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Engendering Kuumba to Leave Goodness in the World—Bethune’s Last Will

English: en:Mary McLeod Bethune

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Kuumba (Creativity) infuses everything we do in life. Kuumba reminds us “To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.” The Kwanzaa Generations, those millions who observe Kwanzaa the world over, have seen the concept applied to art, theater, and literary groups to express our connection and intent to generate positive actions to realize Kuumba. We have also seen the term Kuumba used to name our neighborhood enhancement projects. Here we dedicate the principle to transforming communities that are historically forgotten and discarded. Kuumba is another profound Nguzo Saba philosophy, one that speaks to the aspect of human aesthetics that empowers us to be mindful and proactive about the substance of our community. Ethically, the act of Kuumba applies to our interactions with people—the ability to use our speech and action to leave our community of people more beautiful and beneficial. This is a major part of the founder’s theme, including specifically the message “Kwanzaa and the Nguzo Saba: An Ethics of Sharing Good in the World” (2010, http://www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org/index.shtml). Kuumba is the domain of visionaries, those self-possessed in the realm of reciprocity (leaders who recognize their inheritance and develop strategies to leave something greater behind). One such Kuumba Visionary was Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) and is elegantly expressed in her essay “My Last Will and Testament.”

When we want to tell exalted stories of people who exemplify the spirit of Kuumba, we include the life and legacy of Mary McLeod Bethune. She was born in Maysville, South Carolina ten years after the formal end of slavery in the United States. As a child, she shared the field labor that most Africans were engaged in at that time. While she had never known the legacy of enslavement as a child, her parents and several of her 16 brothers and sisters were born into slavery. She demonstrated an aptitude and passion for reading and writing from an early age. Bethune, who was a deeply spiritual person her entire life, cultivated a desire to become a missionary in Africa and with support attended Scotia Seminary in Concord, North Carolina and the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. As she prepared to go to Africa, Bethune was told that there were no available missionary positions there for blacks. She became a mission teacher in Mayesville, Florida, began outreach to jailed prisoners, and assisted the wrongfully accused.  As an instructor she taught in Georgia and South Carolina, maintaining a tremendous desire to assist the communities around her in any way she could. Her goal was to build a school for black girls. In 1904 she established the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in Daytona Beach, Florida. She worked tirelessly to construct what later became Bethune-Cookman College. In their historical narratives Scholars appreciate the tremendous effort on the part of Bethune to establish this school; how she started this bold initiative with $1.50 and a handful of students. Bethune engaged in grassroots fundraising and literally performed every function (administrative, janitorial, procurement, cooking, teaching, etc.) in order to ensure the success of the school. Her institution-building efforts eventually moved her school from an empty one room house to a 32 acre campus by 1923. Bethune-Cookman University grew to more than 80 acres by 2004.

English: Mary McLeod Bethune with girls from t...

Bethune approached her activism and administrative work with the same creative determination and zeal she used to build her girls school. She was influenced by the Booker T. Washington model of self-sufficiency along with industrial training and continued her activism within a number of organizations. In the public sector, she was a state leader in the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), and she established the National Council of Negro Women in 1935. In 1936 she began federal government service (the first African American woman to do so) with The National Youth Administration. By the time The National Youth Administration was closed in 1943, Bethune had assisted hundreds of thousands of African Americans in job training, employment, and educational funding. Her close friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt defied the white racist social proscriptions of the time. As a result she developed what became “the Black Cabinet,” a small group of unofficial African American advisors to President Roosevelt. She was the first black woman to advise United States Presidents in both official and unofficial capacities. In spite of this, she remained an activist in most areas of Black life, constantly advocating for “…full equality in the abundance of life.”[1] The Bethune-Cookman University website describes her as “…a world-renowned educator, civil and human rights leader….”[2] She received countless national and international honors and awards during her lifetime, has been connected to several major historic sites, and featured in numerous inventories of influential African Americans. She was ranked number 10 among “America’s greatest women” in 1930. In 1939 she received NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, and was interviewed by sociologist and educator Charles S. Johnson. She was the only Black woman to have input on the United Nations charter in 1945. Bethune received the Haitian Medal of Honor and Merit in 1949. In 1999 she was featured among “100 Most Fascinating Black Women of the Twentieth Century” in Ebony Magazine, and in 2002, African American Studies scholar Molefi Kete Asante cited Bethune in his book 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia.

English: The cabin where Mary Jane McLeod was ...

As many scholars have noted, the accomplishments in Mary McLeod Bethune’s life on behalf of African Americans, indicates that she should be viewed as a preeminent stateswoman.[3] She labored to “build a better world” in the spirit of Kuumba. Consistent with her lifelong character of giving back to the community, Bethune addressed the African American Nation with a series of final “legacies” enumerated in “My Last Will and Testament.” She bequeaths the following “legacies” to Black people:

1.      “Love”

2.      “Hope”

3.      “The Challenge Of Developing Confidence In One Another”

4.      “Thirst For Education”

5.      “Respect For The Uses Of Power”

6.      “Faith”

7.      “Racial Dignity”

8.      “A Desire To Live Harmoniously With Your Fellow Men”

9.      “A Responsibility To Our Young People”

This is a moving piece that not only reflects a thoughtful Kuumba Vision but represents some of the highest ideals of Africana Womanism.[4] Bethune’s “Last Will and Testament” is an elegant ethical and philosophical discourse and training guide on the development of leaders. The legacies speak to committed individuals who can address the needs of their people and position themselves within a global context.

One of her most inspirational passages comes from number seven, “I Leave You Racial Dignity.” Bethune recognized that she must tell African American people, especially the children, what society refused to tell them—that their origins were as unique, worthy, valuable and sacred as all others.


In this document she placed African Americans in world history, as opposed to the margins of society. She reveled in her black skin color, a physical attribute that was treated with disdain during her time. Bethune transformed the social anxiety over African skin pigment into a gift; and reconfigured the shared hardships of Blacks into a motivation tool for success. Even when she tells Blacks to be “…less race conscious and more conscious of individuals and human values…,” there is no ambiguity or hesitation about the emphasis she gives to racial self-respect.  For Bethune, our blackness is our humanity and it is priceless. Bethune’s “My Last Will and Testament” is a birthright, the only entitlement that possesses merit. Mary McLeod Bethune was a Kuumba Visionary, a woman whose value has yet to be fully captured. One biographer wrote:

“Her birth was recorded nowhere; the notices of her death appeared on the front pages of newspapers over the country. Many people in America and in Africa and in Asia wrote eulogies praising her.”[5]

She engendered Kuumba in the world, and having received goodness, she gave it back to the people in the form of cultural capital.

By Dr. Katherine Bankole-Medina

[Important Bethune research sites: The Mary McLeod Bethune Collection at Bethune Cookman University and the Mary McLeod Bethune House in Washington, DC.]


[1] Quote from Bethune’s response to the 1954 Brown V. Board of Education case overturning the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling (“Separate but Equal” doctrine) which appeared in the Chicago Defender.

[2]Bethune-Cookman University, “Our Founder-Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune,” http://www.cookman.edu/about_BCU/history/our_founder.html.

[3] Audrey Thomas McCluskey and Elaine M. Smith (eds.) Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World, Essays and Selected Documents. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.

[4] See Clenora Hudson-Weems, Africana Womanism: Reclaiming Ourselves, 4th revised edition, Bedford, 2004.

[5] E.G. Sterne, Mary McLeod Bethune, NewYork: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957, p. 268.


Bethune, Mary Mcleod. (1935). “The Association For The Study Of Negro Life And History: Its Contribution To Our Modern Life.” Journal Of Negro Life And History, 2, 400—410.

___________(1938). “Clarifying Our Vision With The FactsJournal Of Negro Life And History, 23, 10—15.

___________(1939). “The Adaptation Of The History Of The Negro To The Capacity Of The Child.” Journal Of Negro Life And History, 24, 9—13.

___________(1950). “The Negro In Retrospect And Prospect.” Journal Of Negro Life And History, 35, 9—19.

___________(1951). “The Torch Is Ours.” Journal Of Negro Life And History, 36, 9— 11.