Family, friends and famous admirers including first lady Michelle Obama, former president Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey gathered Saturday in North Carolina and paid tribute to poet, orator and sage Maya Angelou.
Angelou was honored as a renaissance figure and one of the 20th century’s most famous black writers at the private memorial service at Winston-Salem’s Wake Forest University, where she taught since 1982. Angelou died on May 28 at the age of 86 after a remarkable life with important roles in civil rights and the arts.
The funeral program includes tributes from Clinton and Winfrey and a eulogy to be given by the first lady. Former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young is speaking, along with several family members and the poet’s friends.
Angelou’s grandson Elliott Jones welcomed the audience by telling them they were celebrating “an amazing life – a life well-lived.” Jones then read a passage from his grandmother’s poem “Still I Rise.”
“Just like moons and like suns. With the certainty of tides. Just like hopes springing high. Still I’ll rise.”
Born into poverty and segregation, Angelou rose to become an accomplished actress, singer, dancer and writer. Although she never graduated from college, she taught for more than 30 years at the private North Carolina university, where she was regularly addressed as Dr. Angelou out of respect for all the honorary degrees she received.
Her magnetism also drew her into friendships with famous figures from Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela to Clinton and Winfrey.
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.
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 talk-show host.
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.