Wednesday, June 1, 2011

My World of Legacy (An essay I wrote for a class called "Literature of the Harlem Renaissance")

            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.

Works Cited
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. Web. Speech.
Stuart, Andrea. “The Harlem 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.

No comments:

Post a Comment