An essay written by Faith Esene.
I google myself, and a link to different social media platforms appear on the screen, and maybe a list of people who share my name. I google any celebrity and find a Wikipedia page with a biography and a timeline of notable accomplishments. It is clear that you have reached a certain status in life when you are googleable and have an elaborate Wikipedia page attached to your name. Yet, no matter who we are or what we have accomplished, we are fundamentally the same. Much like literature, our existence follows a three-act structure: we are born, we live, we die.
In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that it takes 10, 000 hours of deliberate practice to become a master in any field. Even after meeting that quota, one might still fall short of being exceptional. We are prone to recognizing those that have done exceptional things--particularly in the arts, entertainment, sports, or science. These distinctions often create a hierarchy based on intelligence, talent, wit, and any other benchmarks we choose to assign to humanity.
Even with the universality of the human experience, throughout history we are reminded that each generation has its legends: great writers, thinkers, activists, athletes, and artists. There are those who lived in the shadows, while others became the leaders of large transformative movements. We learn about the first person to land on the moon, visit the north pole, invent the elevator, climb mount Everest, become a self-made entrepreneur, playwright, jazz singer, or flapper with an iconic banana skirt who doubled as a French resistance fighter in World War II.
Attaining wide acclaim is a precarious thing. Some become known for making positive contributions to humanity. Others become known for their crimes. Some become known only after they have been murdered--like George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Vanessa Guillen, Oluwatoyin Salau, and countless others. Likewise, many become known for similar less-than-ideal reasons. If Henrietta Lacks’ cervical cancer cells had not been stolen, and had they not continued to multiply decades after existing outside of her body, making invaluable contributions to cancer research, she may have remained an obscure washerwoman, though she worked her fingers to their breaking point.
When a celebrity dies, many bear witness to it. There is a collective atmosphere of mourning. Media outlets dwell on the legacy that the person left behind. She becomes a hashtag. He remains in our mind’s eye until another news story surfaces. However, the emergence of the Coronavirus has changed the dynamics of fame as we know it. The global pandemic has led to the recognition of “ordinary” people---grocery store clerks, firefighters, nurses, doctors, and all the frontline workers who strive to maintain a semblance of normalcy in a world that is becoming more unpredictable. As we honor them, the names of the deceased flash across our television screens like a digital obituary.
This change in posture toward fame has taught us that life is primarily a string of ostensibly mundane decisions, big or small—a means of tidying up our tiny corners of the world. No matter how much space we occupy on the globe, our actions continue to speak for us after we have departed, even if this effect is limited to our immediate spheres of influence. We are leaving our small footprints in the sands of time.
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.
-Naomi Shihab Nye, "Famous" from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems
Faith Esene’s fiction and essays have appeared in the 'Syndrome Mag', Howard University’s 'Sterling Notes', the anthology 'Colorism,' and 'The Kalahari Review'. You can visit her website at http://www.life-in-print.blogspot.com where she blogs about culture, life lessons, travel, and spirituality.