Poet Maya Angelou remembered at memorial service

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First Lady Michelle Obama, former President Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey were among the dignitaries who joined the crowd to say goodbye. (WTVD)

A perfect mix of music, poetry, gospel and praise filled Wake Forest University's Wait Chapel Saturday morning.

It was the only way to honor American icon, Dr. Maya Angelou.

"We're calling this ceremony a 'Rising Celebration of Joy' because my mother loved the concept of joy," said Angelou's son, Guy Bailey Johnson. "Because often it was difference between striving and thriving.

"There is no mourning here. There is no mourning," Johnson declared. "We have added to the population of angels."

Johnson was one of just thirteen left in Angelou's bloodline who attended the private, invitation-only memorial ceremony for one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. But thousands from the artist's global family descended upon her academic home of three decades, filling the chapel to capacity.

First Lady Michelle Obama, former President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Attorney General Eric Holder, Cicely Tyson and Tyler Perry were just a few recognizable faces to attend the service.

"I'm told that I have 10 minutes," said close friend Tyson, as the audience laughed. "I don't know how one consolidates over 50 years of a bond to 10 minutes. We've lost a rock."

"She was my anchor, so it's hard to describe to you what it means when your anchor shifts," cried Winfrey.

Winfrey recalled meeting Angelou for the first time as a young, eager local news reporter who begged the poet for an interview.

"I am the woman I am today because she was," declared Winfrey.

Over the years, she became one of Angelou's many adopted daughters, turning to the icon for guidance. But now, she said, is the time for those who loved and admired Angelou to honor her legacy through action.

"We must carry on and pass on, lifting humanity up," challenged Winfrey. "Helping people to live lives of purpose and dignity. To pass on the poetry of courage and respect."

First Lady Michelle Obama recalled the first time she read Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman," and how it allowed African American women to embrace their beauty.

"Her words lifted me right out of my own little head," Obama said. "Her message was very simple-She told us our worth had nothing to do with what the world might say. Instead she said, 'Each of us comes from the creator trailing wisps of glory.'"

"She would go into storytelling, teaching mode and I would go into awestruck amazement mode," said singer Alyson Williams, a longtime friend and Angelou mentee. "The singer, dancer , actor in her would speak to the singer, dancer, actor in me."


Many of the speakers recalled the first time they heard Angelou's commanding, booming voice.

"We happened to get off the plane together. I was intimidated and I went the other direction," laughed gospel artist, Bebe Winans. "She said 'If the driver doesn't come for your bags, you go with me.' And I said 'Oh that's okay.' She said 'That's not a kind gesture. That's a commandment.'"

"The last time we were together was a couple of weeks ago at the LBJ Library in Austin," said Clinton. "And I looked over and there was Maya, and I went over to her and I hugged her, and said 'I cannot believe that you have gotten yourself here. And she said 'Just because I am wheelchair bound. Doesn't mean I don't get around.'"

Laughter erupted at endless examples of Angelou's no-nonsense demeanor. But when Clinton reminded the church of how the icon was silenced following an experience with sexual assault during her youth, "the voice" became the center of his message.

"Here's why I think she died when she did-it was her voice," said Clinton. "She lost her voice for five years, and then she developed the greatest voice on the planet."

"God loaned her His voice.She had the voice of God and He decided he wanted it back."


Angelou's son told the captive audience that his mother had written more than four books in the last ten years, defying doctors' expectations. Johnson said she died in her sleep with full acuity.

Colin Johnson told the audience they were blessed if she'd made any of them feel half as special as she made him feel his entire life.

"One of my favorite Grandma quotes...'People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.'"

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.

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.

The Maya Angelou Memorial Service was hosted by Wake Forest University. You can watch the recorded service here: http://mayaangelou.wfu.edu/memorial-service/livestream/.

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