Dr. Jonathan W. Gray: A Letter to My Son About Our Legacy, and Ourselves

What is legacy? Is it the lessons one generation teaches the next? Or something altogether grander?

by Dr. Jonathan W. Gray
A digital drawing of characters flying leaving white traces of clouds behind
Jonathan Muroya for Fatherly

Fatherly’s Letters to Boys project offers boys (and the men raising them) guidance in the form of heartfelt advice given generously by great men who show us how to take that crucial first step in confronting seemingly unsolvable issues — by offering honest words.

Dear Ellison

As you begin your freshman year of college, I wanted to talk with you about legacy. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit since your grandfather passed away last month. There are several meanings of that word and many of them apply to you. In a very real sense, you and your siblings are my legacy — just as I am my father’s — by which I mean that you are the gift that I will leave to the world, the piece of me that will continue on after I am gone. And, since you have chosen to attend my alma mater you are quite literally a legacy, the one who has returned to campus to carry on tradition. I’m so proud of you for the choices and hard work that brought you to this point in your life’s journey, and I sincerely hope that you find both friends and a sense of purpose at the Mecca, as I did. The road you’ve chosen won’t be easy but hopefully you’ll find the triumphs and challenges along the way clarifying.

Because you are my son, part of the legacy I leave you is one of service. Your grandfather taught me the value of working quietly to improve the lives of those around you and I hope that you will learn from and embrace his example. Our society encourages Black men in particular to prioritize surface displays of status and clout over the wellbeing of the self and the community, but my father demonstrated to me daily the value that accrues to those who work for others, although I often feel like I fall short of his example. You got to see the fruits of my father’s labor at his wake on zoom, and I’m so glad that, in addition to bearing witness to the gratitude of those who loved him, you overcame your shyness to express what your grandfather meant to you. You chose the difficulty of speaking from the heart over the ease of staying silent. I want you to continue to make that choice even though it doesn’t get any easier.

Let me be clear: speaking out becomes easier the more that you do it, but that anxious feeling in the pit of your stomach before you begin never really goes away. So the choice you have to make, the choice that you’ve already made, demands that you embrace that nervousness, sit with it, allow it to nudge you forward rather than defeat you. You’ve often asked how I got to be so comfortable speaking in front of people and I don’t think I’ve ever given you a satisfactory answer. The truth is that I’m never completely comfortable when it’s my time to speak, but I don’t let the feelings of trepidation stop me from making my contribution. That’s what I’ve inherited from my father and what I hope to pass to you and your siblings: the ability to calmly act rather than succumb to doubt and fear.

I love you son. But more importantly, I trust you with the legacy that is your life. I know that even as you make mistakes you’ll eventually figure out how you best fit into the world, and how best to change it.


Dr. Jonathan W. Gray is Associate Professor of English at the City University of New York. His forthcoming book, Illustrating Race: Representing Blackness in American Comics, investigates the representation of African Americans in comics and graphic narratives published since 1966. Gray co-edited Disability in Comics and Graphic Novels for Palgrave McMillan.