Iconic US author, activist Angelou hailed at memorial

Posted at 06/08/2014 10:13 AM
Mourners enter Wait Chapel for the memorial service for Maya Angelou at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina June 7, 2014. Photo by Nell Redmond, Reuters.

WASHINGTON - 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.

- 'The voice of God' -

She "developed the greatest voice on the planet," Clinton said in his eulogy, joking that was why she died last month.

"God loaned her his voice. She had the voice of God. And he decided he wanted it back."

The former president, who invited Angelou to give a reading at his 1993 inauguration, said "her great gift in her action-packed life was she was always paying attention."

"And by the time she started writing her books and her poetry, what she was basically doing was calling our attention to the things she had been paying attention to. And she did it with a clarity and power that will wash over people as long as there is a written and spoken word."

Obama, who only met Angelou in 2008 during her husband's first campaign for the presidency, said she was nevertheless strongly impacted by Angelou throughout her life.

"Dr. Angelou's words sustained me on every step of my journey," Obama said.

"She taught us all that it is okay to be your regular old self, whatever that is. Your poor self, your broken self, your brilliant, bold, phenomenal self, that was Maya Angelou's reach," Obama said, adding that the poet also influenced a young Barack Obama.

Angelou "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."

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