After graduating from Indiana University in 1964, Janet Cheatham Bell began her professional career as a high school librarian in Saginaw, Michigan. In early 1968 she accepted a position at the Ohio University Library in Athens. A few months later, in the wake of student responses to Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the university recruited her to teach freshman composition and African American literature.
Bell left Ohio University in 1970 to work as associate editor of The Black Scholar in Sausalito, California. Several months later she accepted the position of research associate for the African and Afro-American Studies Program at Stanford University where she worked with the director and eminent scholar, the late St. Clair Drake. Under the auspices of Dr. Drake’s Multi Ethnic Education Resource Center, they published Teaching Black: an Evaluation of Methods and Resources in 1972. When that project was completed, Dr. Drake requested that Bell develop a basic collection of books by and about African Americans for Stanford’s undergraduate library. He also encouraged her to apply to graduate school and she enrolled in Stanford’s doctoral program in English.
When her proposed research was rejected, Bell took a leave from her doctoral studies in 1973. The following year she became Ethnic Studies Consultant for the Indiana Department of Education in Indianapolis. The position was created to take advantage of her particular skills and experience. In late 1978 she moved to Boston to assist Ginn & Company, textbook publishers in Lexington, Massachusetts, to develop, edit and make their series of literature anthologies for grades seven through twelve more inclusive. That was her last full-time position. She resigned in 1984 and moved to Chicago where she became an entrepreneur and established Sabayt Publications to publish her own books.
Those books were Famous Black Quotations and Some Not So Famous and Famous Black Quotations on Women, Love and other topics, published in 1986 and 1992 respectively. With the assistance of her young son, Bell sold over 90,000 copies of the two titles before licensing them to Warner Books. Warner combined them into one volume which they published in 1995 under the title Famous Black Quotations. Warner also published Bell’s Victory of the Spirit: Meditations on Black Quotations in 1996. She was delighted to interview celebrities and write the copy for the National Council of Negro Women’s best selling Black Family Reunion Cookbook published in 1991. Bell’s other titles include The Soul of Success: Inspiring Quotations for Entrepreneurs published by John Wiley & Sons in 1997. Stretch Your Wings: Famous Black Quotations for Teens published by Little, Brown and Company in 1999.
Her four small gift books Famous Black Quotations on Mothers, …on Sisters, …on Love, and … on Birthdays were published by Andrews Mc Meel in 2002 and 2003. Bell’s brief history, Till Victory Is Won: Famous Black Quotations From the NAACP was published in 2002 by Simon & Schuster’s Washington Square Press.
In 1995 the Chicago Tribune featured Bell in an article, “Harnessing the Power of a Well-Crafted Phrase.” Chicago’s Black Book Fair selected The Soul of Success as Best Nonfiction Book in 1999, and New City, Chicago’s news and arts weekly, twice named Bell to “The Lit 50: Chicago’s Book World, Who Really Counts.”
Bell moved to Bloomington, Indiana in 2002 to research and write her memoir, The Time and Place That Gave Me Life. That memoir was published by Indiana University Press in 2007. Writing the second part of her memoir, Mixed Marriage, published in 2018, was interrupted by her revision of Victory of the Spirit, published in June 2011, at which point she revived Sabayt Publications. That led her to pull together several of her essays written over a period of years. Her second collection of essays, Not All Poor People Are Black and other things we need to think more about, was published in 2015. Bell resides in the San Francisco Bay Area.