Author’s Note: I’ve been on a Maya Angelou kick lately, y’all. This post is mostly my thoughts around a conversation I stumbled across that she filmed with Dave Chappelle for a Sundance Films series, Iconoclast. (I posted the full video at the bottom of the page. I encourage you to watch it.) Both Dr. Angelou and Mr. Chappelle are geniuses in their own rights, and it’s a really beautiful thing to observe.
If you’re driving south into Houston, you’re bound to see a bridge stretching overhead across the highway, the words Be Someone boldly painted in all caps. The bridge, and the directive, is one of the defining landmarks of Houston, a shared experience that has been vandalized and replaced multiple times over the years. When asked, the graffiti artist said, “I want people to be able to understand that you can do what you want to do if you put yourself to it,”. […] It sounds cliche, but you don’t have to get up, you have to go get it, you know?”
For years, I drove under those bold words every day, and to be honest, they always stuck me as as a directive to change something about myself. My own inference was that I should try to “be someone (in the future) (for once) (you loser).”
What I was supposed to change and how I was supposed to know when I had finally achieved “someone-ness” was less clear, but I knew I wasn’t there yet.
Are We All Meant to “Be Someone”?
I once had an ex, exasperated by my desire to be a positive influence on the world, say, “What, do you want to be famous or something? It’s so egotistical to think that would happen. What makes you better than everyone else?”
I was at a loss for a reply. I didn’t want to be famous, nor did I feel that I was better than anyone else, but I wanted to feel like I was making a difference on this planet. Isn’t that what everyone wants? (Answer: that was not what he wanted, which is part of the reason he’s an ex, hey-oh!)
In fact, no one is better than everyone else. Even those people who have had a large influence on the world and culture are just regular people who have identified and tapped into a large cultural need and answer it in some way. In the Iconoclast episode Dave Chappelle + Maya Angelou, Dr. Angelou tells Mr. Chappelle:
It’s dangerous to make anybody seem larger than life. Because a young person coming up sees this larger than life figure, this outrageously gigantic personality — and has to say I can never be that, I can never do that. When the truth is, those men, and those women, were in the right place at the right time and got hold of something — and something got hold of them.
Every single person on this planet is just a person. In the words of Jen Hatmaker, we’re all just “regulars.” Setting iconoclasts in a different category of “someones” limits your own belief in what you can do–and also limits your own appreciation of the influence you’re probably already having.
It’s My Delight That I Can Be Somebody
In fact, Dr. Angelou’s perspective on “someone-ness” is so much more achievable than mine (as vague as it is) has ever been. Towards the end of the interview, Dr. Angelou thanks Dave Chappelle for taking the time to speak to her:
Each of us has the chance to be somebody, and it’s my delight that […] I could have the pleasure, the joy, the thrill of talking to you, so that I can be somebody.
Dr. Angelou, Pulitzer Prize nominee and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, thanked another person for allowing her to talk to them so she could be somebody. Arguably, she already is a somebody. But from her perspective, past (and probably future) achievements don’t determine if she is “somebody.”
Please note the following:
1. “I can be somebody” is a statement of present fact.
“I can be somebody” is not theoretical; it exists here and now. It’s like saying, “I can tie my shoes.” Not to be too pedantic (why stop now, amiright?), but her words are in the present indicative mood rather than present subjunctive (“I could be somebody”) or even future (“I will be somebody”). You can be somebody every single day if you allow yourself to be.
(Shout out to Ms. Stave’s eighth grade grammar class for giving me the skills to even pick up on such a distinction.)
2. From her perspective, “being someone” is in relation to other people, not in relation to ourselves.
It is not fame or career success or buying a house or getting married or getting published or some other marker that determines if you are somebody. It is not the things that happen in your own life that determine if you aresomebody. It is in when you relate to others that you get the chance to “be someone” in their lives. We are “someones” when we make real connections to other people, when they (and we) feel that connection and are influenced by each other–at the micro level, not the macro level.
From this perspective, it matters less if you’ve made a big influence on the world. What matters is if you’ve made a difference on other individuals. For some people, the individual influences may pile up and you become a force of great change and influence, but even if that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t stop you from “being someone” in the meantime.
3. She expresses gratitude for being given the chance to be someone.
Imagine having Dr. Maya Angelou thank you for the opportunity to have a conversation with you. At one point in the interview, when Dr. Angelou and Mr. Chappelle are discussing their differing opinions on the use the N-word, Mr. Chappelle expresses some trepidation at daring to disagree with Dr. Angelou. Her response gave me chills:
How could I not listen to you and be elevated by you — and be taught something? […] I think I need to talk to you. And I need you to talk to me.
It is only when other people give us their time that we get the opportunity to be someone in their lives–and vice versa. If no one gave us the time or opportunity to connect, we would never be able to bridge that gap. And so there is interdependence, mutual impact, the desire to be someone, and the mutual being-ness of someones–and gratitude for being given the opportunity.
You Already Are Someone
… and if you’re not (which is unlikely), it’s not hard to become one.
Take a second and think about the people who have had a large influence on your life. Your mentors and your heroes. What was it about those people that set them apart from everyone else? If I had to guess, it was that they had affection for you. They took the time to get to know you. They listened to what you had to say and offered other perspectives in a respectful manner. And they helped you feel you could be more than you already are.
Do that. Be that, and you’ll be someone.
Here are my key takeaways from Dr. Angelou and Dave Chappelle’s conversation:
- Approach others with respect. If someone feels disrespected, they’re unlikely to want to have a real conversation with you. If they feel respected and feel that you like them, they are more likely to respect you and like you. (This is called reciprocal liking, by the way. It’s a thing.)
- Acknowledge the other person’s “someone-ness” and worth–both to yourself and to them. Don’t dehumanize people because they think differently than you. Acknowledge their humanity and some of the differences will fall away. (Especially poignant was Dr. Angelou’s discussion of the time she met Tupac at 39:30.)
- Have real conversations with people about things that matter. Small talk is such bullshit. It gives you the impression you’re connecting with someone without actually saying anything meaningful. I seriously hate it.
If you’re interested, here’s the full Iconclast episode. I highly recommend watching the full video. Much love, everyone. – Lindsay