The Afterlife We Call Legacy

I wondered why Bill Clinton’s and Michelle Obama’s tribute to Maya Angelou sounded so familiar. The eulogies were beautiful and compelling, but it felt like I was hearing the speakers replay a long conversation I’d just had with them on color, courage, and identity. It hit me. They were talking like contributors to my Race Around the World. I grinned thinking Yeah, Michelle would’ve written for the Race. Anyone have access to her for my next series? I felt awe seeing the ripples of Maya’s influence upon people who would become pillars of the most powerful nation in the world. When Maya was a little girl she was afraid her voice had killed a man after the rapist she’d named was found dead. She quit talking for six years. Maya didn’t know she would find it again, a voice that would bring life and healing to those who listened.

Here’s Bill: I first encountered Maya Angelou as a young man when I read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” It was written in 1970 about the time I started law school, and shortly after it came out, I read it and I was the one who was struck dumb. She called our attention to things that really matter — dignity, work, love and kindness — things we can all share and don’t cost anything. And they matter more than the differences of wealth and power, of strength and beauty, of intellect. All that is nice if you put it to the right use, but nothing is more powerful than giving honor to the things we share.

I got chills hearing Michelle. I was struck by how she celebrated black women’s beauty like no one had ever dared to before. Our curves, our stride, our strength, our grace. Her words were clever and sassy, they were powerful and sexual and boastful..but she also graced us with an anthem for all women, a call for all of us to embrace our God-given beauty. And oh, how desperately black girls needed that message. As a young woman, I needed that message. As a child, my first doll was Malibu Barbie. That was the standard for perfection. That was what the world told me to aspire to. But then I discovered Maya Angelou, and her words lifted me right out of my own little head. Her message was very simple. She told us that our worth has nothing to do with what the world might say. Instead, she said each of us comes from the Creator, trailing wisps of glory.

Dr. Angelou’s words sustained me on every step of my journey, through lonely moments in ivy-covered classrooms and colorless skyscrapers, through blissful moments mothering two splendid baby girls, through long years on the campaign trail where, at times, my very womanhood was dissected and questioned…Words so powerful that they carried a little black girl from the south side of Chicago all the way to the White House. She touched me, she touched all of you, she touched people all across the globe, including a young white woman from Kansas who named her daughter after Maya and raised her son to be the first black president of the United States.

As a kid, I kept to peers who were bicultural and shied from those more Asian than I out of a sense of superiority. Not thinking that I myself was above those who were more traditionally Asian but because I had bought into the myth that white culture was superior. The blonde on TV was cooler than my parents. I’m obviously over that. I wish I were the measure of my mother.

When Oprah took her turn to speak at the memorial service, I saw more clearly than ever the power and need of role models for all children. Being able to see ourself in the mirror of a hero gives us hope to dream bigger than our circumstances. I marvel at God. I am just in awe that I, a little colored then Negro girl, growing up in Mississippi, having read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” for the first time, read a story about someone who was like me. I was that girl who loved to read. I was that girl who was raised by my southern grandmother. I was that girl who was raped at nine.

I remember when I opened my school in South Africa and I said to her, oh Maya, this is going to be my greatest legacy. And she said, not so fast. Your legacy is every woman who ever watched your show and decided to go back to school. Your legacy is every man who decided to forgive his father…Your legacy is every person you ever touched. Your legacy is how you lived and what you did and what you said every day. So true, sister Maya. I want to live your legacy…Each of us who knew her, those only touched by her words or those who were able to be blessed to sit at the kitchen table, we are next in line to be a Maya Angelou to someone else. It’s a challenge that I embrace with my whole heart.

I caught philosopher Stephen Cave on radio last month when he maintained that all fears, like those of flying or driving, really come down to the fear of death. He said we can’t imagine not being. In the post What If You Weren’t Afraid?, readers brought up the matter of healthy fears, what some consider necessary survival mechanisms. We’d better be afraid of anything twice our size wielding a weapon – fangs or knife. I’m no evolutionist but oh yes, we do want to live and keep living. I believe our wish to leave a worthy legacy is the desire to live on beyond death. Our afterlife.

69 thoughts on “The Afterlife We Call Legacy

    • Right, Ian. They impact our attitudes and feelings about ourself and others, so that we can experience change from inside out. I know you’ve met many such leaders and have impacted many yourself.

  1. “… all fears, like those of flying or driving, really come down to the fear of death. ..”

    I used to think that, too, but now I’ve come full circle. It’s not our fear of death, it’s our fear of life! It’s absolutely astounding to me, but that’s what really scares people, life. When I think about it, it’s not as crazy as it seems. Life can be painful, kind of like falling love. We all have a tendency to want to avoid it as much as possible. Maya wasn’t afraid of life, no matter how awful it seemed at times. That’s what made her so delightful.

  2. Love this post. Imagine if we all were as thoughtful as Maya and realized how we live each day is leaving our emotional footprint on our planet and is creating our Legacy, How we will be remembered.

  3. It’s interesting although I didn’t care for Maya’s politics or her belief system I did love the way she read a poem. I remember being a little girl seeing her on episodes of Sesame Street reading her poems to the little kids sitting around her and thought “I want to have a grandma like that.” Anyway, I’m very critical of black celebrities in media, and I must say I don’t care for Michelle, Oprah or Maya all that much but I’m glad they had/have a positive influence on people of color especially in the US. And our legacy? Well, it’s what makes us immortal and why not leave a good one behind?

    • I really appreciate the discernment behind your assessment of leaders of color, Shazza. FUNNy, too, how I almost seem to like this particular all-star crew better than you. =) I absolutely know where you’re coming from and actually, don’t embrace everything they embodied. I extracted what resonated with me in this memorial service while I was still running the race. Love your no-nonsense stance. You go, girl.

      • Sometimes when you are a person of color and you tell someone you don’t care for a person of color who is in the media, it can be a bad business. By that I mean, you can get ridiculed and ostracized for making a statement like that. I guess I like to be provocative and challenge people’s thinking. Just because they are popular and most of the public likes them and they make a lot of money, doesn’t necessarily mean the are great people. Sometimes you’ve got to read between the lines, to know that about a person. And thanks D as always for another great post.

      • Love it. “Sometimes when you are a person of color and you tell someone you don’t care for a person of color who is in the media, it can be a bad business. ” I can see that. I think esp bc it’s been such an uphill fight – one that cost lives – for colored people to garner respect and attention. And I do read between the lines. =)

      • I know you do D, and I love that about you. I don’t just want to seem critical though. There some thing that these women have done that are exceptional and I want to give them kudos where it’s due. But like with all of us there are contradiction in our character but that’s ok too because it’s part of the human experience.

      • I agree, it’s so important for people to be readers, so that they can be inspired. I know that to be true for me, if I was encouraged to read more as a youth, I’m sure it would have made all the difference in my life. I would have tried to achieve higher then I did when I was young. But there’s nothing stopping me now so I press on!!!

  4. A fine post HW. A reminder to live mindfully, to daily pass on the gifts and insights we have received – if not directly, then simply by trying to live the best we can in a way that embraces others.

  5. Pingback: The Legacy of Maya Angelou | lovehappinessandpeace

  6. My Dear Diana, Two of Maya’s quotes spoke to my Heart, which I have shared as a ‘Re-post,’ if there is such a thing, instead of Reblogging Yours. Have given Full Acknowledgement. Have also tweeted Yours. Love and Regards.

    • Glad she spoke to you just when you needed it. Happened also because your heart was tender and open. If you would kindly change my name to my username Holistic Wayfarer after the “congratulate” I will appreciate it. I freely go by Diana on this blog. Just a matter of presentation. Thank you for the credit. Blessings!


  7. I used to believe that the fear of death was the biggest fear that people had, however I have come to believe that it is really the FEAR of the UNKNOWN…which includes death, I guess. I believe this is why people stay in situations that are so unhealthy; why people are afraid of change; why people the status quo exists. As the saying goes, “The devil I know is better than the one I don’t.”

    • Great insight, Phyl. I think you’re right. I said pretty much the same thing in the 80 Days Around the World, that we fear what is OTHER. Love the examples you provide. Thank you! You guys give me much food for thought.

  8. Home Run Diana! You have a gift for inspiring thought and dialog with your words. This post inspires me as much as Maya and her admirers. I love what she stood for and am glad to see inspiring role models of any race, color and faith. Yes, I do believe we yearn to live beyond our earthly life and be remembered, to have an impact, to matter. I know I do, and yet, I think simple and ordinary are OK too. There is a lot of pressure to be a star in our culture. We can touch others with simple acts of kindness, writing and living.

    • You really are such a generous soul, Brad. I almost said to James, one of the first to comment, that being remembered isn’t top on my list – as it’s impact more than anything else, whether I’m acknowledged by name or not – but then yes, I thought, I do wish to remain known by my great-grandkids. I suppose this blog will help toward that end.

      You spell out why we wish for this legacy as part of our living – and dying. To matter. To have lived just for ourself is to have lived in vain. You’re right about the pressure to be a star. We feel it in the workplace, as a parent (to be Supermom), to raise a Superkid. A sobering, humbling lesson it always was to me to see Superman without costume paralyzed and debilitated. But it was in his wheelchair he really became a hero in the difficult mundane.


  9. We may not all become famous or leave behind legacies like did Maya or Mandela or the many inspirational figures to have lived. But as humans, as mothers, as fathers, as friends, as citizens, we can surely leave behind legacies of love and joy- honesty and hard work- kindness and acceptance. Legacies of ordinary goodness. Legacies that will help make our future generations better than we could ever be.

    • Indeed. That is what Bill and Oprah were saying they learned from Maya:

      “we can surely leave behind legacies of love and joy- honesty and hard work- kindness and acceptance.”

      Thanks so much for your two precious cents, Nida.

  10. Wonderful eulogy, Diana. Maya was an inspiration; her books and poetry were courageous, outspoken and lovely. She was a role model for lots of young women, including me. Thank you for remembering her so thoughtfully.

  11. “Instead, she said each of us comes from the Creator, trailing wisps of glory. ” – Love that line. Thanks very much HW for a great post.

  12. I love the idea that someone can live on through their legacy and what that gives to so many people as a result. And yes the importance of human reflections that allow us to see our own greatness and possibilities. This post is also a wonderful tribute to Dr. Angelou. It’s like a rich much depth and layers to it, Diana.

    • Shoot (I believe you have a talent for getting this expletive out of me). Your book will certainly speak on for years to come, Diahann. It’s most powerful for me to see human reflections that come with cracks. Gives me the hope of beauty out of brokenness.

  13. This is a beautiful tribute to a woman who I also found truly inspirational. When I think about leaving a legacy, I would love to leave even a fraction of the wisdom she left behind, but what struck me were Oprah’s words about us being ready to be a Maya Angelou to someone else – so true that in our own small ways we will inspire someone.

  14. Just a wonderful thing to be admired for something we have offered with knowledge and experience and be remembered for all of those glories. A beautiful passage Diana. 🙂

  15. We are inspired by many famous people, but everyone of us can be an inspiration. We can be good role models for our children, inspirational teachers to our students, loving and caring neighbors and friends. We all can do our part too. Your words have inspired others.

  16. Pingback: The Afterlife We Call Legacy | Greatpoetrymhf's Weblog

  17. I love this: “I saw more clearly than ever the power and need of role models for all children. Being able to see ourself in the mirror of a hero gives us hope to dream bigger than our circumstances.”

    I believe the world is looking for heroes, and each of us can be that for someone. We may not have the influence and visibility o Maya, but we cannot underestimate the influence of one, me.

  18. While it can sometimes be overwhelming for us “average” people to contemplate what we’ll leave behind after we die, we must always remember that legacy doesn’t have to be about writing best-sellers or starting school in underdeveloped countries. Even small acts of compassion and kindness can change the world in their own ways. Of course, we shouldn’t set our ambitions low when it comes to helping others and leaving a legacy, yet we should never become jaded and just stop caring-that’s when humans become sub-human (in my own humble opinion).

    • Yes, and that was part of what the eulogies pointed out, that we in each in our humble place and ways can make a difference. What a beautiful thought. What a powerful truth. Thanks. =) Appreciate your staying near. 😉


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