to educate the deaf and the hard of
hearing. And while I was on the board, I witnessed—I almost said
I heard—but I wanted to be more sensitive. I witnessed a debate.
Some in the community of deaf and hard of hearing stood up in absolute
defense of the cochlear implant, a device which allows some people
to hear. And others, including the first deaf president I. King
Jordan, spoke with caution and said what makes you folk who hear
assume that you have a superior way? What makes you assume that
... But what I have never witnessed is a plea for any woman, any
man, any child to be poor.
That is to lack the fundamental things that give one a sense
of being and well-being, a sense of peace and a notion of justice.
Work, a source of material resources. Health care. Housing that
protects one from the elements, both natural and unnatural. Efficient
use of what the good Lord, she gave us as energy within one’s reach.
Sufficient food. And yes, access to the arts and cultural expressions
of the world. And so, my sisters, there is this struggle, which
we must be united around; it is the struggle against poverty.
Because we are women folk, because we are so diverse, we must
also be consciously aware of the potential for each of us to turn
other women and other folk into the other. How I wish it were not
so. I wish that anyone on earth who has ever been the victim of
any form of bigotry and discrimination, I wish that that person
would be immune to practicing that stuff against others. But it
is not the case, it is not the case. Each of us has the potential,
the possibility, unfortunately so many of us live it out, of turning
other folk into the other.
White women themselves the victims of sexism can and do practice
racism. Women of color, ourselves victims of racism and sexism
can and are—can be and are homophobic. We can and we do practice
heterosexism. Lesbians bi-sexual folk, trans-gender folk, the victims
of heterosexism and in some cases racism can and do practice anti-Semitism.
I could go on with examples, but the point is made each of us,
my sisters, has a responsibility to work on our own biases and
our own behaviors that might in any way express and perpetuate
the wretched “isms”.
In my own life I have certainly struggle had against homophobia
and heterosexism. As I say that on this platform standing in this
place specifically in this city, my heart is filled with love and
with gratitude, gratitude to the woman who above all others was
my teacher on this question. The sister warrior who helped me to
fight my own homophobia and heterosexism in my life. Her name was
Audrey Lore. It was at Hunter College where we were both faculty
members that she was my teacher. Let me share with you how Sister
Audrey would often introduce herself. She would say I’m Audrey
Lore, a black woman, lesbian, feminist, poet, professor, mother.
And then she would say I am all of that.
Please do not try to relate to parts of me. I to not get up in
the morning and from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. I’m black. But at 8:00
am, watching the clock, I become a woman. I can be that until 9:00.
But at 9:00 I must become a lesbian. But only 9:00 to 10:00. At
10:00 on the dot I turn into a feminist.
And of course our sister would stretch it out. There is a second
very important lesson that I learned most effectively from Audrey
Lore. You can read this one. You can read it in her classic work,
Sister Outsider. Audrey Lore said it is not our differences, but
our silences about our differences—that is what is destroying us.
And we need first of all to acknowledge this exceptional diversity
among us. We need to celebrate it. We need to take the power in
it, harness it, and use it to help to get this world right side
up again. The last thing we need to do is to simply tolerate it.
Clearly when the good Lord, she made the world, she made us as
an example of the wonderful Chinese saying; one flower never makes
a spring. I don’t care how gorgeous this bouquet of lilacs happens
to be or how exquisite the rose is, how enticing this bunch of
birds of paradise. It’s only in the diversity of the blooming that
we really embrace spring.
Clearly, my sisters, respecting and celebrating and using our
differences in a positive way is the right thing to do. It is the
morally correct thing to do. But it is also the smart thing to
do. If we want to build the kind of sisterhood that will once and
for all shed its clothing of white skin privilege, if we want to
have the kind of movement that harnesses in Sister Tulani’s words,
the power in everyone, then we’re going to have to get this question
of diversity straight.
I love most—in fact, I can’t think of any other words that I
didn’t just resonate with that the Omega Institute gave us. But
I was particularly struck by words that I want to share with you
because they set the duality into which we diverse women must enter.
In a time of great global change humanity is still relying on the
old myth of survival and domination. We need a new myth, a new
vision, a new definition of power and leadership.
We must go away from the old model and toward one of creative
cooperation on our small and threatened planet. The world needs
women to imagine, define, and lead us toward a sane and sustainable
culture. A culture of soul. A culture that values life more than
war. People more than profits. And hope more than despair.
We’ve got a role to play in all of that. But my sisters, if we
are busily setting up our little groupitos ... (speaking Spanish).
Busy setting up our little groups so that all of us in this little
group can be the same, how are we going to change this world of
ours? Particularly when the world that we want to change is so
driven by those same groupitos. Need I say again what I am sure—I
was only able to come in last night, but I’m sure every sister,
whether from the platform or in a conversation, has said—and that
is we’ve got to get out the vote. We’ve got to get out the vote.
What will be decided in November is not simply what will happen
to those of us who buy whatever was a historic or herstoric moment
became citizens of this terrific country. What we decide in November
will affect the entire world.
And so to me, one of the most important basis for the decision
that you make when you go in there is who wants to keep the world
in little groupitos. But it also means, that we have got to reach
out beyond whatever group we are in; to remind everyone in this
country of the sacred right and moral responsibility to vote. I’ll
tell you what we are going to do at Bennett College for Women.
We’re going to have a birthday celebration, because October 6th,
who’s birthday is Fanny Lou Hamen. Fanny Lou Hamen’s birthday.
And I have declared October 6th, at Bennett College for Women,
voter registration day. I have asked every faculty member, and
I’ll tell you faculty don’t always go along with what presidents
say most of the time. But, I got immediate and unanimous agreement
to my request that each faculty member will take 15 minutes of
that class, talk about the history and the role of voting in a
democratic society, remind these women it is a women’s college.
That not until 1920, did we get the right to vote. It is a historically
black college for women. Speak to the voter rights act. Remind
our sisters of their responsibility to vote. And then sign them
up. Have the papers there. Register Bennett women to vote. We have
been in this intensive—not in North Carolina is it too late.
In this intensive drive, 77 percent of our students are currently
registered to vote. We are aiming for 100. Fanny Lou Hamer—one
of 11 children of a sharecropping family in Mississippi. Fanny
Lou Hamer who didn’t have I assume, as we in this room—certainly
I—the exceptional blessing of formal education. What a wise woman,
because remember Fanny Lou Hamer said—and we remember her for this—I’m
sick and tired of being sick and tired.
But unlike many of us who just kvetch, kvetch, kvetch, kvetch,
Fanny Lou Hamer did something about it and organized people to
vote and for that received billie clubs on her head, water hoses
on her back and the snipping of dogs at her ankles, the horrible
cursings of racist southerners. But she organized, and we, too,
in ways that cross boundaries must organize.
When we look at this world of ours—you know, it’s really possible
just to say I’m going to take a big sigh, sit down, and give up.
But you can’t. And I can’t. And clearly we won’t. Rather we remember
the words of one of my sheroes. I’ve got many sheroes. Indeed for
every hero in this world there is at least 1 shero. But I’m thinking
now particularly, of the words of Margaret Mead, the anthropologist
best known of all American anthropologists, who insisted on being
a public intellectual on speaking beyond the classroom and through
books and into the public arena. You know her words: 'Never doubt
that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change
the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.' But the
changing of the world requires in my view a changing internally
first; a sensing of who one is. In Sister Tulani’s words, touching
your own power. And then acknowledging the power of others and
moving collectively to harness it. But if one is still driven by
racist, sexist, heterosexist and other bigoted attitudes and behaviors,
you will never harness your own or the power of all of us.
My sisters, I want to move toward closure now because I do want
us to have some time to interact. I want to do so by telling you
a story. It’s one of my favorites. It’s a story that speaks to
the question of struggle and of power. It’s a story that comes
from the Ibo people of Eastern Nigeria. But like all good folklore,
all true stories, it may begin with a people, but it belongs to
us all. It’s the story about a particular day, in the African bush,
a particular day when a lion is coming down the way.
Here he comes, brother lion. Walking through the bush. First
of all, yes, he does have four legs and enormous paws. And as he
picks up one of those paws and leans way back, shaking that main
of his, looking around to see who might be watching him, he, of
course, lets out this enormous disruptive noise to declare once
again that he is the king of this place. If brother lion walked
on two rather than four legs, you have the feeling he might have
kind of like hiked up his trousers, leaned a little bit, and then
walked on down. Now, any similarity between Brother Lion and the
males of any other species, I leave that up to you. I’m just telling
the story. So while bother lion is coming down the way this way—coming
across, here she comes.
Sister Tortoise. Here she comes. Slow, slow as molasses in January
going up the hill, as our Caribbean sisters and brothers would
say. But steady, focused, tenacious. Here she comes. Sister tortoise.
Now, any similarity between Sister Tortoise and the females of
any other species, I don’t know. I’m just telling the story. So
at a given moment as Brother Lion is coming this way and Sister
Tortoise is coming this way, they meet. Brother Lion shakes that
head of his, grabs her up and says Look what I’ve got for dinner.
Turtle soup. Sister Tortoise said, “Why, why good afternoon, Brother
Lion and how is your family?” He said, “Don’t try that. You women
are always doing that.” “Hello. How are you? How is your family?”
“Don’t even try it, I’ve got you now.”
She said, “That may be, Brother Lion, but it doesn’t hurt to
be polite. And besides, Brother Lion, why don’t you put me down
for just a minute.” He said, “No. You are my supper. You are my
turtle soup.” She said, “Well, that may be, but just put me down
for a minute.” He said, “All right. I never did understand women.
And I know they can trick you. But even if she gets down and goes
at her fastest speed, she can’t go very far. So let me see what
is on her mind.” So he put her down. I wish you could have seen
what Sister Tortoise did. The first thing she did—you know that
mouth of hers; right? She took that beak, went into the dirt, put
it in her mouth, spewed it everywhere. Took her four claws, dug
in the dirt, and just—just made a mess. Then you know her back,
right? That hard shell of her back—she took that back and dug it
in the dirt and just—it looked like an army had passed through
there. Then as quickly as you could imagine she stopped. She said,
“Okay, Brother Lion, I’m done.” He said, “You’re done?” He said,
“What was that all about? You know you are my turtle soup for dinner.
Why did you make this mess?” Listen to Sister Tortoise-and my sisters
all—let us each be a Sister Tortoise in the struggle for a world
far more filled with peace and equality and justice. Sister Tortoise
said, “Well, Brother Lion, when the time comes, I guess your time
comes. But let anybody passing this way say Sister Tortoise put
up a mighty struggle.”
My sisters, I love to tell that story also for the implication,
since I haven’t said it so far, that struggling against bigotry
and discrimination is not easy. But each of us must put up a mighty
We have now 15 whole minutes, and here is what I would ask of
you. That you just turn to the few folks that you can whisper to
so that we could all continue to hear, and just say—nobody is going
to do anything to you. It’s not going to cost you anything you
need. Just say “What” is your most difficult struggle now around
questions of diversity. Just say it.
I learned a long time ago as a fundraiser you never ask of someone
else what you’re not willing to do yourself. I’ve already shared
mine with you, my struggle against homophobia and heterosexism.
What is yours? Why don’t you just buzz it out for a minute or two?
...Oh, my sisters, try to wrap it up a little bit ...My sisters,
hear me ... Let me tell you how I’m feeling. I’m feeling like I
feared too many teachers act like just at the moment when she’s
going on—she says, now class, class—I wish you could have seen
it from here. You could literally see the learning going on.
Thank you for doing that. And remember that that is a conversation
that has to continue with other steps. Now that I can name it—now
that I—yuck—own it, what am I going to do with it and who is around
to help me.
(Here she takes questions from the audience)
... My sisters, you know, we really do have the enemy of time.
And unfortunately we are going to—we’re just not going to be able
to catch up for the day. So I’m going to ask each of you to just
listen very, very quickly while I leave you with yet another story.
It’s a story I tell particularly because it was a favorite story
of Fanny Lou Hamer. Fanny Lou Hamer who organized people to register
and to vote. Fanny Lou Hamer told the story because the last line
of the story will tell you who has the responsibility to deal with
bigotry and discrimination. Who must get out the vote to give us
an administration that is for the people. Who has a responsibility
to work for peace, justice, and equality. Quickly.
It’s the story of some young boys who played hooky one day from
school. They got into trouble. They wanted to. They succeeded.
They found a bird and they just tortured that poor little bird
until it was almost dead. But then they got bored. The ringleader
said I know what we can do. Let’s go up the road appease to that
old lady and ask her a question she will not be able to answer.
So he said what’s the question. He said listen. See this bird we
just messed up? I’m going to put the bird behind my back. I’m going
to say Old lady, old lady, this bird that I have behind my back,
is it dead or is it alive? If she says “Why, the bird is dead,”
I’ll release my hand and it will fly away. If she says to the question
“Why, the bird is alive,” I’m going to crush it. They did their
high fives and found the old lady. With that disrespected instability
that characterize as too many of our youth—not all, but some—he
said, “ Yo, old lady, you’re going to answer this question.” And
with the decency and compassion and wisdom of so many of our elders,
she said, “I will try.” So the ring leader said, “Okay, old lady,
here’s the question. This bird that I hold behind my back is it
dead or is it alive?” The answer the old lady gave is an answer
each of us must give to the question who has the responsibility
to help to get this world right side up again. The old lady said,
“Hmmm, the bird. You want to know is it dead or is it alive? Hmmm.
The bird. Why, it’s in your hands.” That’s the answer. Your hands
and mine.” Thank you.
keynote speech was delivered by Johnnetta Cole at the 3rd Annual Women & Power
Conference organized by Omega
Institute and V-Day in
September 2004. To order the CD of this speech or to purchase
other CDs from this event, please click
has been an advocate for people of color and women for more than
30 years. As a professor of anthropology, women's studies, and
African-American Studies, she has taught at the University of Massachusetts,
the University of California, Washington State University, and
Emory University. In 1987, she became the first African-American
woman president of Spelman College. She also served as cluster
coordinator for education, labor, and the arts and humanities on
President-elect Bill Clinton's transition team. In addition to
several dozen honorary degrees from institutions as diverse as
Dartmouth College, Michigan State University, Emory University,
and Mount Holyoke, Cole has also received numerous awards, including
the Dorothy I. Height Dreammaker Award, The TransAfrica Forum Global
Public Service Award, the Radcliffe Medal, the Eleanor Roosevelt
Val-Kill Medal, the Women Who Make a Difference Award from the
National Council for Research on Women, the Alexis de Tocqueville
Award for Community Service from United Way of America, and the
Women of Courage and Strength award from American Legacy magazine.
A celebrated author and speaker, Cole currently serves as the 14th
president of Bennett College for Women. Her publications include Conversations:
Straight Talk With America's Sister President, and Dream
the Boldest Dreams: And Other Lessons in Life.