Legacy and Learning:

A Conversation Between Generations


Conversations between the generations can be illuminating, and oftentimes they can reveal a simple truth. Time is a flat circle and there is nothing new under the sun. We can forget this at times and allow youth or hubris to misguide us into the belief that our stories, the lives we live, are unique and new. It is easy to believe each one of us is the protagonist of a story that has never been told before. This is not true. It is more accurate to say we are each storyteller, tasked with the retelling of our unique human tales. It’s with this in my mind that I sat down and talked with my Grandfather, not even realizing the parallels in our lived trajectories despite the near 60 years between the lines charting our narratives. In this conversation, a few questions rose to the surface time and time again. When we speak on history are we also speaking on the legacy? If so, what is one’s legacy and how does one cultivate it? 


My Grandfather moved from Alabama to Minnesota to study engineering at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, and he did this as a Black man with a wife and child during a time in American history that didn’t take kindly to any part of that sentence. He originally attended Knoxville College from 1960 to 1962, before transferring to the U of M for a 5-year engineering program. He did this despite their refusal to recognize any of his credits earned at Knoxville.  I contrast this period of great upheaval with a similar one I experienced within my own life. I moved from the East Coast to Iowa City to pursue a creative writing degree with a similar, albeit different, state of mind. The course and considerations factored into the move being the point where the similarities in our experience begin to dissipate. While I enjoyed the luxuries of an insulated, liberal arts conclave paid for entirely by scholarships, my Grandfather was working as a lab technician for 3M as a full-time student tending to his budding family. We joke with the kind of humor that really isn’t that funny after a moment’s deliberation. The life I’ve been allowed to live; the places I’ve seen, what I’ve done there, and with who, all things that would have had my Grandfather “hangin’ from a tree.” It is no exaggeration, and yet there are parallels in our stories and our experiences that reveal both roots and circles in the foundation of our family legacy. 


As we talk and joke about our first Midwestern winter, the kind of cold that takes up a home in the bones, I remember the parka he gave me shortly before I first left for Iowa City. It was one of the biggest coats I’d ever seen and in my mind, I vowed to never wear it. I didn’t think this because I thought it wouldn’t be warm or that my Grandfather would provide me something I wouldn’t eventually require. It’s simple. I thought I didn’t need it. I thought I was prepared for what would come next, and I was secure in my belief that the experiences and knowledge that got me here would be enough once I got there. Youth isn’t wasted on the young, but wisdom certainly is. One point we could agree on was this, the first winter away from home was a rude awakening for both mind and spirit. 


The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and in many ways, they roll the same way too. My Grandfather and I both came into our new heartland environments with a certain degree of confidence. We could both reasonably believe that the skills we had would be sufficient, if not above average because small fish don’t have the strength to leave their ponds and we were big fish in our respective ponds. It was shocking for both of us to find out that we had work to do before we could even say we were at the starting line. Engineering and poetry share a similar necessity if one wants to study and pursue it on a high level. You must learn the language to speak about the subject before you can speak on the subject. He told me, “Even if you know the same thing, you have to learn the language and how they do it over there,” and at once I was returned to the moment of my intellectual humbling. There is a technicality and specificity you must learn before you can be taken seriously, and neither my Grandfather nor I had been taught that before we stepped into the room. A learning curve is one thing, but a language barrier is another thing entirely. As the only black man in the room, being assumed stupid before finishing your sentence can break you down in ways deeper than the ego.  


Still, like all seasons, winter comes and goes. As the snow melts so comes spring, grateful and excited, bringing the inevitable bloom close behind. In the cold winter we learn many skills; how to bide our time, conserve energy in what we must do, and most importantly how to hold on to hope. The warmth returns and life resumes, and my Grandfather and I could both agree that the Midwest offered an opportunity to truly blossom in ways not possible where we came from respectively. When asked how the transition was between Alabama and Minnesota, my Grandpa replied “Birmingham was oppressive, but the degrees of it in Minnesota were different. I felt liberated in a sense.” I could immediately understand what he meant. The world I walk in looks much different than the one he walked, but in following the path of his footsteps I’ve learned more about my own.


My Grandfather’s storied career and the resulting fruits of labor resulted in a life that’s spanned multiple cities and continents. While I’ve been allowed the opportunities to take certain liberties domestically, my Grandfather has traveled more than me internationally by far. More so than physical distance, I think the difference in how you are perceived as a human is what can reshape your soul and allow the ability to truly blossom. The change in scenery from the blatant, virulent racism of the South to the relative hospitality of the Midwest allowed my Grandpa to move through the world and be perceived in a way he wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. Culturally sanctioned dehumanization destroys the spirit, and a destroyed spirit cannot cultivate a strong and healthy mind. The spirit and the mind cannot flourish in an environment that is actively seeking to harm them. The way we are perceived influences the way we view ourselves, and sometimes we can’t even understand the way we are perceived externally until we go somewhere else. 


I asked my Grandfather what it was like to manage factory plants in South Korea and travel the world as a black man in a time where domestic travel was dangerous enough. My experience is limited to one week-long trip to Madrid, Spain with a white girlfriend who could speak the language. My Grandpa’s experiences in South Korea and further seem almost unimaginable. Specifically, I was curious about the distinction between being treated as an American internationally vs. an African American domestically. I had experienced a small taste of it in Spain; the change in people’s body language and spoken language when hearing my American accent or simply my body posturing when entering the room. Still, I knew what it was like to be perceived as different, but I had never been seen as pure spectacle coupled with awe instead of race-based animosity. 


I asked him about the first time he was viewed as anything but African American, and I was surprised to learn the age of his first experience preceded my own by a few years. He begins to paint the picture for me. His first time was in Canada working on the railroad between St. Paul and Winnipeg as a porter, an opportunity  to both work and see the world. He’s on a run and stopping into a bar—it’s a story I can easily follow at this point. The only places in this world more universal would perhaps be hotels, gas stations, or funeral homes. For a man in his early twenties, the premise of “a man walks into a bar far from home” can begin any story imaginable. This was not one of those stories. Anyone who knows my Grandfather knows how he can take even the most basic of interactions, sipping on a beer when you want to make everything else a little easier on the mind, and make from it a meaningful experience. It was as small as the greeting between a young him and an older Candian bartender. In the subtlety of a small moment when you can see a larger perspective, in the opening exchange between the two, it was the first time my Grandpa had been acknowledged as anything but African American as his salient identifier. He says that up until that point in Winnipeg, “I had never been called an American, he didn't say Black American or anything,” and it took miles of rail to carry him to those few sentences that irrevocably shaped his perception of the world.


While this was the first time my Grandpa had this experience, it certainly wasn’t the last. Years later my Grandfather would again find himself far from the familiarity of the states, alone, black, and abroad. Only this time it would not be as the 21-year-old railroad porter, but instead the owner of multiple engineering plants in South Korea. He jokes that in Asia “I was the boss,” a possibly misleading statement especially at the time of his travel. I quickly realize I am the one mistaken upon asking him what the average life was like there. He describes fancy cars that come with drivers included, hotels that would make most uncomfortable simply standing in the lobby, and a country generally fit to a size that framed him as a giant among men. Small children, encouraged by their parents, approached him on the street to take pictures of him towering him over doorways, traffic signs, and the general infrastructure to them as children must already seem enormous. Even in my limited experience in Spain, I cannot say I had experienced what it was like not simply to be a foreigner, but a true oddity, and one that must be obeyed to secure one's livelihood on top of that.


As my grandpa recounts a life of luxury, one that I can only assume was far more grandiose than the brief, demure descriptions he gives, he does make a point to tell me about one time in particular in which his treatment of celebrity preceded his treatment as the boss. He describes a lavish dinner with the plant managers of his company, a customary but taken seriously, social event, at a nicer restaurant even by his reserved regard in the nation's capital of Seoul. In this style of restaurant, it is required etiquette to take off one's shoes before entering the restaurant, and within the restaurant, guests would eat in separate rooms private to their party. My Grandpa recounts being able to hear conversations from the large and bustling kitchen staff that seemed unusual even in the hectic shuffle of a commercial kitchen on a busy night. Imagine his surprise to peek into the kitchen and see the staff huddled in a circle, with pots and pans cold to the touch, as they passed around his size 14 shoes from the front entrance in complete awe. He was careful and consistent in describing the lack of racism he experienced in Asia going as far as to say “nothing ever slipped”, and even in this aforementioned exchange, it can be seen that captivation does not have to equate to hate. 


My Grandpa and I were able to agree that racism, and the culture of hatred, must be taught and learned. Unfortunately, it can be taught and learned both ways. I imagined that transitioning between being seen and treated as “the boss” and a giant among men would be a jarring experience upon coming back to the US. My Grandpa’s response, however, was surprising, until after a few minutes of deliberation it wasn’t surprising at all. He explained it as being “automatic, a switch that turns back on when you come back to the States.” I could understand what he meant even with the small moves I made domestically between coasts and the Midwest. The code-switching and personal adjustments made to accommodate other people’s world view could be done as easily as breathing, but still, I had to believe that there is a fundamental difference in experience between living life at its hardest and then becoming “the boss” while treated as such.  


There’s more than just the obvious benefits to being the boss. As much as we are a product of our environment, we are a product of our achievement. The American idea of translating class into wealth and power has been begrudgingly accepted globally, but it does perhaps speak to a larger truth. There is a respect for “the boss” that transcends borders and language. It is the simple recognition of the person  entrusted to lead and what they deserve in accordance with that role. 


America’s real favorite pastime is storytelling, and there is no narrative we love more than that of the boss. As much as we love the young, idealistic hero with a single compelling act, we really love the story of “the boss” even more. He embodies not just one act of accomplishment but acquired wisdom and time devoted to a cause. “The boss” represents not only himself but the people around him. He is the sum of the people he supports and who support him. There is an implicit understanding and regard held for the boss and his legacy that transcends the accolades we give to the one-time hero. It defies race, class, and culture and yet one can understand it as soon as they see it. I asked my Grandfather what separates the two and how one would go about becoming one from the other. As the divide between the two has only grown in recent times, he said to “look at the television about the pandemic when people lose their jobs; look at when they interview people who lost their job vs people who own the businesses where those people work.” His point was illuminating, and he was right. He said “the workers lose everything, but it’s just a setback to the business owner,” and it’s true. 


There is a difference between having a salary and having wealth and financial infrastructure. There is a clear and tangible advantage to owning something instead of simply collecting a salary from it. The scales are relative and corresponding when it comes to the losses felt by an employee compared to those of an owner. In theory, the divide between employee and owner should not be as wide as it is, given both work in the same place in service of a shared goal and vision. You then begin to wonder what footsteps, taken in which direction, so delineate the path and take one towards becoming a boss and cultivating a legacy. We went down the list of the premier bosses among bosses, names like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk come to mind immediately. Beneath the obvious differences in model and execution is a shared intent that my grandpa described perfectly, “Bill Gates didn't set out to make a million dollars; he set out to put a computer in every home.” Something similar can be said for most success stories of that scale. The wealth and capital accumulated is a byproduct of the larger, sometimes simpler, vision. The reimagining of an existing world and how it can be improved inevitably result in a business model that creates revenue. However, one shouldn’t confuse the symptom with the cause. Making money for the sake of making money is seldom the road to true success, let alone the foundation of a legacy. We will be remembered for the lives we lived and the intentions of our spirit, not the money these things may earn for us in the process. Money may be able to start a legacy, but it’s the spirit that maintains it and ensures it will flourish.