Author Spotlight: Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole & Nelda LaTeef

Johnnetta Betsch Cole is a noted anthropologist and educator. A native of Jacksonville, Florida, she grew up during the days of racial segregation. She holds a B.A. in sociology from Oberlin College, and masters and doctorate degrees from Northwestern University. Dr. Cole has conducted anthropological fieldwork in Liberia, West Africa, and traveled to 17 African countries. She is the only person to have served as president for both Spelman and Bennet Colleges; she was also the Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art from 2009 to 2016. Dr. Cole serves as the Chair of the Board and the President of the National Council of Negro Women, an organization with a membership of over two million women of African descent. Throughout her career, she has worked on issues of racial, gender and other systems of inequality.

Nelda LaTeef is the award-winning author and illustrator of The Hunter and The Ebony Tree, Animal Village, and The Talking Baobab Tree. She grew up in a US Foreign Service family and spent her childhood attending schools in Europe, Africa, and Asia. She has traveled throughout West Africa conducting field research, and has even been to the fabled city of Timbuktu. She holds a degree in social anthropology from Harvard University. Nelda lives in Virginia with her family where she enjoys traveling, tennis, and cycling.

Responses from Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole

What is African Proverbs For All Ages About?

book cover – African Proverbs for All Ages

Today when there is so much divisiveness in our country and around our world, African Proverbs for All Ages invites our readers to take time to connect with Africa, the continent that is known as the cradle of humanity. As Nelda LaTeef and I lift up proverbs from some of the 54 African countries, our readers will learn lessons that are associated with a specific African people, and that may also touch on what different people around the world experience.

One is never too young or too old to learn, and African proverbs are an exceptionally intriguing way to learn.

What was your inspiration for this book?

In some ways, my inspiration for this book goes back to my own childhood when I was fascinated by aphorisms or sayings that I would hear from elders in the southern African American community that I grew up in. For example, to encourage children and adults to respectfully ask for what they needed, an elder might say, “Closed mouth gets no food.”

Many years later when I lived for two years in the West African country of Liberia in order to carry out fieldwork that was required for me to earn a doctorate in anthropology, citing proverbs to teach, to inform, to admonish and to amuse is what I heard African villagers and city dwellers do. When award winning author and illustrator Nelda LaTeef invited me to join her in doing a book on African proverbs, I jumped at the opportunity to do so.

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

I hope readers will take away from our book a sense of the diversity and the complexities in African cultures. And I certainly hope readers see in Nelda LaTeef’s amazing illustrations the beauty of African people. I also hope readers of our book might be inspired to create their own proverbs as a way to learn more about Africa, and themselves.

What are the kinds of stories you want to write?

Since I was a girl, I have always enjoyed writing. When I was in grades that we now call middle school, I had a pen pal who lived in Liberia, West Africa. In the scholarly articles and books, or stories for a general audience that I now write, I often focus on the diversity AND the similarities among the world’s people. 

Nelda LaTeef and I are beyond grateful that Ms. Oprah Winfrey chose our book of African proverbs to be the first Oprah children’s book. Nelda LaTeef is an award winning writer and illustrator of children’s books, but African Proverbs for all Ages is my first children’s book. I am looking forward to writing more books for children, and the child in each of us adults.

How do you balance writing with the rest of your life?

Over the course of my life as a professor, a college president, an African Art museum director, and a consultant on issues of diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion, writing is a big part of what I do. I enjoy and continue to learn from “Having my say.” And I certainly hope those who read what I write learn from and might even be inspired by what I have to say.

Any advice for up and coming writers and illustrators?

I will leave giving advice to young illustrators to illustrator extraordinaire Nelda LaTeef. But here is what I would say to up and coming writers. You become a writer by writing, over and over again. You become a good writer when you develop skills to write about something that you are passionate about. So write about what you care about, what you want others to care about, and what you think might even play a role in helping to make our world more just and equitable.

If you are fortunate to find monetary rewards from your writing, that will be wonderful. But I believe that writing only for monetary rewards is a poor reason to engage your mind, your heart, and your soul in being a writer.

Write about what you care about, what you want others to care about, and what you think might even play a role in helping to make our world more just and equitable.

Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole

Responses from Nelda Lateef

What was your inspiration for this book?

African proverbs were the inspiration for this book! The day Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole and I decided to co-author African Proverbs for All Ages is up there among my favorite days. My children’s picture book, Animal Village, inspired by West African oral tradition, had just been published. Dr. Cole had graciously agreed to write an endorsement for the book cover. To thank her personally, I called upon Dr. Cole, who was the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, to present her with an autographed copy of the book. To our great delight, over a cup of tea, we discovered that we shared a mutual admiration for African proverbs. On the spot, we decided to collaborate on this book. Dr. Cole’s vast knowledge and grasp of the power of African proverbs, her keen eye, and genuine appreciation for the visual narrations I created from the proverbs, were the driving force behind African Proverbs for All Ages. 

What are the kinds of stories you want to tell?

I like stories that have withstood the test of time, that open hearts and minds, entertain, and leave the reader with something to think about. Lately, I have been focusing on stories derived from West African oral tradition. When I was an undergraduate at Harvard, studying social anthropology, I was given a grant to do field research in West Africa. Having grown up in Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal, it was a part of the world that was familiar to me. I had friends who would share with me folktales that they had heard from their parents and grandparents, and I kept notes in a journal. 

In Niger, returning from observing giraffes in the bush, we would stop at a village on the outskirts of Niamey, where the grandfather of one of my friends lived. Often, seated under the shade of a tree, was a white-haired woman, who was the village griot.  She would motion to us to join her on her straw mat. Children and villagers would gather and she would recount stories. Since she only spoke Zarma, my friends would translate those stories for me on the ride back to Niamey. Some of her stories included two-headed and three-headed demons, and there were other stories that struck a chord and stayed with me. Years later, I found my blue notebook, and the bones of many of my Zarma inspired folktales come from that source. It gives me great joy to pass on these “old stories” to yet another generation.

Any advice for up and coming writers and illustrators?

Practice viewing each day as a learning experience.

Nelda LaTeef

Yes! As a writer or as an illustrator, it is equally important to be alert to what is happening around you. Practice viewing each day as a learning experience. Keep a journal. At the end of the day ask yourself, “What have I learned?” Otherwise, important thoughts or ideas that could make a difference in your life can be overlooked or forgotten. As a writer and as an illustrator every detail counts. It is those small details that put life into a story to make it sing or to make a painting breathe.  My advice, for those interested in creating art, is to visit museums and art galleries and discover the artists and the paintings that pull you towards them.  Then take a photograph or find a picture of the painting and replicate it as best you can. The experience will be like taking a private lesson from the artist that has inspired you! 

Pre-order African Proverbs for All Ages here!