Where Children Touch The Walls

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From the moment I first learned about its development, the National Museum of African American History and Culture held a special place in my heart. After the last few years of construction, it finally opened this fall.

A major attribute of people of African descent (and in this case African Americans specifically) is our standing glory and liveliness. Whenever there is an upcoming Black cultural experience, I always hope for a layered approach. One that embraces the complexity of our existence, which is often laced with joy and creativity in spite of attacks or marginalization. Walking in the National Museum of African American History and Culture is like walking into a bubble of Black self-love and never wanting to come out. It’s where we can come face-to-face with our truths and stand in awe of everything we have been through, everything we have accomplished and everything the future holds for us.

There was a deep ache in the room that housed pieces of slave ships and shackles. The voice narration lingered throughout the air, speaking of slave traders raping girls not older than 10 years old. It spoke of people throwing themselves off of ships, starving themselves in hopes that with death, they will return home to Africa.

There was a rumble in the room that housed Emmett Till’s casket, while a video of his mother played on rotation. She spoke of her son, how playful he was, how much joy was inside of him. And she spoke of how he had been butchered. She recounted how murderers tried to chop off his neck, how his right eye dangled from the socket down to his cheek. She spoke of how she wanted the world to see what had been done to her son. “Let the people see what I’ve seen.”

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This is the pain, the grief that in the era of Black Lives Matter, we instinctively relive as a collective. This is not because we want to but because in many instances death associated with anti-Blackness continues to be a cruel reality.

And yet, we are still vibrant. The walls are lined with quotes from Black artists, scholars, and activists reminding us of our humanity while rejoicing in our colorful splendor. Many things were stolen from us, still many parts of us can never be stolen. I never wanted my visit to this historic museum to be about pain. Yet, the pain that I had initially set out to not feel became the catalyst for gratefulness and pride. I became more and more enamored with each step.

The greatest experience during my visit was seeing and hearing the reactions of youth.

One little boy exclaimed, “Gosh, they were strict. I’m glad I wasn’t born back then.”

A little girl read a quote on the wall about the slave blocks. She reached up high to rub the words with her fingers. She then looked down and told her sister,”They sold women and children.”

Another little girl, when seeing a hat from modern day Liberia, said her friends “Our African heritage!”

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Then there was the child, that was completely in awe of Huey P. Newton’s photo displayed in the Black Power/Black Arts Movement section.

Finally, at Emmet Till’s casket, there was a teenaged girl sobbing in her father’s arms.

Just around the corner, these same children then saw Public Enemy’s bright red banner, Oprah’s stage, huge photos of the Obamas, beautiful pieces made by artisans in the 1700-1800s, Nat Turner’s bible, Langston Hughes words towering over visitors, Fannie Lou Hamer’s voice ringing and so much more.

The children are seeing, hearing, and feeling. They are literally touching the walls absorbing history, Black history…America’s history. The museum’s ability to transport children back in time to experience the tragedies and triumphs, while ushering them into a vibrant future is perhaps it’s greatest attribute of all.

This is a place where children touch the walls.

 

JAM-TwitterJessica Ann Mitchell Aiwuyor is a poet, writer and social justice advocate. She’s also the founder of Our Legaci. Rant or rave to JAMAiwuyor@gmail.com. Don’t forget to join our mailing list!

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A Message For Writers: Know That Your Words Are Powerful

JAM-Powerful

A close friend of mine recently endured a traumatic life experience that led her down an unconventionally painful path. In order to recover, she moved across the country and started a new life from the ground up. She shared with me, all the ups and downs she’s faced over the last 3 years. Her story, though uncommon, is extremely powerful, having the potential to inspire young Black women coming from a similar background. She then told me that she planned to write a book about her experiences, with the intention of saving people from going through what she’s dealt with. I’m not going to give the story away here. You’ll have to buy the book!

However, I wanted to highlight our conversation because it led to a larger one about how powerful writing is. As Black women writers, she and I have both been to the point where writing was our salvation. When we couldn’t depend on people, when no one would listen, when the pain seemed to much, when the joy was evaded, with the pleasure was marginalized, and when the injustice was overwhelming, writing was there to guide us through. Our writing, whether in the forms of poetry, prose or first person narratives, brought us not only comfort but power.

When the world seemed to beat us down, our words built us back up. No one could stop us from creating. No one could dare stand in the path of our stories. And because our stories are often interconnected, our words comforted other Black women that hadn’t yet found a way to express their thoughts.

I remember one time in Syracuse, NY, I performed a poem about religion, women, sexual abuse and how women are viewed in society. After the performance, I was called to attend a meeting with the poetry group that hosted the event. At that meeting, I could tell some people were uncomfortable with my piece. However, one woman came up to me in front of the whole group saying,” Thank you. Thank you for telling my story. I’ve always felt this way but just didn’t know how to say it. I didn’t have the words but you did it for me.”

Those words that I penned were not directed specifically towards her, yet still rendered specific results. They brought healing, understanding and power. There is power in hearing words that connect with your experiences, along with your spirit. It reaffirms who you are. It shows that you’re not alone, that you’re not imagining things. It also gives you the support to realize that your life, your story is important.

This is how I felt the first time I read Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Ntozake Shange and Toni Morrison. This is how I felt the first time I listened to Lauryn Hill’s Unplugged album.

Each word reaffirmed my life, my power, my agency. Words can change how people view the world and how they view themselves within it. Perhaps, this is why my favorite quote from Maya Angelou echoes forever in my ears,

“Words are things. You must be careful, careful about calling people out of their names, using racial pejoratives and sexual pejoratives and all that ignorance. Don’t do that. Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally into you.”

Words get into you. Writers please know that your words have power, that when you write, you’re adding to the world. No matter how small you perceive yourself to be, you can reaffirm life, call truth to power and build new foundations. You can also destroy, tear down and suppress.

But know that you have this power and do not underestimate it. Use it wisely, strategically and hopefully for a good cause.

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell Aiwuyor is a writer, social justice advocate and the founder of Our Legaci. Learn more about her work at JessicaAnnMitchell.com.

To reach JAM, email OurLegaci@gmail.com.
Follow Jessica @TweetingJAM.
Follow OurLegaci at Facebook.com/OurLegaci.

Why I’m Celebrating Ella Baker On MLK Day

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Known as the “God Mother of the SNCC” Ella Baker was a community activist in the truest sense of the term. This is not to discredit, the courageous works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. but Ella Baker told us the dangers of leader driven movements…and she was right.

After years of working with the NAACP, Ella Baker became a key organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Council, founded in part by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1957. She worked behind the scenes organizing voter registration campaigns, conferences and initiatives. Perhaps, she is most celebrated for recognizing the power in collective youth movements. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee was formed under her guidance and launched a movement that changed the American political landscape forever. SNCC is widely known for organizing sit-ins and the 1961 Freedom Rides.

Baker’s greatest hope was that ordinary people see the power they hold within themselves. She famously stated, “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.” She cautioned against people relying on leaders, instead wanting ordinary people to take an active role in movements collectively and equally. And because of her defiance against “the messiah complex” Ella is perhaps a more dangerous figure than King for the status quo. This is because she fully represents a “Participatory Democracy”, in which people think for themselves, organize and bring about change (without the need of a leader). These types of movements are harder to stamp out.

In a leader motivated movement, once a leader is discredited, removed or assassinated, their movement struggles to regain its influence. A prime example of this was Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign that struggled immensely after his death.

Some ask if there will ever be another MLK. The answer is no and stop waiting on one. The true work comes in when people are able to mobilize without the need of charismatic leadership. As we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., let us remember a key lesson from the Civil Rights Movement. Everyone has a role to play and it starts with you. This was the heart of Ella Baker’s message.

Learn more about Ella Jo Baker.

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com.

Follow OurLegaci on Facebook at Facebook.com/OurLegaci.

What Really Happens On Vacation

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Photo Credit: iStockPhoto

I will never forget the day I saw a grown man publicly groping and sloppily tongue kissing a young girl. She sat atop his lap as he and his friends consumed rounds of drinks and happily made sexual advances. I was researching climate change in villages neighboring Arusha, Tanzania. My roommates and I decided to have a night of fun by going to a dance club in the heart of Arusha. This was the first time I witnessed what residents of the area referred to as growing problem.

The Tanzanian Daily News recently reported that sex trafficking is getting worse in Tanzania stating, “Human traffickers exploit aggravating conditions of people of Third World countries where there are no employment opportunities and economical inequity, social discrimination, political instability and human rights abuses are widespread by promising a better life.”

Reporters, dignitaries, ambassadors and countless employees from around the world often come to Arusha because the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda is located there. While away from home, many American and European men take the opportunity to use their “first world” status to buy young girls, who are often sold into sex slavery or forced into it due to a severe economic pressures. These “professional” men do things they could never get away with in their home countries. They often contribute to the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. This is called Sex Tourism.

I witnessed something  similar in the Dominican Republic. A friend and I were on a beach when an old European man, wearing a speedo, was splashing around in the water with a young Dominican girl. He appeared to be in his late 60s and the girl looked no older than 16 years old. They walked hand in hand. Then he directed her to go out in the water and pose. He took out his camera and started taking erotic photos of her body. The man soon glanced in my direction and tried to take photos of me. My friend turned to cover me until we were out of his sight. In tourist locations of the developing world, the sexual exploitation of women and young girls is often open and pervasive.

The Dominican Republic started taking steps towards preventing sex trafficking in 2013. These steps include charges against anyone that forces someone into sex trafficking and 10-15 year sentences for people that “use the services of prostitutes.”

In 2004, the New York Times reported that the U.S. started pursuing Americans that committed sexual offenses in other countries. At that time, 25% of all sex tourists were reportedly from the United States. However, in Cambodia and Costa Rica, the percentage widens to “38% and 80%”.

The story of American billionaire Larry Hillblom sheds further light on how exploitative drivers of the sex tourism world can be. Reporter Bryan Burrough referred to Hillblom as a “glorified sex tourist.” Due to Hillblom’s extreme wealth, he was able to special request virgin “pubescent” farm girls from South East-Asia. Upon his death, four Asian children from 3 different countries were identified as his descendants. Yet, the total count of girls he impregnated is still unknown.

For many of us, vacations are the best time of our lives.  As Jamaica Kincaid highlights, we often leave our dreary offices to enjoy the sunshine and pillage the wonders of the developing world. We smile in every photo and buy hoards of souvenirs. Meanwhile predators openly flaunt their indiscretions, using their “first world” privileges to commit some of the most egregious crimes against humanity. For millions of young girls and boys, this is what really happens on vacation.

How you can help.

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com.

Follow OurLegaci on Facebook at Facebook.com/OurLegaci.

Please Excuse Davontaye, He Suffers From Povertenza

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Dear Judge,

I know that Davontaye’s actions caused the deaths of four people. But please don’t give him life in prison. He suffers from Povertenza. You may not know about this condition but Povertenza is an illness that people from impoverished socio-economic backgrounds have.

Due to the inability to access quality education and employment, Davontaye’s development has been stifled. This leads to poor decision making and I would further argue that since his neighborhood sees so much death and destruction, that he may even suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome in addition to Povertenza.

Judge, it is clear that Davontaye can not be held responsible for his actions. He needs rehabilitation, not prison. Prison would only worsen his mental condition. 

Sincerely,

J.A.M.

This defense obviously doesn’t work for black  and poor youth. Yet, news outlets are spiraling about 16 year-old  Ethan Couch who caused the deaths of 4 people by drunk driving. His defense, was that he suffered from “Affluenza” a disorder that only the affluent have. According to his lawyers, Couch was shielded from personal responsibility his entire life. Discipline is not a word in his vocabulary.

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Judge Jean Boyd sentenced him Tuesday to 10 years of probation but no jail time, saying she would work to find him a long-term treatment facility.

But Eric Boyles, who lost his wife and daughter in the crash, said on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360,” “There are absolutely no consequences for what occurred that day. The primary message has to absolutely be that money and privilege can’t buy justice in this country.” – CNN

Basically, Couch was coddled his entire life and now his punishment is more coddling.

On the flip side, there are millions of under-privileged youth across America, that have lived under the worst conditions imaginable. They’ve witnessed murders, endured hunger, and survived sexual abuse. However, upon committing a crime, they are handed down the harshest prison sentences imaginable. As I’ve pointed out before, many youth spend years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit because they didn’t have enough money to sway the justice system or get proper legal counsel. It’s a non-laughable joke.

If “Affluenza” is real, then I posit that my newly coined “Povertenza” be considered. Instead of jumping to fill up prisons, let’s start putting youth from disadvantaged backgrounds in treatment facilities. This would be ideal, but it won’t happen because there is too much money to be made. This is one of the reasons why Judge Mark Ciavarella Jr was able to sell 5,000 children to prisons.

Disgraced Pennsylvania judge Mark Ciavarella Jr has been sentenced to 28 years in prison for conspiring with private prisons to sentence juvenile offenders to maximum sentences for bribes and kickbacks which totaled millions of dollars. He was also ordered to pay $1.2 million in restitution.

In the private prison industry the more time an inmate spends in a facility, the more of a profit is reaped from the state. Ciavearella was a figurehead in a conspiracy in the state of Pennsylvania which saw thousands of young men and women unjustly punished and penalized in the name of corporate profit. – Examiner

Most of the children he sentenced are likely to be from backgrounds that are far less privileged than anything Ethan Couch has experienced. His sentencing tells us a lot about the American justice system and how deeply embedded economic disparities are when it comes to accountability. Essentially, the poor are expected to be more accountable for their actions while the wealthy are viewed as inherently respectable (especially if they’re white). Being from what people view as a “good” family can go a long way. This opens the door for more opportunities and the right to be viewed as non-threatening even when your actions prove otherwise. This is exactly why racial and economic inequalities are an on-going battle.

The next time someone tells you that there is no such thing as “White” privilege or elitism, ask them why Affluenza is a viable defense but Povertenza isn’t.

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com.

Follow OurLegaci on Facebook at Facebook.com/OurLegaci.

Kanye’s Frantz Fanon Complex

Photo Credit: Getty Images http://www.mirror.co.uk/

Photo Credit: Getty Images http://www.mirror.co.uk/

I recently wrote an article called, “Harry Belafonte Was Right About Jay-Z.” The article went viral, generating a huge response from the Black community and beyond.  A few readers were puzzled when I stated, “Kanye West…often laments about racism but strives to uphold the same materialistic values that help drive economic disparities.” Now, I will explore this more thoroughly.

There is no denying that Kanye West has had a tremendous impact on the music industry and pop culture. From the beginning of his mainstream career, Kanye has been critical of issues dealing with racism and the structures within it. His infamous, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” statement caused a media frenzy and solidified the general sentiments of the Black community during the Hurricane Katrina tragedy.

Yet it seems with more fame and popularity, Kanye’s commentary has shifted from calling out racism because it’s wrong, to calling out racism because he didn’t get a seat at the table. This is the bigger issue.

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Frantz Fanon

The distinguished psychiatrist Frantz Fanon addressed this line of thinking in his 1961 classic Wretched of the Earth. In this literary masterpiece, Fanon deconstructed the colonized mind.

“The gaze that the colonized subject casts at the colonist’s sector is a look of lust, a look of envy. Dreams of possession. Every type of possession; of sitting at the colonist’s table and sleeping in his bed, preferably with his wife. The colonized man is an envious man.”

One cannot deny the lasting effects that slavery and colonialism has had on African Americans and people of African descent around the world. In a recent interview, Kanye vehemently states, “We’re all slaves!” I understand him to a certain extent. Indeed, there is a systematic glass ceiling that prevents people of African descent and people from low economic classes from upward mobility. Even when some rise up the ranks, there are still many barriers that prevent them from attaining certain goals because they do not come from a certain class (the old money class). This is where I understand Kanye on the fashion industry. They don’t want him and they never will. He will forever be categorized as “urban,” a description he is desperately running away from because he knows that this is another way of being pigeonholed and prevented from making a significant impact (beyond blackness and urbanism) in the fashion industry.

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W.E.B. Du Bois

In some ways it coincides with  W.E.B Du Bois’ description of double consciousness:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

However, Kanye has time and time again demonstrated that he is displeased with the system solely based on the fact that he wants a seat at the table. His anger is steeped in envy rather than reform. And this is dangerous because we get away from transforming these hierarchical structures, to unknowingly reinforcing them.

For example, this is evident in his almost complete dismissal of Black models for his runway shows in Paris. He doesn’t seem too concerned about the pains of racism unless it’s affecting his own progress. Instead, he went with the flow and continued to allow for Black models to be denied a chance at equality. He also cheers on fashion brands that are known for their lack of diversity. The fashion brand Céline, was recently boycotted by the supermodel Iman, because of their refusal to hire Black models. Meanwhile Kanye West orders full wardrobes of Céline clothing, attends their shows and sports their brand.

Furthermore, he has a lack of respect for African American history. Much like the N-Word, no matter what way you look at it, the Confederate flag represents the deep rooted oppression of African Americans. In fact, it was used as a tool to remind us of our “place.” After the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation ruling, the state of Georgia started using the Confederate flag as a sign of the good ole’ days.

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The painful past associated with the symbolism surrounding the flag and what it represents is no laughing or fashion forward matter. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, about 500 extremist groups still use the cross on the Confederate Flag as a symbol of white superiority. This example is tired and old but I can’t imagine someone wearing a Swastika for fashion. I wonder if Kanye will start wearing symbols promoting the South African apartheid era next.

When Kanye speaks about racism or slavery, he’s not doing it for the ordinary people, but instead for sensationalism. He is using the Confederate flag to generate buzz, no matter how hurtful it may be.

He also has an incessant belief that Paris is the only fashion mecca and it has to let him in.  Kanye recently wanted to help the Louis Vuitton brand with his “influence.” They promptly rejected the offer.

Kanye has an obsession with getting acceptance, but not the “colored” kind. When the radio host Sway tried to encourage him to maybe create his own way, Kanye gave the now Twitter famous reply, “ You ain’t got the answers Sway.”

Indeed none of us may have the complete answers to racism and upward mobility. However, given his track record and current behavior, Kanye simply can’t be taken seriously on racism.  With every new Kanye rant we are witnessing a public display of internal conflict consisting of Fanon’s “dreams of possession” and Dubois’ double consciousness. Ultimately, he cares more about having a seat at the table with the same people he accuses of racism and classism, than bringing about change.

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell Aiwuyor is the founder of OurLegaci.com. To reach JAM, email her at JAMAiwuyor@gmail.com.

Follow JAM on Facebook at Facebook.com/JAMAiwuyor.

Harry Belafonte Was Right About Jay-Z

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Jay-ZWith the current controversy surrounding high-end retail store Barneys and racial profiling allegations, one thing stands evident. Harry Belafonte was right about Jay-Z. In the midst of this controversy, fans have called on Jay-Z to end his partnership with Barneys, in which his new holiday fashion line is going to be sold. Jay-Z’s response has been a calculated public relations effort in which he negates any real responsibility to his default, “I’m doing it for charity” statement. Currently, Jay-Z is continuing his partnership with Barneys with his collection set to launch next week.

This “doing it for charity” response only further highlights Jay-Z’s disconnect with the masses that he often claims to represent. This notion of accepting racism in exchange for charity is downright laughable. If a charity is supposed to be helping people, why work with a store that appears to marginalize his own fan base due to class and race perceptions. Now, Jay-Z claims he’s being demonized for his partnership with Barneys. He’s not being demonized. He’s being realized.

This is where Harry Belafonte comes in. Months ago Belafonte called on Jay-Z to play a more active role in social movements and help to drive social change. Jay-Z’s response was to refer to the 86-year old civil rights icon as “boy.” Jay-Z went on to state that due to his mega star status, his very presence was “charity.”

Harry Belafonte’s critiques were not superfluous statements. They were part of an insightful analysis of how star power can be used to affect societal movements. With over 50 years of civil rights activism, Belafonte can spot both genuine and superficial involvement. The latter, is what Jay-Z is often engaged in. This superficial support of “the people” is laden with corporate driven interests.

For example, during the height of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, Jay-Z decided to make a t-shirt line based on slogans from the movement. His plans changed, once Occupy Wall Street activists asked if he would share the profits. The idea of having to share the profits (which would have helped provide much needed financial support to activists) was unthinkable to the hip-hop mogul.

Then, there’s the controversy that surrounded 2010 tax records from The Shawn Carter Scholarship Fund. During that year he reportedly earned, over $63 million but only donated roughly $6,000 to his own charity. This is not a normal practice for charity founders, who often provide a large portion of their charities’ financial costs. Out of all donors, Jay-Z reportedly gave the lowest donation to his own cause.

Finally, there is the N*ggas in Paris fiasco in which his friend Gwyneth Paltrow, decided to tweet the title of the song after attending his concert. This resulted in Twitter backlash over her usage of the term. Jay-Z, who is an enthusiastic advocate for the usage of the N-word, was silent on the controversy. Having millions among his fan base embrace the N-word is a part of his crossover hood status appeal that provides further economic security.

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, in 2012 White/Caucasian audiences represented 79% of music buys, 81% of CD buyers and 80% of digital buyers. So don’t expect Jay-Z to engage in any significant dialogue with fans about using the word. With him it’s the same old, “people give words power” and “this is the least racist generation” excuse. It’s not economically feasible for him or any other corporately invested hip-hop artist to do anymore than brush off the issue. Yet this is someone people expect to fully grasp or care about race related issues?

The African American community  has to get beyond this belief that just because someone from our community attains fame or wealth, that they’re somehow intellectually superior, a role model and someone to be admired. The same can be said for Russell Simmons with his Rush Card, Blood Diamond, and Harriet Tubman controversies. And Kanye West, who often laments about racism but strives to uphold the same materialistic values that help drive economic disparities. Do you really expect any of them to be deeply invested in activism against a classist system from which they benefit?

Harry Belafonte was right. Jay-Z isn’t genuinely standing up against racism or classism because this activism may affect profit margin (something he learned while selling crack).

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com.

Follow OurLegaci on Facebook at Facebook.com/OurLegaci.