(CNN) — Poetry, performance and prayer celebrated the voice of literary giant Maya Angelou at a memorial service held Saturday at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
“She taught us that we are each wonderfully made, intricately woven and put on this earth for a purpose,” first lady Michelle Obama said during her tribute to the celebrated poet and actress.
Angelou, 86, died at her Winston-Salem home on May 28. Angelou had been “frail” and suffering from heart problems, her literary agent said. Angelou taught American studies for years at Wake Forest.
Obama did not meet Angelou until 2008, while on the campaign trail, but she said Angelou’s poem ‘Phenomenal Woman’ had a profound impact on her life.
“I was struck by how she celebrated black women’s beauty like no one had ever dared to,” Obama said in the service held at Wait Chapel.
“She also graced us with an anthem for all women, a call to all of us to embrace our God-given beauty. How desperately black girls needed that message,” the first lady said, remembering that as a young girl her first doll was a white Malibu Barbie.
She said that Angelou reminded everyone that ” We must each find our own voice, decide our own value and then announce it to the world with all the pride and joy that is our birthright as members of the human race.”
‘Spiritual queen mother’
Oprah Winfrey remembered her friend as the greatest woman she has ever known.
“The loss I feel I cannot describe,” Winfrey said, holding back tears. “It’s like something I’ve never felt before. She was my spiritual queen mother and everything that that word implies. She taught me the poetry of courage and respect.”
Winfrey recalled meeting Angelou in the late 1970s, when she worked as a news reporter.
“She looked at me and said, ‘Who are you girl?'” Winfrey said.
“I will miss her.”
‘She had the voice of God’
“I Loved Maya,” said former President Bill Clinton during his reflection. He said the two last met in April in Austin during a celebration of of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.
Clinton recalled that he hugged Angelou and said, ” I cannot believe that you have gotten yourself here.” He said she responded, “Just because I’m wheelchair-bound doesn’t mean I don’t get around.”
Clinton became aware of Angelou while in college by reading her book. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” her lasting contribution to literature that bore witness to the brutality of a Jim Crow South.
He said Angelou was always paying attention and used her voice to call attention to the things that really mattered.
“God loaned her his voice. She had the voice of God and he decided he wanted it back from her,” Clinton told the audience.
Music and more
Actress Cicely Tyson reflected on a friendship that began in 1960, when both were in a play called “The Blacks,” which ran for three years.
“Every emotion known to man was exhibited by Maya. She held nothing (back). She spoke her mind no matter what the situation,” Tyson remembered.
The memorial service also featured singer Lee Ann Womack performing “I Hope You Dance,” considered Angelou’s favorite song.
At the conclusion of the service Saturday, Angelou’s voice once more was heard in a recording of the 1996 Ashford & Simpson song “Been Found.”
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