Poet Maya Angelou remembered at memorial service

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)
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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

U.S. poet Maya Angelou speaks during a ceremony to honor South African Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu with the J. William Fulbright Prize for International Understanding Award in Washington November 21, 2008.

(REUTERS/Jim Young)

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)
Media mogul Russell Simmons escorts poet Maya Angelou to her seat at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, November 13, 2006. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES)

Poet and activist Dr. Maya Angelo gives a thumbs up to the delegation after her speech during the second night of the Democratic National Convention at the FleetCenter in Boston, July 27, 2004. Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry is expected to formally accept the party's nomination July 29.

(REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Publisher and talk show host Oprah Winfrey rests her head on the shoulder of poet and author Maya Angelou during a photo opportunity May 5, 2001 before the two participated in a one-on-one dialogue at the Simmons Graduate School of Management Leadership Conference in Boston.

(Reuters Photographer / Reuters)

Poet Maya Angelou (C) speaks at funeral services for Coretta Scott King as U.S. President George Bush and his wife Laura listen at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Georgia February 7, 2006. Coretta Scott King was the wife of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. REUTERS/Jason Reed

Oprah Winfrey speaks during the dedication ceremony for the Maya Angelou Forever stamp in Washington April 7, 2015. Angelou, a poet, author and civil rights champion, died last year.

(REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

Oprah Winfrey laughs with poet Maya Angelou during the taping of "Oprah's Surprise Spectacular" in Chicago May 17, 2011. Winfrey kicked off one of her last-ever national talk shows on Tuesday with hugs from Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise and Madonna in a packed Chicago arena.

(REUTERS/John Gress)

Poet and activist Maya Angelou speaks before delegates during the second night of the 2004 Democratic National Convention at the FleetCenter in Boston, July 27, 2004. More than 4,000 delegates to the convention will nominate John Kerry to challenge President George W. Bush in a November battle for the White House that is essentially a dead heat.

(REUTERS/Gary Hershorn)

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Associated Press Writer Jeffrey Collins contributed to this report from Columbia, South Carolina.

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