And still she rose, even in death. The spirit of writer-activist Maya Angelou, who passed away May 28, soared upward Saturday morning on the prayers of 2,000 people, tributes by famous friends and music ranging from classic gospel to European classics.
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 had on them – came to share anecdotes, half of them funny and half uplifting.
BeBe Winans and Alyson Williams raised the roof with inspirational music; a string trio from the Cincinnati Symphony played buoyant Mozart and reflective Dvorak. Angelou liked country tunes, so Lee Ann Womack sang “I Hope You Dance.” Valerie Simpson delivered “Remember Me,” once a lover’s farewell, like inspirational words Angelou might have spoken.
Grandson Colin Ashanti Johnson, the last orator among a dozen, shared Angelou’s motto: “When you learn, teach. When you get, give.” The theme ran through each speech about the poet/autobiographer, who was on the Wake Forest University faculty for 32 years.
Clinton, peering through glasses and speaking in a choked voice, recalled reading “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” as a law student. The first volume of Angelou’s life narrative had been written by a woman who grew up black and poor near his Arkansas birthplace, yet it spoke to him personally. He compared her to a firefly, “which makes you see something in front of your nose that you would have missed.”
Obama, who met Angelou on the North Carolina campaign trail in 2008, said she empowered not only “black women, but women everywhere and ALL human beings – including a white woman from Kansas who named her daughter Maya and raised her son to be the first black president of the United States.”
Winfrey, who helped organize the event, said, “The loss I feel, I cannot describe. It’s like nothing I’ve ever felt before. She was my spiritual queen mother.” Winfrey thought back to the time she phoned Angelou for “a long-distance cry on her shoulder. And she said, ‘Stop it. Stop your crying NOW. You have the faith to know that God put a rainbow in the clouds. You’re going to come out the other side.’ ”
Most homages came with humor. Winans said she praised his humility when they met and told him not to confuse that with being humble. “Humble is fake,” he said, quoting her. “It’s like a G-string. If you shake it hard enough, it’ll fall off.”
The crowd laughed and gasped. “ She said it,” he insisted.
Cicely Tyson, whose parents were West Indian, first encountered Angelou on a 1950s album of calypso songs: “Oh, my sister and I picked it apart.” Then, when she and Angelou ended up in a landmark 1961 production of Jean Genet’s “The Blacks,” Tyson heard “this booming voice challenging someone. It scared the daylights out of me.”
The Angelou that people recalled Saturday was a kinder, elder stateswoman, who believed “we are more alike than we are unalike.”
Four portraits hung above the chapel altar, including one of her getting the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. A banner with an Angelou quotation hung next to them: “Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.”
Many speakers sought biblical parallels. Former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young read from the Gospel of John, where faithful Christians are promised a room in God’s house; the books of Proverbs and Psalms were also quoted in her honor.
It fell to Serenus Churn, Angelou’s pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, to see the poet off with a mixture of religious allegories and poetry in his eulogy.
Churn invoked Walt Whitman, William Cullen Bryant and the Old Testament in praising his friend. Finally, he paraphrased Horatio’s speech over the dead Hamlet: “Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet princess. And author. And teacher. And friend. And mother and grandmother. … And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”