On Saturday, family and friends gathered at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to honor the legendary Dr. Maya Angelou, who died in May at age 86. The award-winning novelist, poet and activist was celebrated during a private ceremony by a number of notable attendees, including former President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama.
The first lady offered an inspiring tribute to Angelou, whom she called “the master.” She described how Angelou’s writing strengthened her as a human being — especially the way Angelou celebrated black women despite living in a society that constantly sought to debase them.
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. 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.
Throughout Obama’s eulogy, she praised Angelou for her everlasting impact, acknowledging that — as Angelou herself once put it — the world may not remember all of the poet’s words, but we will never forget how she made us feel.