WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (AP) – First lady Michelle Obama lauded poet, orator and sage Maya Angelou as the first person who let her know she could be a strong and smart black woman, joining other famous admirers and friends in a private memorial service today that was filled with tears, laughter, poetry and song.
Former President Bill Clinton said Angelou, one of the most famous black writers of the 20th century, was a woman who seemed to have lived five lifetimes in one. Others said the writer, who rose from poverty and segregation, gave strength to millions of women to live their own lives in modern America.
The memorial service led by the first lady, Clinton and Oprah Winfrey paid tribute to Angelou at Wake Forest University in North Carolina where the writer had taught for decades.
Angelou died May 28 at age 86 after a life with important roles in the civil rights movement and the arts.
Obama told the audience gathered in a university chapel how reading Angelou’s poem Phenomenal Woman changed a little black girl who grew up on the south side of Chicago and whose first doll was a Malibu Barbie.
“She celebrated black women’s beauty like no one had ever dared to before. Our curves, our stride, our strength, our grace,” Obama told those seated in the wooden pews. “Her words were clever and sassy. They were powerful and sexual and boastful.”
Tall and majestic, Angelou added heft to her spoken words with a deep and sonorous voice, describing herself as a poet in love with “the music of language”. In January 1993, she recited the most popular presidential inaugural poem in history, On the Pulse of Morning, when Clinton opened his first term. She inspired many and became a mentor to Winfrey before she became a TV talk show host.
Clinton remembered that voice, and how Angelou chose not to speak for five years after she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend as a child.
“She was without a voice for five years and then she developed the greatest voice on the planet. God loaned her His voice,” Clinton said today. “She had the voice of God. And he decided he wanted it back for a while.”
He said she was a role model for many.
The service included several rousing gospel songs. There were tears, but laughter too, as Angelou’s friends remembered a clever woman with a deep spiritual faith.
At the private North Carolina school, the writer was regularly addressed as Dr Angelou out of respect for all the honorary degrees she received even though she never graduated from college.
Her magnetism also drew her into friendships with famous figures from Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela to Clinton and Winfrey
Winfrey remembered Angelou as her spiritual queen mother, saying she always took notes when they spoke on the phone. She cried a few times as she remembered how Angelou was a vital part of her career, reminding her of the millions of people she has touched in her TV career.
Winfrey said she struggled to put what Angelou meant into words, then realised she owed the poet not words, but actions.
“I cannot fill her shoes, but I can walk in her footsteps,” Winfrey said.