Poet Maya Angelou remembered at memorial service

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Maya Angelou Remembered By Family, Friends At Memorial

By EMERY P. DALESIO
Associated Press

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (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 Saturday that was filled with tears, laughter, poetry and gospel singing.

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 poet, who rose from poverty and segregation, gave strength to millions of women to live their lives in modern America.

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Dr. Maya Angelou's memorial service
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Poet Maya Angelou remembered at memorial service
WINSTON SALEM, NC - MAY 29: Visitors fill the pews during a memorial service for poet Maya Angelou on May 29, 2014 at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Angelou attended the church for over 30 years. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
WINSTON SALEM, NC - MAY 29: Colin Johnson speaks during a memorial service for his grandmother, poet Maya Angelou on May 29, 2014 at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Angelou attended the church for over 30 years. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
WINSTON SALEM, NC - MAY 29: Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Jones speaks during a memorial service for poet Maya Angelou on May 29, 2014 at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Angelou attended the church for over 30 years. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
WINSTON SALEM, NC - MAY 29: A young boy watches from the balcony during a memorial service for poet Maya Angelou on May 29, 2014 at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Angelou attended the church for over 30 years. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
WINSTON SALEM, NC - MAY 29: Participants listen to a poetry reading during a memorial service for poet Maya Angelou on May 29, 2014 at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Angelou attended the church for over 30 years. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
WINSTON SALEM, NC - JUNE 06: General view of Wait Chapel prior to the Maya Angelou Memorial Service at Wake Forest University on June 6, 2014 in Winston Salem, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Media members watch a screen as Oprah Winfrey speaks during a memorial service for poet and author Maya Angelou at Wait Chapel. at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., Saturday, June 7, 2014. Former President Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey are joining First Lady Michelle Obama at the service. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
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Family, friends and admirers 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 more than 30 years. Angelou died May 28 at age 86 after a life with important roles in civil rights and the arts.

Obama told those 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 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 the audience, seated in 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 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 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 Saturday. "She had the voice of God. And he decided he wanted it back for a while."

He also said she was a role model for many.

"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 added.

The service was punctuated 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 had never graduated from college.

Winfrey spoke of Angelou as her spiritual queen mother, saying she always took notes whenever 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 through television.

Winfrey said she struggled to put what Angelou meant into words, then realized she owed the poet not words, but actions.

"I cannot fill her shoes, but I can walk in her footsteps," Winfrey said.

Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis and raised in Stamps, 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 once danced at a strip joint, shared the stage with comic Phyllis Diller and garnered career advice from singer Billie Holiday. She wrote music and plays, received an Emmy nomination for her acting in the 1970s TV miniseries "Roots" and danced with Alvin Ailey.

Her magnetism drew her into friendships with many famous figures, including Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela.

Angelou once worked as a coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and lived for years in Egypt and Ghana, where she met 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.

Clinton said he first encountered Angelou through her autobiographical book "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." He grew up about 20 miles from where Angelou spent her childhood and said the author's power was amplified because he was so familiar with her surroundings.

Clinton compared Angelou to a firefly, who would light up at the most unexpected time, illuminating "something right before your nose you've been overlooking, something in your mind you've been burying. Something in your heart you were afraid to face."

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Maya Angelou
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Poet Maya Angelou remembered at memorial service
FILE - In this Nov. 21, 2008 file photo, author Maya Angelou delivers a tribute to South African Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu at the State Department in Washington. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison were among the expected speakers at a tribute to Maya Angelou, the author, poet and stage performer who died earlier this year. The event was to be held Friday, Sept. 12, 2014 at The Riverside Church in Manhattan, a few blocks west of a Harlem town house Angelou owned in recent years. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)
FILE - In a Feb. 15, 2011 file photo, President Barack Obama kisses author and poet Maya Angelou after awarding her the 2010 Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Maya Angelou’s iconic words and lyrics will be blended with hip-hop beats for a new album called “Caged Bird Songs.” The album is one of the last projects Angelou completed before she passed in May, her grandson Colin A. Johnson said in an interview Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014. Shawn Rivera, the lead singer of R&B group Az Yet, and RoccStarr, who co-wrote Chris Brown’s “Fine China,” produced the 13-song set, to be released through Smooch Music on Nov. 4. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
Sara Bareilles performs on stage while an image of Maya Angelou appears during an in memorium tribute at the 66th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards at the Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on Monday, Aug. 25, 2014, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
Phylicia Rashad speaks on stage at the BET Awards at the Nokia Theatre on Sunday, June 29, 2014, in Los Angeles. Pictured on screen is Maya Angelou. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
A bouquet of flowers and a magazine showing Maya Angelou on the cover lie outside a gate at the home of Angelou in Winston-Salem, N.C., Wednesday, May 28, 2014. Angelou, a Renaissance woman and cultural pioneer, has died, Wake Forest University said in a statement Wednesday. She was 86. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Maya Angelou, poet in residence at Wake Forest University, talks about the poem she wrote for President Clinton's inauguration from her office in Winston-Salem, N.C., Sept. 16, 1996. Angelou will narrate the poem to music Saturday at the school. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
8th April 1978: American poet and author Maya Angelou gestures while speaking in a chair during an interview at her home. (Photo by Jack Sotomayor/New York Times Co./Getty Images)
American writer and poet Maya Angelou in New York City, April 1994. (Photo by Michael Brennan/Getty Images)
American poet and writer Maya Angelou shown on Dec. 15, 1992 in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Doug Mills)
IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY - Maya Angelou answers questions at her portrait unveiling at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery on Saturday, April 5, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Paul Morigi/AP Images for National Portrait Gallery)
Dr. Maya Angelou speaks on race relations at Congregation B’nai Israel and Ebenezer Baptist Church on January 16, 2014 in Boca Raton, Florida.(Photo by Jeff Daly/Invision/AP)
FILE - In this May 20, 2010 file photo, poet and author Maya Angelou smiles at a garden party at her home in Winston-Salem, N.C. Angelou's latest book, memoir "Mom & Me & Mom," is a sweet ode to "Lady," her mother Vivian Baxter, and "Momma," her paternal grandmother Annie Henderson. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond, file)
FILE - In this Nov. 21, 2008 file photo, poet Maya Angelou is shown in Washington. Angelou will not attend the 2014 MLB Beacon Awards Luncheon where she will be honored due to issues with her health. Major League Baseball announced Friday, May 23, 2014 because of “health reasons” the 86-year-old won’t make it to the May 30 event in Houston before the annual Civil Rights Game. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert,File)
Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., right, and poet Maya Angelou, left, acknowledge the crowd during a campaign stop at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., Friday, April 18, 2008. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Writer Maya Angelou sautes some onions and peppers in the kitchen of the Sugar Bar restaurant Monday, Sept. 29, 1997, in New York, where she spent the day cooking a meal as a guest chef for a benefit dinner later in the evening. Proceeds from the five course dinner she prepared were to be donated to the Betty Shabazz Foundation. (AP Photo/Rob Schoenbaum)
Newly sworn-in U.S. President Bill Clinton reaches out to hug poet Maya Angelou after she delivered her inaugural poem on the west steps of the Capitol during inauguration ceremonies in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 1993. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Coretta Scott King, left, widow of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and poet Maya Angelou leave New York's Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx section of New York on Monday, June 2, 1997, after they prayed at Betty Shabazz's bedside. Betty Shabazz is in critical condition with third degree burns over 80 percent of her body after being injured Sunday in an early morning fire of suspicious origin in her Yonkers apartment.(AP Photo/David Karp)
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks during a tribute to Maya Angelou at The Riverside Church in Manhattan, Friday Sept. 12, 2014 in New York. Family and friends filled the church to remember Angelou, the author, poet and stage performer who died earlier this year. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks during a tribute to Maya Angelou at The Riverside Church in Manhattan, Friday Sept. 12, 2014 in New York. Family and friends filled the church to remember Angelou, the author, poet and stage performer who died earlier this year. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY - Left to right, Johnnetta Cole, director of the National Museum of African Art, Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey pose for a photo backstage at Maya Angelou's portrait unveiling at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery on Saturday, April 5, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Paul Morigi/AP Images for National Portrait Gallery)
President Barack Obama kisses author and poet Maya Angelou after awarding her the 2010 Medal of Freedom during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
First lady Michelle Obama applauds to BET honoree poet Maya Angelou after receiving the Literary Arts Award during the BET Honors, at right Willow Smith looks on at the Warner Theatre in Washington on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Maya Angelou, left, Alicia Keys and Oprah Winfrey share laughs during a star-studded double-taping of "Surprise Oprah! A Farewell Spectacular," Tuesday, May 17, 2011, in Chicago. "The Oprah Winfrey Show" is ending its run May 25, after 25 years, and millions of her fans around the globe are waiting to see how she will close out a show that spawned a media empire. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Maya Angelou, left, and Oprah Winfrey share laughs during a star-studded double-taping of "Surprise Oprah! A Farewell Spectacular," Tuesday, May 17, 2011, in Chicago. "The Oprah Winfrey Show" is ending its run May 25, after 25 years, and millions of her fans around the globe are waiting to see how she will close out a show that spawned a media empire. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, left, is framed in the center of a wreath as he listens to poet Maya Angelou perform a poem during the dedication ceremony for the African Burial Ground National Monument in New York, Friday Oct. 5, 2007. The ceremony came more than 16 years after the burial ground was rediscovered during excavations for a federal building in 1991. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
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Associated Press Writer Jeffrey Collins contributed to this report from Columbia, South Carolina.

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