Interviewer: How would you like to be remembered?
Whitney Houston: Oh God. How would I like to be remembered? You know, it probably doesn’t even matter anyway because they’re gonna remember me how they want to remember me anyway. They’re gonna write books, and they’re gonna write this, and they’re gonna write that, and everyone’s gonna have their own idea.
-excerpt from Whitney: Can I Be Me (2017)
Legacy: something that happens or exists as a result of things that happened at an earlier time.
It’s weighty stuff, this legacy business.
To be 33 years old, or any age really, and ponder how you want to be remembered in the world is heavy. And a bit morbid, if we’re being honest. Forming a legacy may not be inextricably tied to death, but essentially, no one beyond yourself really stops to think about your impact until you’re not here anymore. But for many people, myself included, there’s a lot of inner turmoil about that legacy. Seemingly every action and decision and movement is predicated on how that legacy will be impacted.
We have mini legacies, that I think factor into our overarching legacy. Positive or negative, certain incidents in our lives are always attached to our greater narrative, whether we like it or not, and regardless of what we achieve (or fail at) beyond that point.
I think of Kanye West, one of the most gifted rappers and producers in music. His talent is undeniable but is often overshadowed by his erratic behavior. Regardless of what he’s achieved in recent years—the YEEZY season collections, the YEEZY boost sneaker phenomenon, The Life of Pablo album, his chokehold on the zeitgeist—part of his public narrative is still linked to his feud with Taylor Swift, specifically that moment on the VMAs stage when he interrupted her acceptance speech to stan for Beyoncé. That was in 2009, and still, nary an article about him is published that doesn’t mention that incident. It’s a stain on his legacy, and it seems it’ll always be there, just as black, just as potent as it was the year it happened.
I think of my father and how I feared him growing up. Not an irregular fear that led me to feel unsafe. The normal fear that most kids have of their dads. He wasn’t a towering figure but what he lacked in height he possessed in muscle and determination. He was strict, blunt, foreboding to some, and he was a hard worker. Even in moments when he was far from perfect, my image of him never changed. But now, as an adult, whose marriage he doesn’t approve of, I find it difficult to remember those aspects of his personality. I’m not angry anymore but I think I’ll always be disappointed that someone I loved and respected so much could completely turn his back on me. That’s the stain on his legacy in my eyes. When I think of him, and wonder how he’s doing, I don’t think of his strength, or his work ethic, or his professional success first. Instead, I think about abandonment.
Yet still, there are Kanye fans who see him as a misunderstood genius, who rarely think of Swift in relation to his career and celebrity. There are people who’ve never had a negative experience with my dad who view him as role model or father figure, with nothing present to stain his legacy in their eyes. These mini legacies make it possible for one person to have multiple narratives.
At one point in history, it was easy to have one narrative. It was rare to find people who had wildly different opinions of the same person or celebrity because we had a limited number of news sources. Limited modes of communication. It was easy to share the same opinions, not because of herd mentality, but because that was all the information we had. Now, we can add to our narrative as well as thousands, if not millions, of other sources. And we lose control of the narrative, leaving each person free to craft their own idea of who we are. Someone else’s opinion of us is not determined by what we’ve done but by the medium through which our story has been accessed. It’s a win for individuality but a frightening prospect for someone hoping to rectify/consolidate/control the various parts of their public story.
Not to mention, it’s not just the notable folks who have a narrative to control. We all have one now thanks to social media.
How will people remember us? What resources will they use to construct the story of our lives? Will they just scroll through our Instagram posts and tweets, and craft something based on our content? I’m sure some people, mainly influencers, would appreciate that. They’ve taken so much care to curate the best aspects of their lives, and if they were to die today with their IG profile as the only record of their existence, I’m sure they wouldn’t be upset. They’d want to be remembered as brand-repping, champagne popping, golden tanned, lives of the party. But to the rest of us, there’s a danger in this. After all, if it were so easy to control how people remembered us, there’d never be a public villain so universally despised, or if not totally despised, universally debated.
Legacy is a broader concept that forces us to go beyond likes, comments, views, and followers. Impact is immeasurable; it can’t be assigned a finite number. You can have millions of views and no impact, and vice versa. It’s the work, not the content, we leave behind that really determines our legacy.
That work could be a novel. A movie. An album. Hours of volunteer work at a food bank. A painting. An essay. An investigative report. Flawlessly executed paperwork. A couture collection. It’s the work that we put our blood, sweat, tears, and emotions into that helps define our legacies. It’s not what we want people to think. Even in this age of rapid information exchange and lack of a dominant news source, the work we produce can still rise above the noise, and it can still tell the story we ultimately wanted to tell, provided it’s well done.
What would my legacy be? I think it’s still a work in progress. I’m still trying to figure out my life, and my work, and I don’t think any aspect of it is fully formed enough to communicate a proper legacy. But I guess we’re all in the same boat. And even much later in life, we’ll still feel the same way.
Should we even think about legacy? Does it kind of spoil the result if we try to plan it or predict it? I think everyone I know, whether they’ll admit it or not, wants to be remembered for something—preferably something positive. I see this through the lens of a creative person, someone who wants his art to speak to the way he lived his life. I imagine most creative people feel the same way. But non-creative people want to be remembered for things too. For how kind they were, how smart they were, how driven they were. None of us wants to die and be forgotten. None of us wants to be forgotten while we’re living.
No. Perhaps it’s our responsibility to be concerned about it.
“All good men and women must take responsibility to create legacies that will take the next generation to a level we could only imagine.” —Jim Rohn
It’s the legacies we’re building now that ensure the people after us can lead great lives, do great work, and make great art. If we waste our time, if we don’t try to impact our story and craft it and make it as spectacular as possible, what happens to the people after us? Are they doomed to less than remarkable life stories? A lack of accomplishment?
Legacy isn’t even about us.
Generational wealth, that’s the key/
My parents ain’t have shit, so that shift started with me/
My mom took her money, she bought me bonds/
That was the sweetest thing of all time, uh
-JAY-Z, “Legacy”, from 4:44
I recently spent a Friday night purging and archiving my Instagram feed. Removing any and all posts that had anything to do with fashion. Though I’m not ashamed of my past as a fashion blogger, I felt my feed told the story of a blogger who was now trying to position himself as a legit writer. When in fact it was the other way around—I’m a writer who posed as and tried on the costume of a blogger. I was trying to control my legacy, but if you ask anyone who knows me IRL, there’d be no question about my career and my current mission in life—I #amwriting. Yet I still felt compelled to change my public narrative, clean up my account, and direct people’s attention to what I want them to see. And in the end, I’m not sure what’s posted there will even matter. But clearly, there’s a part of me that thinks it’s significant. Or else, I wouldn’t have spent 2 hours on a Friday night pointing, tapping, and curating.