Maya Angelou passed away this morning at the age of 86.
Yes, she’s that kindly black lady whose poems you probably read in elementary school, then again in middle school, and just as a fun refresher, in high school.
And in case you didn’t get enough Maya Angelou—her poems and stories frequently appeared on standardized tests, SAT tests, AP tests, and we basically inscribed on the inside of your eyelids by the time you were 16.
Which is ironic because she hated standardized tests, branding them in an open letter to President Obama as “not what did you learn, but how much can you memorize.”
She’s Oprah-approved™ and one of the rare individuals to appear at the White House under both Clinton (where she read a poem for his inauguration) and Bush (where she read a poem for the Christmas tree lighting) and Obama (who gave her an award so nobody had to hear another poem).
And in all that poetry, all that work, I’ll bet you can’t name a single thing she said or wrote.
I know I can’t.
You probably sat in class and thought “that’s nice” and got back to your life.
But you missed something. I missed something.
We missed the story of a woman who raised herself up to take life by the horns and do all she could possibly do, who was raped at the age of 8 by her mother’s boyfriend, who was the first black female streetcar driver in San Francisco, who was both a pimp and a prostitute, who was asked by MLK to organize her own march, who would rent out a hotel room near her home as her writing studio and voraciously write for seven hours straight per day, who crafted 7 autobiographies over the course of her life.
That’s all fascinating detail.
Every life has fascinating detail.
Every life is different, every life is difficult, every life is important, but every life is defined by what you make of it.
What you missed, what I missed, among all the subtext and imagery and watered-down, weak-tea interpretation of this dear lady’s work is the following powerful message:
You’re not special.
Nobody is special.
You’re all different. Different doesn’t mean special.
Barney told you that you were special around the same age you started reading Maya Angelou’s poems and it was all nice, feel-good crap.
Barney lied and you were lied to.
come here children, I’m going to
turn your brains to mush tell you a story!
This woman took herself from the lowest possible rung of society, overcame every disadvantage, and became incredibly strong, successful, and most importantly, special.
You’re not special.
So why are you living a life where you’re not trying to be?