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How Might History View Our Legacy

by Mildred J Mills




 


What does it mean to leave a legacy—that positive or negative impact for which friends, family, loved ones, or even strangers will remember us? Whether or not we make it into history books, we will all leave an impression. So, why not be intentional about our historical footprint?

I will not allow this Black History Month to pass without intentionally focusing on the legacy I hope to leave.

In a recent interview about publishing my book, I was asked, “What do you feel will be your legacy?” I quickly answered, “My legacy will be the courage, bravery, and vulnerability to share the story of a life well lived in my book, Daddy’s House: A Daughter’s Memoir of Setbacks, Triumphs & Rising Above Her Roots.” I also said, “By honestly confronting domestic and child abuse in the home and sexual assault, racism, and misogyny while maintaining the strength to love myself and respect and forgive, I will help others to heal.”

To publish my book and witness its impact on a broad range of people is monumental. But the legacy I most desire is for my family, friends, and all whose lives I touch to fondly remember me as a good and kind person who helped shape their lives by being a stellar example of grace, forgiveness, and what is possible. At this stage of my life, although I do not focus on it, leaving a lasting legacy matters.  



I remember June 1969, standing in front of a mirror, shaping my perfectly formed Afro, making sure every curl was in place. Then, I did not know what a legacy was, so I clearly was not thinking about leaving one. I was eighteen, fresh off an Alabama farm, and living independently for the first time. I was free to think my own thoughts and make my own choices. Within days of leaving the peace of Mama and Daddy’s house, where the most influential voices in my ear were those of my parents, and the loudest noises I heard were squawking chickens, mooing cows, and screaming children, life thrust me into a place of utter chaos. 

In the words of The Temptations, my new world was “A Ball of Confusion.” So many voices competed for supremacy. The Black Panthers were shouting about the coming revolution. Feminist groups were fighting for equal rights; Viet Nam War protesters cried, “Stop the war,” and Civil Rights groups were demanding an end to racism, segregation, and discrimination. 

I can still feel the electrical pounding of Jimi Hendrix & Janis Joplin’s guitars pulsating from open car windows. Shouts of “Make love not war” and wild-haired hippies with tie-dyed clothing advertising free love, smoking pot, and tripping on LSD were as common as a sunrise. 

I could not help but notice that amidst all the noise, the message in many songs and books of that era had racial undertones. And that is where I gravitated to, seeking direction toward an unknown future. I quickly had to choose to live the life I had been taught or walk on the wild side, experimenting with drugs and free-love hippie-style.




 

I shall never forget the first time I heard Curtis Mayfield’s “Choice of Colors” lyrics in 1969. I was struck by how calmly he tiptoed up to race boundaries, illuminating what much of the fuss was about. Upon hearing his words, I was forced to examine things I had taken for granted my entire life. Mayfield asked, “If you had a choice of colors, which one would you choose my brother? If there was no day or night, which one would you choose to be right?”

Those lyrics transfixed me. I listened to the words repeatedly, seeking answers to questions of race. I found, among those subtle messages, queries about choices that we did not have. After a severe look in the mirror, I stopped focusing on what I could not change and decided I loved the Black face staring back at me and could not fathom myself inside any other skin. 

While a choice of skin color was not mine to make, I could decide whether to adopt habits like drug & alcohol use, unlimited sex partners, or skipping school—ruining my future and blowing my Daddy’s money. But Daddy’s black leather belt and an Alabama cotton field were great motivators in my choice to avoid such distractions. Instead, I spent my spare time and money on books and music, studying the lives of impactful people and learning about their successes and failures. 

Before arriving in Columbus, I had never seen or read works by influential Blacks like Paul Robeson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, or Malcolm X. Nor was I aware of Harper Lee. But that first year in Ohio, I hustled to the bookstore like a child to the candy shop with every spare dime, seeking inspiration from such people.

The first book I ever purchased was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, which is still my all-time favorite. I was eighteen. It was my first introduction to a book written by someone who looked like me but overcame a horrid life through dogged determination, fearlessness, and learning from her mistakes. I then knew I wanted to mimic some of Maya’s best qualities. Reading her story of triumphs over tragedies gave me permission to stumble along the road to success but dust myself off and keep moving forward.

Another of my great teachers that summer was Harper Lee in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,” instructing readers to respect each other, protect the innocent, and show kindness toward their fellow man. I was intrigued by Sam Greenlee’s dual use of the word “spook” as a CIA agent and a derogatory term for a Black person in his book, The Spook Who Sat by the Door. I was amazed by Greenlee’s use of irony to depict the veil worn by Blacks to hide their true feelings, existing in a racist society, and having their intelligence questioned. Yet, when the veil came off, the “spook” used his smarts to destroy those who underestimated him.  

Reading those stories transported me to places I’d never been or dreamed of and opened my eyes to endless possibilities. I did not know it then, but through those books, I learned that with great success comes many setbacks and that setbacks were merely steppingstones to subsequent victories, including the courage to pen my own story.

 

During this Black History Month, I fondly remember the joy and hope in 1969 each time I read the words of some of the most extraordinary men and women ever fighting for equality. I remember reading of Frederick Douglass’ bravery during his Fourth of July Speech at the Ladies Anti-slavery Society of Rochester. Douglass stood before an all-white audience in 1852 at a time when Blacks were enslaved and considered 3/5 of a man. He boldly asked, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

In 1851, one year earlier, Sojourner Truth addressed The Woman’s Rights Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, citing her “Ain’t I a Woman Speech.” In a plea to men for women’s rights, she said, “I can’t read, but I can hear. I have heard the Bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again.” She later stated, “The poor men seem to be all in confusion and don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have woman’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better.”

More than 100 years later, approximately 250,000 people gathered in Washington, D. C., to march for civil rights and hear Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic I Have a Dream Speech. In a moving voice resonating around The Lincoln Memorial, King declared, “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” I could endlessly cite examples of historical figures who left monumental legacies that have survived through the ages and taught us the meaning of strength, grace, and resilience and how difficult it is to enact change. 

But I will pause here to say I have witnessed many changes since 1969. Yet, there is still work to do. Still, as I continue to grow and mature, I have seen tremendous good AND evil in the world. Yet, no particular race holds the trophy for being all good or all evil. History has shown that there is enough blame to go around. 

 

I do not know how history will judge me after I am gone. But I hope those who know me best will remember a kind and fair person with the ability to love and respect all humanity, even those who hurt her. I have yet to stand before thousands and speak of injustices. But I will. Still, in two short months, I have reached hundreds with my book, Daddy’s House, speaking against sexual assault and domestic violence and for love and respect for all humanity. 

Based on the reviews, the book has already begun to help others heal. If those reviews are any indication, my legacy will be just fine. 

None of us can know who we will become upon leaving the womb. But we can shape who we become while we walk this earth with an occasional intentional backward glance at our footprints. 


 


Mildred J Mills is the third of seventeen children born and raised on a sixty-acre farm in Wetumpka, Alabama, where she grew up picking cotton. She is a retired IT executive and holds a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in creative writing. Her essay, “Daddy’s House,” won the 2022 Etruscan Prize and is published in The Etruscan Press. She authored “Amazing Grace,” an essay which was published in the anthology, A Journey into Art, in 2023. Daddy’s House: A Daughter’s Memoir of Setbacks, Triumphs & Rising Above Her Roots is her first book. Mildred lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband and enjoys tennis and travel. Follow Mildred on Instagram, Facebook, and her website.

 

 

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