Michelle Obama salutes Maya Angelou's example to all women

By Updated at 2014-06-07 23:54:03 +0000

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In a moving tribute to a woman she called “one of the greatest spirits our world has ever known”, first lady Michelle Obama on Saturday thanked the writer Maya Angelou for empowering young black women like herself with her clever, sassy words.

Angelou died last month at the age of 86.

The former president Bill Clinton and TV star Oprah Winfrey were also among speakers and performers at a more-than two-hour memorial service held at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, where Angelou taught for 30 years.

Obama said Angelou taught all women that self-worth “has nothing to do with what the world might say”.

“For me,” she said, “that was the power of Maya Angelou’s words, words so powerful they carried a little black girl from the south side of Chicago all the way to the White House.”

Obama added: “She touched me, she touched all of you, she touched people all across the globe, including a young white woman from Kansas who named her daughter after Maya and raised her son to be the first black president of the United States.”

The first lady's nine-minute speech was met with a standing ovation.

She said: “She was the master. For at a time when there were such stifling constraints on how a black woman could exist in the world, she serenely disregarded all the rules with fiercely, passionate unapologetic self.

“She was comfortable in every last inch of her glorious black skin. But for Dr Angelou, her own transition was never enough. You see, she didn’t just want to be phenomenal herself. She wanted all of us to be phenomenal right along side her.

“In so many ways Maya Angelou knew us. She knew our hope, our pain, our ambition, our fear, our anger, our shame, and she assured us that in spite of it all, in fact because of it all, we were good.

“And in doing so she paved the way for me and Oprah and so many others just to be our good old black woman selves.”

In his speech, Clinton recalled the last time he saw Angelou, a few weeks ago at a ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Civil Rights Act.

The former president, at whose 1993 inauguration Angelou read her poem On the Pulse of Morning, told her he was surprised to see her out and about.

Angelou replied: “Just because I am wheelchair bound, doesn’t mean I don’t get around.”

Clinton added: “She was without a voice for five years and then she developed the greatest voice on the planet. God loaned her his voice. She had the voice of God and he decided he wanted it back for a while.”

An emotional Winfrey also spoke, to say goodbye to the woman she called her “spiritual queen mother”.

“She was always there for me, to be the rainbow,” Winfrey said.

Angelou was a favorite of the Obamas. In 2011, Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, quoting her as he did so: "History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again."

Angelou campaigned for Hillary Clinton in her 2008 presidential bid.

She told the Guardian: “I made up my mind 15 years ago that if she ever ran for office I’d be on her wagon. My only difficulty with Senator Obama is that I believe in going out with who I went in with.

Angelou shifted her support to Obama when he was chosen as the Democratic nominee. Delighted when he was elected president, she declared: "We are growing up beyond the idiocies of racism and sexism."

Angelou’s grandson, Elliott Jones, began Saturday's ceremony by reading one of her poems, Still I Rise:

“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.”

In her storied lifetime, Angelou played many roles: civil rights activist, author, poet, actress, director, playwright and songwriter.

She survived several personal trials that colored her memoirs. She was a child of the depression, grew up in the segregated south, survived a childhood rape by her mother's boyfriend, who was then murdered by her uncles. Angelou felt responsible and stopped speaking for five years. She gave birth as a teenager and was, at one time, a “shake dancer in nightclubs”.

She wrote wrote seven autobiographies, including perhaps her best known work, her 1969 memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a scathing indictment of the racial discrimination she experienced during her childhood.

"If growing up is painful for the southern black girl," she wrote, "being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult."