If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you know that I’m always looking for ways to spotlight African American women in their 50s, 60s, and beyond. We are invisible to the media. I (still) miss having seasoned women in my life and am determined to find black women role models and mentors who stare back at the camera with faces that say “I’m still here, and I still got lots more to say.”
In honor of women who are not afraid to reinvent themselves when the old way of being runs its course or no longer fits, I salute scholar, educator, anthropologist, public thinker, feminist activist, Dr. Johnetta B. Cole.
After years of serving as president of Spelman (1987-1997) and Bennett Colleges (2002-2007) and being an ardent advocate for women’s education, in March of this year Dr. Johnnetta Cole was appointed the new director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.
The last time I saw Dr. Johnetta was in 2007 there at her last Baccalaureate service as president of Bennett College where she’d served admirably. She’d invited me to come out and speak at her last Bennett Baccaluareate ceremony. She was looking forward to retirement, slowing down, and enjoying the new romantic relationship she was in. Evidently this phenomenal woman changed her mind. Just like she was supposed to be retiring when she’d stepped down years earlier as Spelman College’s famed Sister President. (She’d invited me to serve as Spelman’s Baccalaureate speaker her last year there as well). I could boast about being a speaker on both of these historic occasions, or I could peer closer and make out some sacred invitation being extended to me by God. The invitation to observe a woman on the brink of reinventing herself. I watched a woman stepping down from revered posts she has held and performed in admirably, freeing herself to move on to discover and create new challenges for herself. I’m pretty sure Dr. Johnetta didn’t know at the time what the future held for her, but she was old enough and confident enough to know when it’s time to call it quits and let your future figure itself out within you.
Did I mention that Johnetta Cole is in her 70s? Google her and you’ll find her exact age. (God, I hope my friend doesn’t mind my calling attention to her age?) But that’s the beauty of her story. In fact, that’s the whole point of this blogpost. A woman changing her mind, discovering new parts of herself, reinventing herself long past the age of lactation and lust (of the achy, breaky sort, that is). Reinventing herself and finding new things to do with her life after 60, the age when a woman is all but invisible and is expected to dodder and stay put in one place. Women are, as we all know, judged by the body they are in. The younger, firmer, leaner her body, the more visible a woman is. The older, grayer, and thicker her body, the more invisible she becomes to everyone around her. Thankfully, there are some women who refuse to go gently into the night.
Of all the ‘rights women have sought, none is more difficult, or more vital, than the right to change and not have to do the same thing forever. This is not to say that some of what we have been doing will not still be worth doing at 50, 60, and beyond. But there’s something about women who find the courage to change course, begin anew, revinvent themselves that’s always fascinated me. Especially women whom life has counted out.
With ageing comes losses, there is no denying that truth. Loss of loved ones. Loss of vigor. Loss of health. Loss of certain activities. Loss of employment. But ageing is not all about loss. Ageing brings with it also new discoveries. The kinds of discoveries that are only possible because other preoccupations are no longer there. New interests. New passions. New hobbies. New sides of yourself. New meaning for your life. New invitations. The truth is that we are a great deal more than our bodies, have always been more than our bodies, but it can take us most of a lifetime to learn that.
With the exterior losses that come with aging should come the good sense to let your interior life have more say about what you do and who you are.
I salute Dr. Johnetta B. Cole here on the blog today. She is a role model for many women like myself in the throes of middle age and still contemplating all that it means to grow up and grow older. Dr. Johnetta shows us how to stay visible, vibrant, and vital to the discussion. What use is there in growing older and having more answers to life’s questions, if no one’s beating a path to your door in search for the answers you hold?
“Our moral obligation is not, as society might lead us to believe, to ski at sixty and jog at seventy and bike at eighty,” writes Joan Chittister in The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully. “No, our moral obligation is to stay as well as we can, to remain active, to avoid abusing our bodies, to do the things that interest us and to enrich the lives of those around us. Our spiritual obligation is to age well– so that others who meet us have the courage, the spiritual depth, to do the same.”