Rare is the day when a person exceeds themselves by such great measure. So it was with noted poet and author, Maya Angelou, who died last week at age 86.
Media accounts of her life are rich with superlatives. Any of a thousand obituaries detail her literary, professional and personal achievements. Invariably, attempts to circumscribe such a life turn toward cliché and saccharine remembrance. Little more of that is needed.
Suffice it to say Maya Angelou mattered. She mattered because she exuded dignity. She mattered because she gave voice to hidden pain. She mattered because she showed the world that well-chosen words could issue from anyone, no matter their travails.
Though born in St. Louis, she spent formative time in tiny Stamps, Arkansas. As such, she has a special place in the hearts of the downstream people. She, like Johnny Cash, Louis Jordan and a hundred other Arkansas-reared artistic luminaries, proved that a dusty upbringing could give way to gleaming celebrity.
Angelou certainly sparkled, but it wasn’t the kind of ephemeral flash that passes for modern fame. Rather, hers was the ember that glowed quietly among the ash —- persistent, potent and poignant.
We know her for beautiful words and moments on film. We should also know her for a life that took chances. Her path was not the monotonic journey so many of us have. Fry cook, calypso dancer, street car conductor were just a few of the hats she wore. It is perhaps that variety of experience — good and bad — that gave her literary voice so much resonance.
We will certainly mourn her passing, but something suggests she would not have much of that. She likely would rather we follow her proud lead. She would rather we seek challenge; invite adventure; learn from adversity; give voice to those the world has muted; and find a way to exceed ourselves.
Thank you Maya Angelou; your words and example make us better.