Anthropology Johnnetta Cole
Marla Frederick
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0109


Best known as America’s “Sister President,” anthropologist Johnnetta Betsch Cole is a scholar/activist who has dedicated her life to higher education and the struggle for equality for all people. She has served as president of both Spelman and Bennett Colleges, the only two historically black colleges for women in the United States. When elected president of Spelman in 1987, Cole became the first African American female president in the college’s history. Over the course of her tenure as president, the college’s capital campaign raised over $110 million for the school’s endowment, the largest campaign successfully completed by a historically black college or university (HBCU) at the time. Cole’s career spans three impressive episodes: as professor, as college president, and as director of the Smithsonian Museum of African Art. Having conducted research in the United States, West Africa, and the Caribbean, Cole’s intellectual trajectory around issues of race, class, and gender oppressions has been informed by the ways in which these issues have influenced the life experiences of men and women in each of these complex societies. Anthropological insights fuel Cole’s approach to not only her teaching and research but also her administrative work and passion for justice. An accomplished leader beyond the walls of the academy, she is the first woman ever elected to the board of the Coca Cola Corporation, and she has been awarded over fifty honorary degrees.

General Overviews

Works in this article cover early influences upon Cole’s intellectual journey, including her upbringing in segregated Florida and her formal education at Fisk University, Oberlin College, and Northwestern University, where she completed her PhD in anthropology. Entries also span her research and writing on US anthropology as well as issues of race, class, and gender across the African diaspora. Her two edited volumes on anthropology in the US, Cole 1982 and Cole 1988, address issues related to ethnographic subjectivity, ethics, and new directions in the study of anthropology, and anchor her scholarship within central debates in the field of anthropology at a pivotal moment in the reshaping of the discipline. Reading the corpus of her writing (Cole 1993), one gains a sense of the progression of Cole’s thoughts on the challenges of race, class, and gender oppressions as not merely independent variables but as interlocking systems of oppression. As a college president and public figure, her later publications have mediated between the academy and the public and have given voice to issues facing HBCUs, issues of gender and politics in African American communities, and challenges of difference more broadly defined in the United States. Interviews with Cole, both written and audiovisual, accent her contributions to the fields of anthropology, African American studies, and women’s studies, as well as her contributions to higher education and the legacy of the Smithsonian Museum of African Art.

  • Cole, Johnnetta B., ed. 1982. Anthropology for the eighties: Introductory readings. New York: Free Press.

    A primer in the study of cultural anthropology, this volume includes introductory essays by Cole for each section and covers topics such as the practice and ethics of fieldwork; aspects of culture; social systems; economic systems, changing technology, and the impact of the West; political systems; and ritual and belief systems.

  • Cole, Johnnetta B., ed. 1988. Anthropology for the nineties: Introductory readings. New York: Free Press.

    In this updated edition, Cole incorporates many of the classic articles from Anthropology for the Eighties (Cole 1982); however, she adds articles that address more contemporary research interests since the publication of the first volume, including industrialized societies; attention to race, ethnicity, gender and class; and “reflective anthropology.”

  • Cole, Johnnetta B. 1993. Conversations: Straight talk with America’s Sister President. New York: Doubleday.

    An intimate “conversation” with black women in which Cole draws upon her life experiences and training to articulate her understanding of the challenges of various forms of social discrimination and marginalization—racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and so on. It is both a call for social justice and personal wholeness.

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