More than 2,000 people attended a private memorial service for Maya Angelou Saturday at Wake Forest University. She died at her home in Winston-Salem on May 28th. The iconic writer and poet was remembered by family, friends and some distinguished guests.
Speakers recalled her roles as a mother, mentor and citizen of the world during a nearly two and a half hours memorial. Those who shared reflections stood over a bed of white roses and beneath four large pictures of the literary giant and took turns reminiscing. Her grandson Elliot Jones began the service with one of Angelou’s poems:
"Out of the huts of history history’s shame, I rise;
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain I rise;
I’m a black ocean leaping and wide, welling and swelling I bear in the tide, leaving behind nights of terror and fear, I rise;
Into a daybreak that is wondrously clear I rise; bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave, I rise; I rise; I rise."
Angelou grew up in the Jim Crow South and would come to have a far reaching literary and cultural and historical impact. She was a singer, dancer and close friend to James Baldwin, Dr. Martin Luther King Junior and Malcolm X. At the age of 17, she gave birth to her only child, Guy Johnson.
"In the midst of our sadness we are finding joy. You see, the last 10 years of her life, were a struggle of pain. She was suffering," said her son.
Years before her health began to decline Angelou spoke at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton. The two became close. Clinton saw her for the final time last month at an event in Texas celebrating the civil rights act.
"And I went over to her and I hugged her and I said, “I cannot believe that you have gotten yourself here. And she said “Just because… I’m wheelchair bound, doesn’t mean I don’t get around," said Clinton, which incited laughter from the crowd.
Angelou was well known for her rhythmic delivery and powerful voice. She wrote seven memoirs, including “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”.
"Her words were clever and sassy. They were powerful and sexual and boastful," said first lady Michelle Obama, who drew the loudest ovations, describing the inspiration and love Angelou had given to so many.
"She taught us that we are each wonderfully made, intricately woven and put on this earth for a purpose far greater than we could ever imagine. And when I think about Maya Angelou I think about the affirming power of her words. The first time I read “Phenomenal Woman” I was stuck by how she celebrated black women’s beauty like no one had ever dared to before."
The audience included administrators from Wake Forest University - where Angelou taught for more than 30 years, actor Cicely Tyson and Oprah Winfrey.
"The loss I feel I cannot describe … It’s like something I have never felt before. She was my spiritually queen mother – and everything that that word implies," a tearful Winfrey said.
Angelou’s pastor gave a eulogy and music ranged from gospel to country - one of the great writer’s favorite genres. Late in her life Angelou continued writing, reflecting and throwing parties at her home in Winston-Salem. In 2011 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. As a young child Angelou was sexually abused, and afterward didn’t speak for nearly years.
"She was without a voice for five years. And then God loaned her the greatest voice on the planet. God loaned her his voice. She had the voice of God. And he decided he wanted it back for a while."
Maya Angelou was 86.