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Maya Angelou hailed at memorial Family, friends remember iconic poet, activist

WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina, June 8, (Agencies): Maya Angelou liked to say that people will forget what you said or did in your life, but they will never forget how you made them feel. Former US president Bill Clinton, First Lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey said Saturday they were among the millions touched by Angelou’s wisdom when they needed help to rise. Family and friends gathered Saturday to remember one of the 20th century’s most famous black writers. Amid tears, laughter, and gospel singing, they met at Wake Forest University, where she taught for 32 years, though she never graduated from college. Dr Angelou, as she liked to be addressed out of respect for all the honorary degrees she received, died May 28 at age 86. Hers was a remarkable life, linking the worlds of civil rights, poetry, acting and teaching, those present recalled at the tribute.

“We could just all be up here talking about how Maya Angelou represented a big piece of American history. And triumphed over adversity. And proved how dumb racism is,” Clinton said at the private memorial service. “But her great gift in her action-packed life was she was always paying attention. And from the time she started writing her books and her poetry, what she was basically doing was calling our attention to the things she’d been paying attention to.”

Trailing
Michelle Obama added, “She told us that our worth has nothing to do with what the world might say. Instead, she said, each of us comes from the Creator trailing wisps of glory. She reminded us that we must each find our own voice, decide our own value, and then announce it to the world with all the pride and joy that is our birthright as members of the human race.” Tall and majestic, Angelou added heft to her spoken words with a deep and sonorous voice. She once described herself as a poet in love with “the music of language.” She recited the most popular presidential inaugural poem in history, “On the Pulse of Morning,” when Clinton opened his first term in January 1993. 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. “She had the voice of God. And he decided he wanted it back.” Winfrey said the close and constant friend she met before becoming a TV talk show host could shake her out of bouts of self-doubt. Angelou taught her to look beyond trouble and spot the rainbow in the clouds, Winfrey said. “Maya Angelou is the greatest woman I have ever known,” Winfrey said, then almost sobbing: “She was my anchor. So it’s hard to describe to you what it means when your anchor shifts.” Winfrey and Obama, seated next to each other in the chapel’s front row, swayed in unison as Grammy-winning gospel singer Bobby Jones prompted people to wave their hands and clap. Actor and producer Tyler Perry assisted actress Cicely Tyson and former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young to the podium before country singer Lee Ann Womack drew cheers with her hit “I Hope You Dance.”

Raised
Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St Louis and raised in Arkansas and San Francisco. Her life included writing poetry by age 9, giving birth as a single mother by 17 and becoming San Francisco’s first black streetcar conductor. She also danced at a strip joint, sang on records, acted alongside James Earl Jones and earned a Tony nomination for her work on Broadway. She wrote music and plays, received an Emmy nomination for her acting in the 1970s TV miniseries “Roots” and danced with Alvin Ailey. Angelou also worked as a coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and lived for years in Ghana and Egypt, where she met South African liberation pioneer Nelson Mandela. In 1968, she was helping the Rev Martin Luther King Jr organize the Poor People’s March in Memphis, Tennessee, where the civil rights leader was slain on Angelou’s 40th birthday.

Her son, Guy Johnson, said Angelou’s last decade was filled with pain — the toll of her career as a professional dancer and respiratory failure. She used a wheelchair and oxygen tanks. Still, she was able to write four more books, had all of her mental faculties, and died quietly in her sleep. “There is no mourning here,” he said. US author and rights activist Maya Angelou was hailed as a teacher, trailblazer and spiritual mother in eulogies Saturday by First Lady Michelle Obama, former president Bill Clinton and television icon Oprah Winfrey. Angelou, who died last month at age 86, was world-renowned as a poet, actress, singer, dancer, author and civil rights activist. Born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928, in Saint Louis, Missouri, she was perhaps best known for the first installment of her memoirs “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” the first non-fiction best-seller by an African-American woman.

“The loss I feel I cannot describe,” said an emotional Winfrey, who developed a close friendship with Angelou after first meeting her in the 1970s as a reporter. “She was my spiritual queen mother and everything that word implies,” said the former talk show host turned media mogul, who is ranked as the world’s richest self-made woman. “Maya Angelou is the greatest woman I have ever known.” “I cannot fill her shoes, but I can walk in her footsteps,” Winfrey said, pledging to carry on what she called Angelou’s core message that “We are more alike than we are different.” The nearly three-hour memorial for friends and family, held at a chapel at Wake Forest University where Angelou taught for many years, also featured gospel, R&B and country music performances. It was streamed live on the university’s website. It opened with a speech from her grandson, who quoted from her famous poem, “Still I Rise” and spoke of the love and support his family has received from around the world since her death on May 28. A friend of slain civil rights hero Martin Luther King, Angelou was widely respected in the United States and abroad as a strong voice for both black people and women.

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