Reflections: Michael Cole’s Laboratory of Human Cognition

By Lenora Fulani

I had just left Teacher’s College. I got my masters, my Ed. Sci., and I was very offended and upset by the psych program that I was in there; I hated it and I decided I was never – I’ve said this a million times – going to a white university ever in my life again. I must have called A.J. Franklin at this time because I went looking for a Black psychologist, and we met. What always seems funny to me about that is my going to Medgar Evers to meet with A.J., because I was coming to a Black college to find a Black psychologist, and then A.J. invited me to come with him to Michael Cole’s Laboratory of Human Cognition at Rockefeller as his assistant, and I went. So, in a way that’s how I got there. I came in as a junior person to A.J. Franklin.

The history of the Association of Black Psychologists and all that was new to me, but A.J. and I talked, and I didn’t feel conflicted. I think I felt fantastic! Because I think that however A.J. spoke about what he was about to do, relative to research – I don’t remember the particulars – but having some control over what gets produced, working with Black scholars and others from around the county, it seemed like a great opportunity. I didn’t hesitate at all. And I think for me, it wasn’t like returning to a white university.

When I started, I worked with A.J. for a year. And we did a study together that’s in the book Research Directions of Black Psychologists.

One of the things that I loved about the lab was this kind of dynamic and dialogue and the capacity to talk with all kinds of people about these issues, meaning Black and Jewish and White and Latino, and whoever else showed up. In some ways, I was on the outskirts of the lab.

I was really new and was driven by what I thought was destruction of Black and Latino kids. The thing that stood out for me that was joyous was that people were relating and talking about Black young people in the Black community, but in particular kids, in ways that focused and captured their humanity. And this was both a relief and wonderful. One thing that impacted me during that first year, was that we talked a lot about Jenson – and maybe not just that year because I don’t really remember when his first book came out. But people did a lot of responding to it in the lab; there were papers written on it; people had very strong opinions about it; then at some point, Jenson came out with another book. And the responses that he got, not just from the lab, but from around the country – ‘cause there was a major reaction to him – didn’t seem to at all impact anything that he thought, said, or did. So, one of the interesting things that I learned through my work there was that if you wanted to impact something, you couldn’t just have a research to research, academic to academic fight, but that it also was very political, and that you had to build a base of support.

It was also the experience of being a young scholar and being in the midst of all these conversations about the possibilities of poor kids of color. This had a serious impact on my sense of confidence relative to the things that I was interested in. And it also taught me that these were issues not just for Black people or people of color; that they were issues for progressive people. And that year inspired me to go back to University, basically to get a Ph.D., so that I could fight for the things that I wanted to fight for. I was also driven by being able to have a voice in a location to make whatever statements I wanted to make in defense of the attacks on poor communities of color.

One of the experiences that I remember is going to other places. People knew that there was a group of Black academics connected to Michael’s lab, and I remember there being some tension around that. I guess they were in other conferences or meeting s or going to speak at different places. I found that annoying because I felt, given the state of our community and our people, that we needed to make use of everything that we could possibly make use of – I didn’t really care what color it was – to advance what we were doing. I think that it was a big deal that Michael created this and probably, you know, took a lot of crap. It was just a huge thing, I think, in helping this topic, this issue, this focus advance, and I just wanted to support what A.J. was saying about the level of exposure. And where else would you even be able to have that cross-fertilization because it wasn’t that open anywhere else.

Part of what my experience was at TC, I don’t even think they knew that we had had the civil rights movement. So to go from there to Mike Cole’s lab, and to come in through a Black psychologist, and get exposed to other people, it really was an inspiration and it helped me grow intellectually in ways that were pretty cool.

One thing I want to say to A.J. while we’re talking about this stuff, is how, first of all, I’m glad I found you, and how much I appreciate that I was able to be introduced to this experience; it made a big difference.

First of all I think it was different going there as A.J. franklin and my going in, in the position that I went in because I was his assistant, and I was a student really, or whatever.

So, what I remember about it, is it being very inclusive. I think I operated a lot on the fringe of it, but I was there. I didn’t feel unwelcome and I also as so excited about meeting all these Black psychologists and others, like the conversations were sort of wonderful. And I think I actually learned more about what I had learned after I got out of there. I didn’t really know… I sort of had a sense of what it meant to be there as an African-American. Also, the content of a lot of that stuff, other that the stuff that I was working directly with A.J. on, I didn’t even know the value of it in some ways. I learned that from afar and actually more as I started to work with Fred Newman and our community – and we did stuff for the community but it was very… A lot of people also came through; I mean, just a lot of Black people from the South who were young psychologists; I mean just tons of folks. So it was very exciting in that way, and very good and intellectually nurturing.

And I think it did feel like a community of people in some ways.

One thing I remember about conversations that I had with Lois Holzman, who was working at the lab with Mike on the ecological validity project, is that, the conversations we had – me Black, she’s Jewish – were more open and intimate than I had ever had with another white person. Michael and I never really talked about things. And it wasn’t like he wasn’t speaking to me. I mean we just didn’t; I said whatever. I mean back then I knew everything. And I had opinions about things. And I was very opinionated…As opposed to now… Now I’m more… [Laugh].

However, in some ways I think I learned more outside of the first year, is what I’m trying to say. Maybe I appreciate where I was more. I was thrilled to do this. It was a big boost; it was sort of wonderful, but it feels like a blur, that year. And I kind of stayed around… I mean, I was doing my dissertation, and I had of course, started working with us, and with Fred Newman.

I started in the graduate center in ’75 and I met Fred, I think, in ’77. I was writing my dissertation. And we already had the George Jackson-Rosa Luxemburg School for Working Class Education at the Institute.

But anyway, I think that the contribution, from the vantage point of community for me, of Rockefeller was a major, major thing.

It’s been a couple years, but I really wanted to give this to him. Because I also think it has importance beyond him. And I also deeply, deeply appreciate what he opened up and made possible.

I appreciate everything that A.J. has said about it and that I experienced too: the unique, kind of inclusive environment that it was; that nobody else wanted that.

One thing the lab did was that it created people who went on to do revolutionary and activistic things, and who remain spokespersons. And I think that’s part of what we’ve been doing the last few years – after we had met Mike. I think that’s partly why he’s returned and is seeking us out –the three of us – Lois Holzman, A.J. Franklin, and me, among others. And we know that, so I think it’s just finding different way to say it to him.

And maybe he won’t learn it, but other people will. That’s just giving credit where credit is due.

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