Alum’s Book Gleans Inspiration from Black American Trailblazers

Stories You May Like

Clueless About Watching Football? Pro Alum Will Help You Fake it

In a New Memoir, Disabled Alum Reflects on a Remarkable Life

Flying High: Sophomore Is a Rising Star in the Birding World

From Oprah and the Obamas to lesser-known heroes, Joseph Holland ’78, MA ’79, finds words to live by

By Lindsay Lennon

“There is in this world no such force as the force of a person determined to rise,” said author and activist W.E.B. Du Bois. “The human soul cannot be permanently chained.” These and many other inspirational words from Black leaders in a wide variety of fields are gathered in the latest self-improvement book from Joseph Holland ’78, MA ’79.

Titled Make Your Own History: Timeless Truths from Black American Trailblazers, the volume offers short biographies of more than 100 notables, emphasizing quotations with motivational messages.

Joseph Holland

It shares wisdom from such famous names as Booker T. Washington, Oprah Winfrey, and Barack and Michelle Obama—as well as the late Marvel star Chadwick Boseman, athletes Kobe Bryant and Simone Biles, music icons Beyoncé and Jay-Z, and numerous others.

But many of its sources are less familiar, like Olaudah Equiano, the 18th-century author of a memoir describing the horrors of slavery; early 20th-century educator Nannie Helen Burroughs; engineer Norbert Rillieux, who revolutionized the sugar-making process; and Maggie Lena Walker, the nation’s first female bank president.

The cover of the book "Make Your Own History" by Joseph Holland

“I was looking for people who made a difference, who broke down barriers and opened doors, who led purposeful lives,” says Holland, a longtime author, activist, attorney, and entrepreneur.

“These principles are all about building the best version of who you are. Whether there’s a crisis or not, you can always improve.”

Since 2000’s Holistic Hardware: Tools That Build Lives, all but one of Holland’s titles have been in the self-help genre.

Many have been inspired by his own experiences—particularly his years operating a men’s homeless shelter in Harlem.

“Self-help became an interest that grew into a passion,” says Holland. “It evolved into this mission of finding principles, life lessons, and inspiration that I could use in my writing to help people.”

On the Hill, Holland double-majored in English and history and played football for the Big Red—following in the footsteps of his father, the legendary Jerome “Brud” Holland ’39, MS ’41.

(Other Cornellian relatives include daughters Laura Holland ’22 and Shelby Holland ’18 and sister Pamela Holland Sullivan ’67, MA ’74.)

I was looking for people who made a difference, who broke down barriers and opened doors, who led purposeful lives.

Holland, who was honored as an All-American football player as well as an Academic All-American athlete, stayed on the Hill for a master’s in history before earning a JD from Harvard.

Stories You May Like

Clueless About Watching Football? Pro Alum Will Help You Fake it

In a New Memoir, Disabled Alum Reflects on a Remarkable Life

His ardent interest in Black history and in self-help come together in his latest book.

Its 12 chapters offer examples of people who embody what Holland calls “the vigorous virtues,” including integrity, compassion, self-discipline, and industriousness.

Joseph Holland and Jerome Holland at a Cornell University football game in the 1970s.
Holland (left) with his dad, known as Brud, who was Cornell's first Black football player.

Those trailblazers include his father, who grew up poor with 12 siblings in rural Auburn, NY. As a CALS student, he took a job shoveling coal in a fraternity house boiler room in exchange for room and board.

Brud Holland was a two-time All-American with the Big Red—but because of his race, he was barred from pro football.

Instead, he earned master’s and doctoral degrees and became a college president, U.S. Ambassador to Sweden, the first African American to serve on the board of the New York Stock Exchange, chairman of the American Red Cross, and a Cornell trustee, among other accomplishments.

Joseph Holland at a podium with colorful art painted on the walls behind him.
At the 2013 rededication of the gym at Ithaca's Southside Community Center in his father’s memory.

“Some look at American history and only see stories of oppression and injustice and unfairness, while others only want to emphasize American greatness and exceptionalism,” Holland reflects.

“The truth is that both of those narratives have happened in American history. Let’s keep it real by looking at the stories of people who lived through great adversity, but were still able to exemplify what American character is all about.”

All images provided.

Published November 9, 2023


  1. chloe barzey, Class of 1988

    Truly Inspiring!!

  2. John Thurgood

    Nothing is more noble than helping people unlock the unlimited potential of their minds. Thank you.

  3. Reuben A. Munday, Class of 1969

    I will order a few copies to give to young people as Christmas gifts.

Leave a Comment

Once your comment is approved, your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Other stories You may like