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I recently heard a radio interview with poet and writer Clint Smith, author of How the Word is Passed, who recounted that visiting the National Museum of African-American History and Culture with his grandparents led him to the realization that the history of slavery in the United States was not remote. His grandfather’s grandfather had been enslaved, and his grandmother could personally recall knowing people who had been born into slavery, as well as the experiences of having been raised in the Jim Crow South. He noted during this interview that his grandfather’s grandfather had been separated from the family and died without the privilege of passing on his experiences through his children.

The privilege of legacy.

Dr. Smith’s realization of the proximity of slavery within his family led him to note that the relationship he experienced with his grandparents – that of being taught about their lives and their cultural history – was denied his grandfather through a system of slavery that practiced at its core the purposeful splitting of families. The concepts of legacy that were highlighted in my previous post – spending time with family, being surrounded by friends, making a positive impact on society – were unobtainable by generations of people held in captivity.

I am not African-American and do not speak with any authority about the history of slavery in the United States. That I leave to Dr. Smith and other voices proximal to that lived experience (see recommended reading lists from the Schomburg Institute and Black Enterprise). What struck me, however, in hearing this interview and beginning to read Dr. Smith’s work, is how easily in our present-day society we enter into considerations of things as seemingly universal – or at least accessible – as legacy, suggesting that people can choose how to live their daily lives so that others benefit from their experiences, their wisdom, and yes, even perhaps their material possessions. Dr. Smith’s family has a gap in that concept of legacy, and it did not come about because of choices made by his great-great-grandfather to live or not live everyday life in a specific way so as to leave behind inspiration for his progeny.

Legacy rests on privilege.

There is, to be sure, a social legacy inclusive of the life of Dr. Smith’s great-great grandfather, but that is not one in which he had any agency. In all the admonitions to consider the legacy we leave behind, what social legacies are we a part of that are not within our control? That are not reliant on our living everyday with what we determine to be good character or certain values?

If, as we age, we can reflect on our legacy and choose how to live our lives so that others remember us, learn from us, and carry forward lessons from our messages, then we occupy a space of privilege. What responsibility does this hold and what responsibilities do we pass forward?

©2021 JLWomack: Professor, Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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