Former President Bill Clinton has remembered poet, orator and sage Maya Angelou as a woman who seemed to have lived five lifetimes in one, with a sweeping experience that defined modern America.
Family, friends and famous admirers led by Clinton, first lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey gathered in a chapel at Wake Forest University on Saturday to remember Angelou, one of the 20th century’s most famous black writers.
She died on May 28 aged 86 after a remarkable life with important roles in civil rights and the arts.
“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,” Clinton said at the private memorial service.
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, and became a mentor to Winfrey before she became a 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 she developed he greatest voice on the planet. God loaned her His voice,” Clinton said.
Clinton compared Angelou to a firefly, who would light up at the most unexpected time, 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.”
Earlier, Angelou’s grandson Elliott Jones welcomed the audience by telling them they were celebrating “an amazing life – a life well-lived”.
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.
Her magnetism also drew her into friendships with famous figures from Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela to Clinton and Winfrey.