WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Eighty-six years of creativity, audacity and perseverance were acknowledged in two and a half hours of joy Saturday, as 2,000 people came to Wake Forest University to celebrate the life of Maya Angelou.
First lady Michelle Obama, former president Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and members of Angelou’s literal and extended family — by blood, by scholarship, by the influence she left on them — flocked to hear speakers share anecdotes and singers raise the rafters of Wait Chapel.
Grandson Colin Ashanti Johnson reminded us of her simple motto: “When you learn, teach. When you get, give.” That theme ran through every speech in honor of the poet/autobiographer, who was on the Wake Forest faculty for 32 years until her death May 28.
Clinton recalled reading “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” the first volume of Angelou’s life narrative, as a law student. He realized it had been written by a woman who grew up black and poor in a town near his Arkansas birthplace, and it spoke to him personally.
He compared her to a firefly, “which suddenly makes you see something in front of your nose that you would have missed.”
Obama remembered how Angelou empowered not only “black women but women everywhere and ALL human beings — including a white woman from Kansas who named her daughter Maya, and who raised a son who grew up to be the first black president of the United States.”
Winfrey, who helped put this tribute together, said, “The loss I feel, I cannot describe. It’s like nothing I’ve ever felt before. She was my spiritual queen mother and everything that describes.”
But it fell to Serenus Churn, Angelou’s pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church, to see the poet off with poetry.
He quoted Walt Whitman, William Cullen Bryant and finally invoked Shakespeare at the end of “Hamlet”: “Good night, sweet princess. And author. And teacher. And friend, and mother and grandmother … and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”