IN A tribute to a woman she called “one of the greatest spirits our world has ever known”, US first lady Michelle Obama yesterday thanked writer Maya Angelou for empowering young black women like herself, her words carrying “a little black girl to the White House”.
Family, friends and famous admirers led by Obama, former president Bill Clinton, and Oprah Winfrey gathered in a chapel at Wake Forest University yesterday to remember Angelou, one of the 20th century’s most famous black writers. She died on 28 May, aged 86, after a remarkable life with important roles in the civil rights movement and the arts.
Obama said Angelou’s inspirational message sustained her throughout her life, including when she became a mother and when she joined her husband on the campaign trail. “For me that was the power of Maya Angelou’s words, words so powerful that they carried a little black girl from the South Side of Chicago all the way to the White House,” she said. Obama’s nine-minute speech received a standing ovation.
She said: “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.”
Clinton earlier said: “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.”
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”.
She recited the most popular presidential inaugural poem in history, On the Pulse of Morning, when Clinton opened his first term in 1993. She inspired many and became a mentor to Winfrey before she became a TV 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 developed the greatest voice on the planet. God loaned her His voice,” he said.
He compared Angelou to a firefly, 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.”