With the recent deaths of former NAACP executive director Benjamin L. Hooks, 85; civil rights icon Dorothy I. Height, 98; and entertainer Lena Horne, 92, I am reminded that our cultural giants are mere men and women, like the rest of us. They are ordinary people who live and die, as we all will.
Of course, the extraordinary work done by these three figures during their time on earth has added immeasurably to the lives of those whom they will never know. For this reason they will remain irreplaceable in our collective memory. And yet despite their contributions, many of us, in the wake of their passing, selfishly clamor for more of their gifts.
Following the deaths of such heroes, there are the inevitable quiet musings and debates–in churches, salons, kitchens and other safe places in our communities–about who will carry on their legacies. Who is the next Dorothy Height? Whom would you consider the modern-day Lena Horne? And during his presidential campaign, there were even those who hurriedly depicted President Barack Obama as the second coming of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
But no one else will measure up to these legends, in that no one else will do what they did. And that’s exactly as our leaders would have it. We do a disservice to their work to look for the same hard-fought battles, using “struggle” as a requirement for worthiness. We undermine our present-day achievements when we continually look behind us for validation. Not yet ready to let go, we seek the past in our present. In doing so, however, we miss opportunities for individual greatness in the future.
Hooks, Height and Horne led very different lives, but their pursuit of their individual goals did not make them any less central to the advancement of black America. The opportunities that they created for themselves and others in three distinct arenas prove only that possibilities are endless, and that following someone else’s blueprint is misguided: