What is a legacy? Chances are that each person you ask will have a different idea of what legacy means. Even the dictionary definition of the word ‘legacy’ varies, depending on the context in which it is used. According to Merriam-Webster, legacy is defined as “a gift by will especially of money or other personal property,” or “something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past,” and also as “something that is or may be inherited.” If the dictionary itself has difficulty getting a handle on the meaning of such a small word, then how can we hope to wrap our minds around the concept the word signifies?
Who gets to decide what constitutes a legacy? There do not seem to be any qualifying criteria other than the fact that the event must mean something to someone. The fact that I am alive right now means something to me. Is that a legacy? What about the way legacies are born? Are they created on purpose? Does it happen by accident? Is a legacy that is begun on purpose somehow more or less valuable than one that happened accidentally? I have explored all these questions and more during my semester in The Literature of the Harlem Renaissance. Because I am only qualified to speak for myself, the only answer that I can give to any of these questions is to explain what legacy means to me.
Legacy is a concept that most people do not think about on a day-to-day basis, but we are being quietly bombarded by it from all directions. It comes at us from the past, affects our present, and is transmitted into our future in order to affect others. Sometimes legacies are intentionally woven together, and sometimes we may create one without realizing it. The basis for a legacy is that it is an important item or idea that is transmitted from one person to another through the passage of time. Everything that we think, do, and say affects someone somewhere. Sometimes, we do not know what action, words, or idea may be important enough to someone that it becomes a legacy to them. Legacies are alive and active and may be created, developed, changed into something new, or even destroyed.
All humans, knowingly or unknowingly, struggle with the idea of legacy. Many people argue and debate over what will happen to us when we die, but our lives are actually a pursuit of what we will leave behind when we go. We gather wealth and knowledge in order to pass it on to the next generation, in hopes that we can help them move one step closer than us in an effort to obtain that elusive idea of progress. We want our children to be a little bit richer, a little bit smarter, a little bit more successful than we are. Even for the altruistic types, life becomes a pursuit of how much of a difference they can make in other people’s lives – their legacy of changing the world. I believe that much of this stems from a fear of death. To be forgotten is to cease to exist. If a person can not pass on something to the next generation, they feel that when they die, they will be no more. The ground will silently swallow and digest them and it will be as if they had never existed at all. If they can pass on a legacy, either by their genetic material, monetary wealth, their name, or the effect they had on someone’s life, then they are remembered and continue to exist in some form or fashion long after they die; perhaps forever. Therefore, a strong legacy can translate to a means of immortality and an attempt to relieve the fear of death. If this is the case, then what happens when that legacy dies?
In her Nobel Prize speech, Toni Morrison tells a story about a wise, old, blind woman who is confronted by some youths. They enter her home and tell her that they have a bird in their hands. They ask her if the bird is dead or alive, in an effort to mock her wisdom and exploit her blindness. Her reply is this: “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.” Morrison goes on to explain that “[h]er answer can be taken to mean: If it is dead, you have either found it that way or you have killed it. If it is alive, you can still kill it. Whether it is to stay alive, it is your decision. Whatever the case, it is your responsibility.” The legacies that have been given to us in this life may, like the bird, be dead or alive. We, however, have the power to allow it to live, kill it, or even revive it. Our legacies are in our hands.
African Americans, by the 1920s, had a legacy in their hands. It was a legacy of violence, injustice, injury, inferiority, and shame. The people of the Harlem Renaissance decided that they did not like the legacy they had been given. They realized an essential truth: legacy is a living thing and can be molded and altered. They took ownership of their legacy and according to Alain Locke, in his essay, The New Negro, they used art to “discover and reveal the beauty which prejudice and caricature have overlaid.” (qtd. by Stuart). The African American artists, musicians, writers, and others of that time sought to change their legacy. Nothing useful is won without some sort of struggle, however, and the Harlem Renaissance had its share of struggles. Obviously, they struggled against the legacy that they were fighting to depose and against the prejudice and ways of thinking that led to the problematic legacy. They also encountered a struggle that they may not have expected. Langston Hughes described that unlikely foe when he explained that “[t]he ordinary Negro hasn’t heard of the Negro Renaissance. And if they had, it didn’t raise their wages any.”(qtd. by Stuart). They struggled against the supposed apathy of their own people. This apathy, however, was not their fault, really. It is simply an example of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I, myself, know a thing or two about this hierarchy. The theory is that if the lower order needs (more urgent and basic needs) are not satisfied, then the individual is incapable of being concerned about anything else until those basic needs are met (Gorman 1). Thus, it stands to reason that because their basic needs were not being fulfilled, the African Americans of that time period were unable to be overly concerned about this cultural movement that we now call the Harlem Renaissance. This idea also sheds some light on the controversy surrounding the way more emphasis is being placed on the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance in modern times, rather than when it was actually happening. The truth is that these days, though they are still struggling, African Americans are much better off than they used to be and are able to concern themselves more with such ideas because their primary needs are being more effectively met.
Some argue that the Harlem Renaissance is a fictionalized, illegitimate legacy that is being overemphasized because of the lack of enthusiasm the ordinary African American had for it while it was happening. As a matter of fact, Andrea Stuart speculated that the Harlem Renaissance could have actually been “simply a handful of privileged black artists patronised by rich white Afrophiles.” That, to me, is a silly assumption. The artists of the Harlem Renaissance had to be patronized by someone because clearly, they did not have the position or the monetary funding to support their own work. Just because it was white people who funded them and backed them, does not mean that it is an illegitimate legacy. Being patronized by whites may have merely been a means to an end. Why not exploit white people for their money when they had exploited black people for their labor? Because some African Americans judged the Harlem Renaissance as “nothing more than a bourgeois playpen” (Stuart par. 21), they disposed of a legacy that, if built upon, could potentially have brought them more freedoms, equality, and pride than they realized.
Some also believe that the Harlem Renaissance’s “influence has been only one class deep” and that “on the streets, where the great majority of black culture is made, its echoes are only faintly heard” (Stuart pars. 20-21). Though these statements clearly hold truth, one question remains: Whose fault is that? The people of the Harlem Renaissance faced tremendous hardship to be able to bestow such a legacy upon all their people. What happened? I believe that by the very act of mocking the movement that provided such a gift for them, the people to whom it was given made a sacrifice of that legacy. It was in their hands and they did not fulfill their responsibility to it because their limited sight could not fathom the importance of the gift, just as the youths in Morrison’s story disregarded the importance of the little bird’s life. They, in their ignorance and conceit, destroyed something precious to make themselves seem superior. If the bird is to be taken as a symbol of legacy, the youths actually killed the one thing that would bring them some sense of stability.
Youths are, however, much too immature and conceited to handle such important matters as life and legacy sometimes. It can be very overwhelming to be handed a legacy that is fraught with ugliness and has been mishandled, especially if you do not know what to do with it. Morrison captures the essence of this confusion and frustration with her story when the youths said “We have heard all our short lives that we have to be responsible. What could that possibly mean in the catastrophe this world has become…” and when they say “How dare you talk to us of duty when we stand waist deep in the toxin of your past?” Elders should be more aware of the struggles and stress of being young and seek to give young people a non-judgmental helping hand in evaluating, developing, and handling their legacy, especially considering that it was the elders that made it what it is.
So, how does all this translate to what legacy means to me? Throughout this semester, I have learned that the ideas that began in the Harlem Renaissance may have begun with African Americans in the 1920s, but like ripples on a pond, they affect a wider audience with the passage of time and distance. There is a lesson to be learned here by all peoples and cultures, not just African Americans. We must educate ourselves and lay aside our arrogance and conceit so that we may see and appreciate the legacies that have been given to us. We must recognize that the life of our legacy is in our hands and that it is not just our right, but our responsibility to preserve and develop it into something that we are proud to pass on to our children. The problem with the world is that people of all cultures are too busy complaining about the hand that they have been dealt in life and blaming their struggles on others. Much more and greater things could be accomplished if that energy were directed toward preserving and building strong legacies. Instead of asking what good my legacy is to me, I should ask what good I am to my legacy. Do I deserve the right to bear my own name and cultural identity? Am I worthy to be associated with those who have passed before me? If I continue to be unhappy with my legacy, perhaps I am the problem.
As a child, I was handed a legacy of poverty and a broken home. My world was abuse and neglect, my identity was inferiority. I never looked up or met anyone’s eyes. I come from loud parties and drunks stumbling all over my apartment. I come from sleepless nights and early mornings; being the woman of the house when I was barely 11 or 12 years old. I inherited worry and responsibility that far outweighed my years and only one parent who was too busy drowning his pain to notice mine. My life has been a constant choice. Do I make the best of what has been handed to me and change it into something better, or do I go the easy road and drown it all in self-destruction like those who have come before me?
I take a survey of my life as it stands right now and evaluate just what I have done with my inheritance. Have I squandered it like the prodigal son, or have I positively contributed to it and grown it into something better like the faithful and wise servant? Sometimes I think I had more sense when I was a child. I went to school every day and gave it all I had. All my energy was placed in my education and my faith because somehow, even at that early age, I knew that those two institutions would be my way out of a terrifying legacy. When I turned 17, however, I decided to rebel against my life and I became bitter. I was young, impulsive, and immature. I decided to drop out of college and left home. I ended up in a really dangerous situation and eventually got pregnant and married an addict. My life went downhill. I railed against my upbringing and cried out against my past, claiming that my past and my childhood was what caused all my problems. My life didn’t begin to change until I realized that the problem with my legacy was me. Now, as a mother, I am beginning to realize the importance of my legacy and I am working hard once again in school and with my faith. This time, however, I am not just doing it for myself. I am giving it everything I have because I want to leave a legacy of success and the knowledge of how to overcome for my son to inherit. I want him to know that he is not a victim of his legacy, but rather that his legacy is in his hands. Fighting the dark will not make it go away. The only way out of the darkness and pain is to step into the light.
Note: The inspiration for this paper was the first session that my group had at Wesley Pines. We were trying to discuss the concept of legacy and sacrifice. I asked the group if they had ever done anything or made any sacrifice that brought about change for the better. They responded with absolute silence! I began to wonder if they even understood the idea of legacy and how to effect change in the world around us. I wondered if they had ever taken an inventory of their lives to see what they have done and what its effect was. Then, I began to explore the concept of legacy and ask many questions. What you see here is a result of that journey.
Gorman, Don. ”Maslow’s Hierarchy and Social and Emotional Wellbeing.” Aboriginal and Islander Health Worker Journal 34.1 (2010): 27-29. Academic Search Complete. Web.2 May 2011.
“Legacy.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online. Web.
Morrison, Toni. “Toni Morrison – Nobel Lecture.” The Nobel Foundation. Nobelprize.org Web. Speech.
Stuart, Andrea. “The Renaissance in the Twenties Produced a Wealth of Black Talent. But What Was Its Legacy and Who Did it Really Benefit?” New Statesman 126.4340 (1997): 40. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 May 2011.
This guest post is from Harleena Singh, who was one of our winners EMB’s#BloggerSupport Guest Post Giveaway. In addition you will recall she was also crowned Queen of C.H.E.A.P bloggers contest. Beyond that, she is persona extraordinary, a mentor, compassionate, kindhearted and humble in spirit. It’s no wonder then her topic for today speaks about legacy and what type will you leave behind. Over to you Harleena
We all dream of and want the world to become a better place. Well, most of us certainly do, if not all.
So, if we work for it in the right way, we can make a huge difference and bring drastic goodness in the world.
The good that we do doesn’t go away. It stays.
It is absorbed, accumulated, and adopted by people who live after we’re gone.
Yes, it is a fact that we will die one day, and that’s nothing to fear of or be sad about.
But the saddest thing would be to not leave any good behind in the world.
Whether you live your life well or not – what matters is that you make a positive difference in the lives of the people even after you die.
This happens when you leave a legacy behind that is honored, respected, valued, and imbibed by people. This helps them to better their lives and spread the goodness in the world.
So, what legacy will you leave behind in the world?
What Is A Legacy
Let’s first understand the meaning of legacy and start with the basics.
According to the dictionary and legal definitions of legacy, it is a gift by will of money or personal property.
For some, legacy is something that is transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor. It is something that is passed on to you from your family members.
Legacy is inheritance. Legacy is your gift to the world. Legacy is your act of gratitude.
The gift you leave behind becomes the birthright of your people. Your gratitude becomes goodness for many.
It could also become the heritage of your culture, the custom of your society, or the pride of your nation.
Legacy is powerful, valuable, and your best charity or donation to the world.
Is legacy confined to only materialistic wealth?
Of course, not! Values are more precious than valuables.
The best legacy is your contribution to humanity by serving a cause greater than your own.
The least and best we can do is to teach our children or fellow human beings how to live a life of values, become good human beings, and have love in their lives.
Isn’t that the legacy you want to leave behind in the world?
Why Bother About Legacy
But why should you even bother about others?
Live your life the way you want, have fun, spend as you like, and do anything you want to do. After all, it’s your life!
Why should you even care about what you leave behind if you’ll not be there to reap the benefits from it later?
Well, if you do think that way, then you are wrong.
You have to bother about the legacy you leave behind because you’re indebted.
You see, you owe the life you live to others who lived before you. Your life mostly depends on what you inherited.
People live their lives, work with their heart and soul and leave behind the results after their lives end. The impact of these end results becomes the start point for others and the reason for the results they produce in turn.
The chain goes on. The process gets refined. The results get better.
The good impact that you leave behind instigate others to do better. The better is developed into the best by others that follow.
So, the good legacy that you leave behind helps the world to become better.
It is in your best interest if you want your loved ones to have the best to their disposal and live a good and better life.
It’s not about earning a name or fame, it’s about giving back.
You’re thankful for what you got, aren’t you? It’s your turn to say thanks.
The best way you say it is through the legacy you leave behind.
What To Do To Leave A Good Legacy
You learned the importance of legacy. You also realize that you’re responsible for the state of your loved ones and the world after you leave the world.
Now, the question is how and what to do to leave a good legacy?
One fact that you can easily derive is that you need to do good. But how does one do that?
Remember, that anything you do leaves an impact. Every action of yours produces an effect. The example you set brings solutions to the lives of many.
Things can even happen negatively if you set a bad example and live your life in a negative way. That way, you produce more problems rather than solutions.
So, you need to make a choice – you want to create problems or solutions?
You need to care and act responsibly because many depend on what they are left behind with.
Their inheritance depends on the way you live your life.
As there are so many different aspects to legacy, I will categorize them under these four heads: Personal, Social, Environmental, and Spiritual. You need to act accordingly.
The way you live your personal life is important.
Remember, you pass on your legacy through your genes.
Your genes contain coded information, which is the residual essence of the lives lived by your predecessors.
You too are a part of the chain and will pass on your life’s information in your genes, to your children.
This information is all about how much you’ve evolved, the values you gained, knowledge and skills you learnt, habits you acquired, your personality, character, nature, and even the diseases.
All your personal actions contribute to this residual information repository in your genes. Whether they are your intentions, thoughts, actions, or acts – everything is accountable and part of your legacy.
How can you leave a good legacy with your personal actions?
- Lead a good life, by living a life of good values and virtues.
- Develop good habits. Choose the ones that help you to be productive, efficient, helpful, and useful.
- Do not do any of these wrongs – lying, stealing, killing, cheating, or hurting in anyway.
- Be healthy, both mentally and physically.
You can add more to what all you can do with your personal actions to help in creating a better world.
Genes are not the final decisive factors, and one can override their impact by one’s own karma or positive actions. But genes do initially form a base, serve as an orientation, and give an advantage to the bearer.
Since the genes you pass on depend on the way you live your life, you can change and better this information by changing the way you live.
The way you live your social life is important because it impacts the society.
Your positive contribution to the community and society paves the way for the development and enhancement of many lives.
Remember, one person can make a difference – to the society and to the world. So, BE that person.
Your social life can become the role model of people and help them live a better life.
No, it’s not about being a socialite, but more of a philanthropist and a social activist. Not necessarily publicly, but you can be one privately and in your own capacity.
How can you leave a good legacy with your social actions?
- Indulge in community service.
- Spread the message of social harmony.
- Contribute to campaigns against racism and for equalism, in your way.
- Help in eradicating social evils and improving social values.
Creating your social legacy does not essentially require you to be an extrovert or outspoken. You can do so in many ways, and blogging is one of them.
Blog about social causes, help people understand themselves and improve their lives – convey your good and giving message to people all around the world through this digital medium.
The way you live aka your lifestyle is important – as it affects the planet.
This planet is your home and you need to keep it clean and safe.
Remember, that your simplistic and responsible way of living can save the environment and thus save the world.
It’s not about the rich or poor or what part of the world you belong to.
People across the globe need to get together, take resolve, and pledge to stop the environmental degradation of the Earth.
You are responsible for creating the kind of environment on Earth that you will leave behind. You need to play your part positively and do as much as you can to leave a habitable world for others.
How can you leave a good legacy with your environmental actions?
- Reduce dependability on non-renewable natural resources by inventing new ways.
- Plant more trees and kill fewer animals to maintain and save the ecosystem.
- Save electricity and water. This way you save the natural resources and leave more for the future generations.
- Avoid the use of plastic bags and reduce the consumption of fuel, air conditioners, and others to reduce pollution.
Our faulty lifestyle contributes to the depletion of natural resources, disturbs the ecosystem, and negatively affecting the environment.
You need to wake up now and take positive measures to lead a life that is compatible with nature. This will be one of the best legacies you would leave behind.
The way you live with respect to the diversity of spiritual beliefs and traditions, philosophies and religions – determines the happiness and peace on earth.
Remember, all humans are almost 99% identical. Though our means may be different, but the end is the same. The paths are many, but the destination is one.
The one thing common in all religions is compassion and love.
Whatever you do to let the positive qualities of compassion, kindness, love, generosity, and gratitude prosper, will bring unity in humanity.
Agreed that the world has evil, but it can only be countered with goodness.
Hate is overpowered with love, and bad is outdone by good. If you practice such a philosophy, you’ll leave a peaceful legacy in the world.
Your spiritual actions make you more sensible, open and purify your channels of love, broaden your horizon, and make you more understanding.
How can you leave a good legacy with your spiritual actions?
- Know and understand yourself, and lead yourself on to a path of self-discovery and self-awareness.
- Pray daily and practice a conscientious and conscious life. If not pray, meditate. Or do both!
- Develop tolerance and acceptance of thoughts and people other than your own.
- Learn to see the good in all things and actions and learn the lessons of life.
Being spiritual is not necessarily being religious. All those who are religious, may or may not be spiritual either.
You just need to seek the meaning in life and make it purposeful.
However, being spiritual makes you caring and giving, and such a legacy will definitely make the world a better place to live in.
I hope you realize that YOU are responsible for how your children or fellow living beings and their world will be.
If only you live your life the right way, you’ll be able to encourage and motivate your successors to adopt the right way to live.
You can help make the world good, happy, and peaceful by taking responsible personal, social, environmental, and spiritual actions.
The resultant legacy will make you special. Are you ready to be the part of the CHANGE to realize the common dream to make the world a better place?
Over To You –
What is the legacy that you will be leaving behind? Have you ever thought of taking the responsibility of your actions and realized the wonders that you can do? How else do you think you can contribute to have a better world? Please share in the comments.
photos courtesy: Freedigitalphotos.net