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The Power of Diversity
a speech by Johnetta Cole

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The 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 here.

My sisters 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 constantly present.

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 struggle.

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?

(Group discussion/interaction)

...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.

This 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 here.

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.



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