If Maya Angelou were born in this generation, we probably would have called her a failure.
Some 50 years ago, a young Maya Angelou was living and working in one of the poorest communities in Los Angeles, observing as racial tensions sparked the now historic riots in her Watts neighborhood. At the young age of 28, she had yet to publish any volumes of poetry or books. In fact, she hadn’t even begun to create half of the musical and literary works that she’s now renowned for. Then, one of the greatest writers of our time was just an average black woman.
In today’s society, we are inundated with messages that imply that following a standard route — college, then career, then retirement or love, then marriage, then the baby carriage — is the only means to a successful end. And we’re taught that many of our goals should be accomplished by the time we reach a certain age.
There’s the ’10 things you should have by 30' and ’15 milestones you should have reached by 25' lists that make our achievements — however great they might be — seem insignificant when held alongside these societal forces.
This is most evident on the subject of love. Black women live with what some believe to be a very real threat. We are told that if we have not met our ‘soulmate,’ married and had children by age 40, it’s never going to happen for us.
This mindset permeates every area of our lives. We beat ourselves up for having the bachelor’s degree but not the master’s, the master’s but not the PhD, for having a child without a ring, for having the ring but no child, for choosing family over a career, or career over family, for not having the dream job or home; we practically beat ourselves up about everything.
Sometimes we beat ourselves up so much that we never lift some of the very things we’re lamenting over off the ground.
Perhaps we could start that business if we weren’t so busy soaking in the fact that we haven’t started it yet; a classic paradox.
But when I took a moment to survey the timeline of the life of one of my biggest role models, I discovered the most amazing thing.
Maya Angelou lived a life that, not unlike many black women’s lives, was perfectly imperfect.
By the age of 30, Maya had only just begun to blossom. She’d also done several things that today’s society would put her in a statistical grave for.
She’d had a child out of wedlock while still in high school, a failed marriage, and she’d moved from state to state as a single mother on what appear to be nothing more than random flights of inspiration.
Her life’s journey, which included mountain peak highs and gutter lows, defies everything that we’re told we’re supposed to be and do. Be stable. Settle in to one career. Find one place to call your home.
What we all can learn from Maya Angelou’s timeline is that there is no penalty for doing many things well or for having more than one dream that you want to pursue.
Instead of finding one career and sticking with it, Maya said, ‘I think I’ll dance today. Tomorrow I may write a book, or join a social movement, or work at a club, or maybe I’ll just sing.’ Instead of settling in one place she traveled the country and the world, creating many homes away from home along the way.
Black woman, yes, you should be mindful that time is of the essence. But also know that you — and only you — have the right to determine what’s written on your timeline.
As for me, today, I think I’ll write some more.
Tomorrow, who knows?