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Remembering Maya Angelou: Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey Pay Tribute to Legendary Poet

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The writer and activist Maya Angelou was remembered Saturday at a memorial service in North Carolina. Angelou died last month at the age of 86. Born in the Jim Crow South, Angelou rose to become one of the world’s most celebrated writers. After becoming an accomplished singer and actress, Angelou was deeply involved in the 1960s civil rights struggle, working with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Encouraged by the author James Baldwin, among others, to focus on her writing, Angelou penned “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” her first of seven autobiographies. The book launched the phenomenal career for which she is known around the world as an award-winning author and poet. First lady Michelle Obama, former President Bill Clinton and media mogul Oprah Winfrey were among the dignitaries to honor Angelou at Winston-Salem’s Wake Forest University, where she taught for three decades. “She showed us that eventually, if we stayed true to who we are, then the world would embrace us,” Obama said. “And she did this not just for black women, but for all women, for all human beings. She taught us all that it is OK to be your regular old self, whatever that is, your poor self, your broken self, your brilliant, bold, phenomenal self. That was Maya Angelou’s reach.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Friends and relatives of Maya Angelou gathered in North Carolina Saturday for a private memorial service to remember one of the world’s most famous writers of the 20th century. First lady Michelle Obama, former President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey were among the dignitaries who honored Angelou at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, where Maya Angelou taught for three decades. She died May 28th at her home in North Carolina. She was 86 years old.

Born Marguerite [Annie] Johnson in St. Louis, Maya Angelou grew up in Arkansas in the Jim Crow South. At the age of seven or eight, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. He was killed shortly thereafter. As a result of the trauma, she remained virtually silent for five years, speaking only to her brother. She became a mother at age 17. In the ’50s and ’60s, she went on to become an actress, singer and dancer. After she fell in love with a South African civil rights activist, they moved to Cairo.

She later lived in Ghana, where she met Malcolm X, and the two collaborated on developing his Organization of Afro-American Unity. She returned to the United States to support the effort, but Malcolm X was assassinated shortly after her return. That tragedy and the 1968 assassination of her friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. devastated Angelou. It was in 1969 that she was encouraged by the author James Baldwin, among others, to focus on her writing. Thus was born I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, her first of seven autobiographies and the phenomenal career for which she’s known around the world.

In 1993, Maya Angelou recited her poem “On the Pulse of the Morning” at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. She was the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961. President Clinton spoke at Saturday’s memorial.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: I loved Maya. The last time we were together was just a couple weeks ago at the LBJ Library in Austin. They were having a—Andy was there. They were having a 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act. And they had an all-day conference. And I gave my little talk, and we went into this lunch, and it was like a political version of the Antiques Roadshow. Oh, Bill Russell came up and hugged me and reminded me of how short I was. And I looked over, and there was Maya. 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 am wheelchair-bound doesn’t mean I don’t get around.” So, that’s the first thing I want to say: That girl got around.

Let me tell you how this all started. I first encountered Maya Angelou as a young man when I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It was written in 1970 about the time I started law school, and shortly after it came out, I read it, and I was the one who was struck dumb. I thought, first of all, Stamps, Arkansas, where it’s set, is about 25 miles from where I was born. I’ve got a lot of relatives who lived there. I knew the people she was talking about, the problems she was documenting. But the thing that struck me about the book, even more than the horrible abuse she endured and the five years of silence that followed, was that this little kid, the whole time all this was going on, was paying attention. She may have stopped talking, but she never stopped looking. She was paying attention and absorbing the people she saw, the patterns of life, the experience, and trying to make sense of it.

She had enough experiences for five lifetimes. We could all just show up here and talk about a piece of her life. Think about that. She moved from being a mute child to being reunited with her mother, to being in a school of dance and drama, to being the first African-American woman to be a streetcar director in San Francisco, to having a baby, to having to be a short order cook and other stuff to feed the baby and keep body and soul together. And that was all when she was a teenager. She wasn’t even 20 years old; all that had happened to her. Then, in her twenties, she was singing and dancing and acting in the U.S. and Europe. In her thirties, she became a member of the Harlem Writers Guild. By 32, she had moved to Egypt to run a newspaper. And by 33, she was living in Ghana. By then, she had mastered five languages, went through your horrible accident with you and how you both would control the rest of your life. And I admire you, and I’m grateful to you for the life you have lived. So, thank you for that.

And she meets Malcolm X and comes back here to work for him, and he gets killed. She goes to work for Martin Luther King, and on her 40th birthday he gets killed. We could all just be up here talking about how Maya Angelou represented a big piece of America’s history and triumphed over adversity and proved how dumb racism is, but her great gift in her action-packed life was she was always paying attention. And by the time she started writing her books and her poetry, what she was basically doing was calling our attention to the things she’d been paying attention to. And she did it with a clarity and power that will wash over people as long as there is a written and spoken word.

The Caged Bird was the first manifestation of her great gift. Otherwise, somebody else would have had to written that book about that little girl and what happened to her and how she couldn’t talk and why she didn’t talk. And she just kept calling our attention to things. I often thought of her gigantic figure as like the little fireflies we used to catch in the summertime and put in jars. They just come on at unpredictable times, and they’d make you see something that you otherwise would have missed, something right before your nose you’d been overlooking, something in your mind you’d been burying, something in your heart you were afraid to face. She called our attention in thousands of ways to her belief that life is a gift, manifest in each new day. She called our attention to the fact that the things that really matter—dignity, work, love and kindness—are things we can all share and don’t cost anything. And they matter more than the differences of wealth and power, of strength and beauty, of intellect. All that’s nice if you put it to the right use, but nothing is more powerful than giving honor to the things we share.

She also taught us, through all those decades of challenges, that life is a constant choice. Every day, you’ve got to get up and make a choice. Will you choose light or darkness, choose to reach out or draw in, choose to speak out or shut up? Will you be paralyzed by your past and your failures, or will you forgive yourself enough to be unchanged? History, despite its wrenching pain, need not be lived again. That’s what she taught me and millions of others.

Here’s why I think she died when she did. It was her voice. She was without a 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 for a while.

So, my friend, we thank you for calling our attention to the things you paid attention to. We thank you for helping to organize our scales so that we give heavy weight to the most important things. We thank you for reminding us that on each new day we can give birth again to the dream, and that every day we should look into our sister’s eyes and our brother’s face, to all our nation, and say, “Good morning. As long as we have time, we should keep the courage to begin again.” That’s what you did. And how blessed we are because of it.

AMY GOODMAN: Former President Bill Clinton speaking Saturday at the memorial service for Maya Angelou, who died on May 28th at the age of 86. After break, we’ll hear from first lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey. Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: That was a clip played by Oprah’s OWN TV of Maya Angelou singing “Run Joe” in the 1957 film, Calypso Heat Wave. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. The writer, the poet, the performer, Maya Angelou, was also remembered Saturday at the memorial in North Carolina at Wake Forest, where she taught for three decades. Maya Angelou died last month at the age of 86. Speakers included first lady Michelle Obama.

MICHELLE OBAMA: To the family, Guy, to all of you, to the friends, President Clinton, Oprah, my mother, Cicely Tyson, Ambassador Young, let me just share something with you. My mother, Marian Robinson, never cares about anything I do. But when Dr. Maya Angelou passed, she said, “You’re going, aren’t you?” I said, “Well, Mom, I’m not really sure. I have to check with my schedule.” She said, “You are going, right?” I said, “Well, I’m going to get back to you, but I’m going to have to check with the people, figure it out.” I came back up to her room when I found out that I was scheduled to go, and she said, “That’s good. Now I’m happy.” It is such a profound honor, truly a profound honor, to be here today on behalf of myself and my husband as we celebrate one of the greatest spirits our world has ever known, our dear friend Dr. Maya Angelou.

In the Book of Psalms, it reads, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” What a perfect description of Maya Angelou and the gift she gave to her family and to all who loved her. 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 struck by how she celebrated black women’s beauty like no one had ever dared to before—our curves, our stride, our strength, our grace. Her words were clever and sassy; they were powerful and sexual and boastful. And in that one singular poem, Maya Angelou spoke to the essence of black women, but she also graced us with an anthem for all women, a call for all of us to embrace our God-given beauty. And, oh, how desperately black girls needed that message. As a young woman, I needed that message.

As a child, my first doll was Malibu Barbie. That was the standard for perfection. That was what the world told me to aspire to. But then I discovered Maya Angelou, and her words lifted me right out of my own little head. Her message was very simple. She told us that our worth has nothing to do with what the world might say. Instead, she said, each of us comes from the creator, trailing wisps of glory. She reminded us 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.

Dr. Angelou’s words sustained me on every step of my journey, through lonely moments in ivy-covered classrooms and colorless skyscrapers, through blissful moments mothering two splendid baby girls, through long years on the campaign trail where at times my very womanhood was dissected and questioned. For me, that was the power of Maya Angelou’s words, words so powerful that they carried a little black girl from the South Side of Chicago all the way to the White House.

And today, as first lady, whenever the term “authentic” is used to describe me, I take it as a tremendous compliment, because I know that I am following in the footsteps of great women like Maya Angelou. But really, I am just a beginner. I am baby authentic. Maya Angelou, now she was the original. She was the master, for at a time when there were such stifling constraints on how black women could exist in the world, she serenely disregarded all the rules with fiercely passionate, unapologetic self. She was comfortable in every last inch of her glorious brown skin. But for Dr. Angelou, her own transition was never enough. You see, she didn’t just want to be phenomenal herself; she wanted all of us to be phenomenal right alongside her. So, that’s what she did throughout her lifetime. She gathered so many of us under her wing. I wish I was her daughter, but I was right under that wing, sharing her wisdom, her genius and her boundless love.

I first came into her presence in 2008 when she spoke at a campaign rally here in North Carolina. At that point, she was in a wheelchair hooked up to an oxygen tank to help her breathe. But let me tell you, she rolled up like she owned the place. She took the stage, as she always did, like she had been born there. And I was so completely awed and overwhelmed by her presence, I could barely concentrate on what she was saying to me. But while I don’t remember her exact words, I do remember exactly how she made me feel. She made me feel like I owned the place, too. She made me feel like I had been born on that stage right next to her. And I remember thinking to myself, Maya Angelou knows who I am, and she is rooting for me. So now, I’m good. I can do this. I can do this.

And that’s really true for us all, because in so many ways, Maya Angelou knew us. She knew our hope, our pain, our ambition, our fear, our anger, our shame. And she assured us that despite it all—in fact, because of it all—we were good. And in doing so, she paved the way for me and Oprah and so many others just to be our good old black woman selves. She showed us—she showed us that eventually, if we stayed true to who we are, then the world would embrace us. And she did this not just for black women, but for all women, for all human beings. She taught us all that it is OK to be your regular old self, whatever that is, your poor self, your broken self, your brilliant, bold, phenomenal self. That was Maya Angelou’s reach. She touched me. She touched all of you. She touched people all across the globe, including a young white woman from Kansas who named her daughter after Maya and raised her son to be the first black president of the United States.

So when I heard that Dr. Angelou had passed, while I felt a deep sense of loss, I also felt a profound sense of peace, because there is no question that Maya Angelou will always be with us, because there was something truly divine about Maya. I know that now, as always, she is right where she belongs. May her memory be a blessing to us all. Thank you. God bless.

AMY GOODMAN: First lady Michelle Obama speaking at Saturday’s memorial service for Maya Angelou at Wake Forest University, where Maya Angelou taught for over 30 years. Oprah Winfrey also spoke.

OPRAH WINFREY: I remember the first time I heard that phrase, “God put a rainbow in the clouds.” I was in utter despair and distraught and had called Maya. I remember being locked in the bathroom with the door closed, sitting on the toilet seat. And I was crying so hard, she could barely understand what I was saying. And I had—I was upset about something that I can’t even remember now what it was. Isn’t that how life works? And I called for a long-distance cry on her shoulder. But she wasn’t having it. She said, as you all know she could, “Stop it. Stop it now.” And I’d say, “What? What? What did you say?” And she said, “Stop your crying now.” And I continued to sniffle, and she said, “Did you hear me?” And I said, “Yes, ma’am.” Only she could level me to my seven-year-old self in an instant. And she said—I said, “Why do you want me to stop crying? I’m trying to explain to you what happened.” And she says, “I want you to stop and say thank you, because whatever it is, you have the faith to know that God has put a rainbow in the clouds, and you’re going to come out on the other side of whatever it is the better for it.” She was, in all ways, no matter the time of day or night or the situation, she was always there for me to be the rainbow.

I marvel at God. I am just in awe that I, a little colored, then Negro girl, growing up in Mississippi, having read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and for the first time reading a story about someone who was like me, I marveled that from the first page—What you looking at me for? Didn’t come to stay. Only came to say Happy Easter Day—I was that girl who had done Easter pieces and Christmas pieces. I was that girl who loved to read. I was that girl who was raised by my Southern grandmother. I was that girl who was raped at nine. So when I first met Maya Angelou in the late ’70s in Baltimore as a young news reporter and begged her to do an interview with me, and I said, “I promise, I promise, I promise, if you just give me your time, I promise it would only be five minutes,” and at the end of four minutes and 58 seconds, I told the cameraman, “Done.” And Maya Angelou looked at me and said, “Who are you, girl?”

First we became friendly and then sister friends, and the first time she told me I was her daughter, I knew I had found home. Sitting at her kitchen table on Valley Road, she was reading Paul Laurence Dunbar, ”Little brown baby wif spa’klin’ eyes.” That was my favorite place to be, at the kitchen table, or sitting at her feet, leaning over her lap, laughing out loud for real, soaking up all the knowledge, all the things that she had to teach, the grace, the love, all of it. My heart was full. Rarely did we ever have a phone conversation where I wasn’t taking notes. She was always teaching. When you learn, teach. When you get, give. I was a devoted student of Maya Angelou’s, learning up to our very last conversation, the Sunday before she died.

It has been difficult for me to try to put into words what it means to lose, as Cicely said, our rock. She was my anchor. So it’s hard to describe to you what it means when your anchor shifts. But I realize this morning I really don’t have to put it into words. What I have to do is live it, because that’s what she would want. She would want me, you, us to live her legacy.

I remember when I opened my school in South Africa, and I said to her, “Oh, Maya, this is going to be my greatest legacy.” And she said, “Not so fast. Your legacy,” she said, “is every woman who ever watched your show and decided to go back to school. Your legacy is every man who decided to forgive his father. It’s every gay person who decided to come out because they saw a show of yours. Your legacy is every person you ever touched. Your legacy is how you lived and what you did and what you said every day.”

So true, Sister Maya. I want to live your legacy. We want to live your legacy as you touched us all. Each of us who knew her, those only touched by her words or those who were able to be blessed to sit at the kitchen table, we are next in line to be a Maya Angelou to someone else. It’s a challenge that I embrace with my whole heart. I cannot fill her shoes, but I can walk in her footsteps, to carry and pass on to the next generation what she knew so well, what she tried to teach all of us: We are more alike than we are different. When I see you, I’m really just looking at myself in a different costume. I am human, and therefore nothing human is alien to me, she used to teach.

So, we must carry on and pass on, lifting humanity up, helping people to live lives of purpose and dignity, to pass on the poetry of courage and respect. That is what she would want. That is what we will do. And I know I will do it in a way that she most would want. In my last conversation with her, I was telling her about going to film the movie Selma, and she said to me, as she always said when I was doing any kind of job, she said, “Baby, I want you to do it, and I want you to take it. Take it all the way!”

AMY GOODMAN: Oprah Winfrey, speaking Saturday at the memorial service for the poet, for the performer, for the author, for the writer, playwright, activist Maya Angelou. She died May 28th at the age of 86. To go to our website to see and hear and read the transcript of these eulogies, Back in a minute.

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