An inspiration, an angel, a guiding star and the greatest woman ever known.
The accolades bestowed upon author, performer and civil rights advocate Maya Angelou were numerous Saturday as former President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and First Lady Michelle Obama led a celebratory memorial service of Angelou, who died May 28 at age 86.
Obama remembered playing with a Malibu Barbie doll as a girl, a bit confused about what her aspirations should be. But reading Angelou’s poem “Phenomenal Woman” brought her new confidence and direction, she said, because it “celebrated black women’s beauty like no one had ever dared to before.”
“Our curves, our stride, our strength, our grace — her words were clever and sassy. They were powerful and sexual and boastful,” Obama said at a chapel in Winston-Salem, N.C., where Angelou most recently lived. “She taught us that we are each wonderfully made, intricately woven and put on this Earth for a purpose far greater than we could ever imagine.”
Angelou’s son, Guy Johnson, spoke from a wheelchair with his grandson at his side. Johnson said his mother had ascended to heaven and surely had become an angel because she was dedicated to showing people that they were no different from one another.
“My mother's beliefs were that greed and prejudice were divisive constructs, which hinder our efforts for greatness,” Johnson said. “Anything that diminishes a human being diminishes all of us.”
No matter the risk, his mother pushed for justice and equality, he said.
“She often said that courage was the most important virtue, because without courage, one could not practice any of the others with consistency,” Johnson said.
Both he and Winfrey also brought up one of her most famous aphorisms: “When you learn, teach. When you get, give.”
Winfrey described Angelou as her rock, her anchor and the greatest woman she has ever known.
“She made every one of us feel like we were the one,” Winfrey said, remembering the dinner table chats and phone conversations she had with her mentor. “She made us feel heard and seen and loved and special and worthy.”
Winfrey said she has struggled in the last few day to comprehend what she lost with the death of her freind. But she said she’s decided that her course is to follow in Angelou’s footsteps.
“We must carry on and pass on lifting humanity up, helping people to live lives of purpose and dignity, to pass on the poetry of courage and respect,” Winfrey said.
After all, Angelou once told her, “Your legacy is every woman who ever watched your show who decided to go back to school. Your legacy is every man who decided to forgive his father. It's every gay person who decided to come out because they saw a show of yours. Your legacy is every person you ever touched.”
Clinton, who grew up about 25 miles from Angelou’s hometown in Arkansas and had her read at his first inauguration, said he was especially moved by her 1969 memoir, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." The book, written after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and with the encouragement of her friend James Baldwin, told of her upbringing, facing racism and sexual abuse.
As she wrote in her memoir, at age 8 Angelou was raped by her mother's boyfriend, who was sent to jail for the crime; upon his release, he was beaten to death, possibly by her uncles. She didn't speak for five years after the rape, Clinton said, but God seemed to have eventually lent her his voice.
Angelou had been through enough to fill five lifetimes, Clinton said before offering a rundown of her trials and successes.
“She moved from being a mute child to being reunited with her mother to being in a school of dance and drama, to being the first African American woman to be a streetcar director in San Francisco, to having a baby, to having to be a short-order cook and other stuff to feed the baby and keep body and soul together and that was when she was a teenager,” Clinton said. “She was not even 20 years old. All that had happened to her.
“In her 20s she was singing and dancing and acting in the U.S. and Europe. In her 30s she became a member of the Harlem Writers Guild. By 32 she moved to Egypt to run a newspaper and by 33 she was living in Ghana. By then she mastered five languages …. And she meets Malcolm X and comes back here to work for him and he gets killed. She goes to work for Martin Luther King, and on her 40th birthday he gets killed.”
Through all the action, her greatest gift was paying attention to things other wouldn’t notice, Clinton said.
“By the time she started writing her books and her poetry, what she was basically doing was calling our attention to the things she had been paying attention to,” he said. “And she did it with a clarity and power that will wash over people as long as there is a written and spoken word.”
Specifically, Clinton said, “She called our attention to the fact that the things that really matter — dignity, work, love and kindness — are things we can all share and don't cost anything. And they matter more than the differences of wealth and power.”