American scholar recalls honoring Nelson Mandela with a quilt of connection

December 10, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, on this day when the life and work of Nelson Mandela were honored in South Africa, we bring you some personal memories from scholar, author and educator Johnnetta Cole. She is director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, which is where she sat down with Jeff Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: When were you first aware of Nelson Mandela?

 JOHNNETTA COLE, Smithsonian National Museum of African Art: Further back than I probably count.

But I do remember being very much a part of the anti-apartheid movement of the late ’60s, the ’70s and into the ’80s. Specifically, I was a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and very much a part of that movement calling for the university to divest.

And whenever we were talking about divestment, we were really thinking about the leader of the anti-apartheid movement, of Nelson Mandela.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what did he mean to people of your generation at that time?

JOHNNETTA COLE: To people of my generation, Nelson Mandela stood as the leader of a movement which we could so profoundly associate with.

I grew up in the South. I grew up in the days of legalized segregation. And, so, whether you called it legal racial segregation or you called it apartheid, it was the same injustice.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you watched, as we all did, his long walk to freedom. What did that — what did that mean to you when all of that took place?

JOHNNETTA COLE: The long walk meant for me and for my generation, but I think, more broadly, for anyone who stands in opposition to what is wrong, it meant that we had no possibility to give up.

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Here was a man who was making sacrifices that many of us cannot imagine. And so, his determination, his tenacity just meant, how dare you? How dare you even think of giving up?

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, we talk about him as the fighter, as the leader, as the statesman. We’re in an art museum. You also had the man himself was an artist.

JOHNNETTA COLE: He was.

And I think that says so much about who this enormous individual was. You can’t just say he was the president or he was the leader of the anti-apartheid movement. He was an artist. He was a father, a grandfather, a husband. He was a comrade. Madiba was so many of who we are. That’s poorly worded, but I hope you hear what I’m saying, that when we think about all that we as humans are capable of being and of doing, it seems that he expressed it all.

JEFFREY BROWN: Can you give a personal anecdote about the man?

JOHNNETTA COLE: Oh, I can, and I will never tire of telling it.

In July of 1990, I was given the task of finding a way that 41 institutions in the United Negro College Fund, the historically black colleges and universities in the United States, a way that we would literally present President Mandela with 41 honorary degrees.

Now, I ask you…

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNNETTA COLE: … is President — and then not then president.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

JOHNNETTA COLE: But is he going to stand there while 41 hoods are put upon him?

JEFFREY BROWN: For 41…

(LAUGHTER)

JOHNNETTA COLE: Not hardly.

We came up with a very special way of doing this. We took the emblem from each school, and we made a quilt. Now, for me, at that time, the president of Spelman College, a historically black college for women, that was incredibly significant.

Quilts are, in so many ways, the — the most moving expression of women’s art of a given era. And it continues. So, we made a quilt. And I had the almost unbelievable privilege of presenting that quilt to President Mandela. Winnie Mandela was with him. This was in Atlanta.

And when this great ceremony filled with tears and with joy and with celebration was over, I said, “Mr. Mandela, we will be so happy to send this quilt to you.”

He said: “No, you will not. We will carry this quilt back to South Africa.”

Can you imagine how I felt when I went into a space, President Mandela’s home, now like a small museum, and I saw that quilt? And, so, what is the lesson there for all of us? It’s a lesson of connectedness. It says that across waters, and, yes, across time, across race and ethnicity and sexuality, it says across all of these really insignificant, ultimately, attributes that we have, we can connect.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dr. Johnnetta Cole on the life of Nelson Mandela, thanks so much.

JOHNNETTA COLE: Thank you.