May 17, 2014


Johnnetta Betsch Cole, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, delivers the 2014 keynote speechI want to begin by saying warm greetings to President Ronald Crutcher, who has so adeptly led Wheaton College over the past 10 years. Brother President, what a sterling leader you are. And a very special greeting to Betty Crutcher, who with grace and effectiveness has served as this college’s First Lady. I like to call her the First Sister of Wheaton.

Warm greetings as well to members of the Board of Trustees, the faculty, staff, alumnae and alumni, friends of this very special college. I want to warmly greet the women and men who share this special day with me as honorary degree recipients. Of course, an incredibly special hug for Anne-Imelda Radice. Now, my mother often told me that a woman will be known by the company she keeps. It feels mighty good to be in the company of these honorary degree recipients.

But who do you think I save the warmest greetings for? You. The graduating Class of 2014. I want to make sure that I didn’t leave anyone out, so good morning, sisters and brothers all.

And what a special morning it is. Because we’ve gathered to celebrate what these women and men have accomplished. We’re seriously proud of you, dear Class of 2014, but we also acknowledge that you did not arrive here today on your own. Your family, your faculty and staff at Wheaton are all important folks in your village, for they have helped to bring you to this day of graduation.

Now, dear graduates, I turn to the central point I want to make on your Commencement Day. I know that some of you will leave Wheaton and go to various post-baccalaureate institutions. Some of you have already secured a place in the workforce. And yes, because of the state of the economy in our country, some of you are still perhaps looking for a job. Whatever is your situation, let it be your goal to not only make a good living, but to live a good life.

Now I know your parents would like you to make a good living, because they’ve been your human ATM machine. I am not against making a good living, but strongly support living a good life.

I believe living a good life is not the end result of only one kind of engagement, or the obtaining of some particular goal. Indeed, there are a number of requirements for living a good life, one which is that you must be of service to others.  Dr. Martin Luther King said: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is what are you doing for others?”

One my sheroes—you know, for every hero out there, there is at least one shero—one of the sheroes, the great African American educator Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, said this: “It is fine to climb to the top, but you must lift others as you climb.” Caesar Chavez, the exemplary Chicano leader, once said: “Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.” The great humanitarian Elie Wiesel has said: “Our lives do not belong to us alone. Our lives also belong to those who need us the most.”

I strongly believe that another requirement for living the good life is that you must respect and indeed celebrate human diversity. There is a Chinese saying that speaks to the beauty of human diversity with these words: “One flower never makes a spring.” The Native American people, the Sioux, say this: “With all beings and all things we shall be king.” The value of gender equity is captured in one of my favorite sayings: “We women hold up half of the sky.”

Another one of my sheroes, Audre Lorde, who always described herself as a black feminist lesbian mother warrior poet, offered these profound words: “It is not our differences, it is our silence about our differences that harms us.” And Helen Keller, an amazing social activist who was deaf and blind from the age of 10 months, once said: “Each of us is blind and deaf until our eyes are opened to our fellow man and woman, until our ears hear the voices of humanity.”

And the third and final requirement I am going to leave you with today for living a good life, and the one I want to focus on, is that the arts must have a presence in your life. There is joy and power, instruction and inspiration in being involved on some level and in some way with music, dance, theater, literature and the visual arts. Some of you in this graduating class are talented and have made a commitment to one of the arts.  To you, dear graduate, who are in the fields other than arts, my plea is that you find a place in your life for the arts. I can promise you, it’s going to be good.

You know, in 2011, while introducing the iPad2, Steve Jobs said this: “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our hearts sing.” What is clear is that you don’t have to be an artist to appreciate or love art and value its presence in your life. Brother President Ron Crutcher is an inspiring example of how an engagement with one of the arts, in this case music, can be a major factor in living a good life.  He is a great model for each of you. Not in the sense that you must be an accomplished cellist as he is, but you must find some place in your life for art.

Now, as you know, President Crutcher is an acclaimed classical musician. He first became interested in music when he met Coretta Scott King after she performed at a recital in his church. When he saw Sanford Allen perform, the first African American to play the New York Philharmonic, Ron Crutcher thought that rather than becoming an architect, he too might make music an important part of his life. And so at age 14, he began playing the cello. What is most humbling and inspiring about President Crutcher is that he not only possesses a gift of talent, but he believes in sharing that gift with others. He is committed to making music accessible and using his gift for what he has called “lifting the human spirit.”

The beauty and power of being talented in one or more of the arts is not possessing or hoarding it for yourself but in sharing your talent so it may teach, it may touch, it may amaze, it may inspire, power and even heal others.  As President Crutcher begins his sabbatical, spending time performing around the country and the world with his chamber ensemble, The Klemperer Trio, let us not only wish him well but remember and follow his example.

Be passionate about developing your own talent and sharing it with others.  Insist to yourself and to others that you can do more than one thing well. And keep jumping for the sun, for as Zora Neale Hurston’s mother told her, “If you jump for the sun, you may not get there, but you will at least get off the ground.”

Ever so briefly, let me share with you how the visual arts have played a major role in enriching my life. I grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., in the days of legalized segregation. So I went to a school for “colored” children. There were no art galleries or museums in my hometown that welcomed me or any other African American. Oh, but I was fortunate. I was fortunate to have a mother who was a trained musician; piano and organ were her instruments, but she also had a passion for the visual arts. As we say in the art world, “She had the eye.”

I was smitten by the art that was in every room of the homes I lived in as a child. I went on to fall madly in love with African American art when, at the age of 15, I entered Fisk University. As I brought the visual arts more and more into my everyday life, I discovered their power, the power of the arts to awaken us to what is new, and remind us of what is enduring.  Yes, the visual arts can bring joy into our lives. When our spirits are broken they can even help to heal us.

After one year at Fisk, I went on an exchange program to Oberlin College and ended up finishing my undergraduate studies there. I remember ever so clearly the rush of excitement that I felt the first time I walked into the main entrance rotunda of the Allen Memorial Art Gallery at Oberlin. If I had not discovered anthropology at Oberlin, I might well have majored in art history. Of course, in anthropology there was no escaping art as a universal in human cultures. And throughout the many years that I was a professor of anthropology, of women studies and of African American studies, I think that some of my most teachable moments involved references to the visual arts. When I served as the president of Spelman College and Bennett College for Women, our nation’s only two historic black colleges for women, one of my proudest moments on each of those campuses was when we opened our fine arts gallery at Spelman, and the first ever art gallery at Bennett College for Women.

Well, today I must confess: I have received three F minuses in retirement. I just won’t use the word anymore. Because today what a privilege and a joy it is for me to serve as the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. It is our nation’s only museum that is dedicated to collecting, conserving, exhibiting and educating about the traditional and contemporary visual art of the continent that is the cradle of human kind.

So no matter where my life’s journey has taken me, or in what direction I have chosen to move, I will always make a conscious decision that art must remain and be nurtured as a constant in my life. Do you all remember former Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan? She once said, “The arts are not a frill. The arts are a response to our individuality and our nature. The arts help to shape our identity. What is there that can transcend deep difference and stubborn division? The arts. They have a wonderful universality. Art has the potential to unify. It can speak in many languages without a translator. The arts do not discriminate. The arts can lift us up.”

President Barack Obama has said, “The future belongs to young people with an education and the imagination to create.” I do know your school motto. It says, “That they may have life and have it abundantly.” I see in your motto the importance of not only making a good living but living a good life.

Class of 2014, congratulations. Mazel Tov! You’ve done good.

Johnnetta Betsch Cole, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, delivers the 2014 keynote speech

Read the honorary degree citation

Related Links