WINSTON-SALEM N.C. (Reuters) - First lady Michelle Obama remembered poet, author and civil rights champion Maya Angelou on Saturday as a dominant cultural force who taught black women and people of all races to celebrate their own worth and beauty.
Obama credited the writer’s works, including her pioneering 1969 autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” with helping carry a young black girl from the South Side of Chicago to the White House.
“She celebrated black women’s beauty like no one ever had before,” Obama said to more than 2,000 people at Angelou’s private memorial service in North Carolina. “She told us our worth had nothing to do with what the world might say.”
Former President Bill Clinton, media magnate Oprah Winfrey and actress Cicely Tyson also honored Angelou during the service at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, where she lived and taught for three decades.
Angelou was 86 when she died at her home on May 28 after years of failing health. Her only child, son Guy B. Johnson, said she never lost her mental acuity.
The tribute to her was celebratory and solemn. Winfrey and Tyson each wept over the loss of their “rock,” while rousing performances by singers Lee Ann Womack, BeBe Winans and Alyson Williams brought the audience to their feet.
Speakers recalled the courageous spirit that allowed Angelou to overcome rape and racism during her childhood in the segregated South and produce a vast body of work that includes reading list staples in American classrooms.
The voice she found after years of not speaking due to her abuse was one of rare power and clarity, Clinton said. Angelou wrote the poem “On the Pulse of Morning” and read it at Clinton’s first presidential inauguration in 1993.
“She had the voice of God, and he decided he wanted it back,” Clinton said.
Angelou wrote more than 30 books of fiction, poetry and memoir during her prodigious career. She also was a Tony-nominated stage actress, Grammy Award winner for three spoken-word albums, civil rights activist, streetcar conductor, singer, dancer, movie director and playwright.
In 2011, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, was bestowed upon Angelou by President Barack Obama. The president said his sister was named for the poet.
Angelou served as a professor of American Studies at Wake Forest since 1982, and had planned to teach a course on race, culture and gender this fall, the university said.
Winfrey counted herself among Angelou’s devoted students and said she often took notes during conversations with her “spiritual queen mother.” She was a news reporter in Baltimore in the 1970s when she met Angelou, and the two women became close friends.
She said Angelou’s legacy of dignity, love and respect gave testament to the power of one life, and Winfrey vowed to embrace the challenge of walking in her mentor’s footsteps.
“Baby, I want you to do it and I want you to take it,” Winfrey said, quoting Angelou. “Take it all the way.”
Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles, Editing by Sonya Hepinstall, Gunna Dickson and Bernard Orr