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A Phenomenal Woman: Tribute to Dr. Maya Angelou

By Andrea Muhammad | Last updated: Jun 25, 2014 - 11:34:43 PM

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Winston Salem, N.C.—The world paid tribute to the legacy and life of the incomparable Dr. Maya Angelou at a memorial in North Carolina in early June. The acclaimed author, poet, dancer, singer and activist whose career spanned several decades died at her home in Winston Salem on May 28. She was 86 years old.

The June 7 service took place on the picturesque grounds of Wake Forest University’s Wait Chapel in Winston Salem (where she taught as a professor). Amid tight security, guests ranging from family to dignitaries like legendary actress Cicely Tyson, former UN Ambassador Andrew Young, talk show host Oprah Winfrey, First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton were in attendance at the private service. The event exhibited class, refinement and distinction exemplary of the woman whose persona captivated the heart, mind and soul of humanity.

“I can tell you that every emotion known to man was exhibited by Maya. She held nothing. She spoke her mind no matter what the situation was,” said longtime friend and legendary actress Cicely Tyson. She recounted the time she and Dr. Angelou first met in 1960.

Holding back tears Ms. Tyson ended her heartfelt remarks saying, “It’s a tie that will never be broken. I will always love you.”

Mr. Clinton spoke to the power Dr. Angelou commanded with her voice, “She was without a voice for 5 years and then she developed the greatest voice on the planet. God loaned her His voice. She had the voice of God.”


Oprah Winfrey, paid homage to her mentor saying, “I am here today to say thank you. To acknowledge, to you all and the world, how powerful one life can be.” Ms. Winfrey continued, “She was my spiritual queen mother and everything that word implies. She was the ultimate teacher.”

Mrs. Obama paid tribute saying, “It is 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.” Mrs. Obama addressed Dr. Angelou’s unapologetic embrace and ownership of the beauty of Black women and women in general.

“Maya Angelou spoke to the essence of Black women.” The first lady drew rousing applause as she testified to Dr. Angelou’s far reaching impact that paralleled the lives of she and others saying, “[Her] words so powerful that they carried a little Black girl from the South Side of Chicago all the way to the White House.” Mrs. Obama added that Dr. Angelou’s impact crossed racial lines as well.

Wait Chapel on the grounds of Wake Forest University was the location of a memorial for Dr. Maya Angelou. Photo: Andrea Muhammad
“She touched people from 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,” said Mrs. Obama, speaking on Stanley Ann Dunham, President Obama’s late mother.

Dr. Serenus Churns of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Winston Salem was Dr. Angelou’s pastor. He gave the audience a glimpse into the quality of her faith saying, “Her joy was to give.” She did not put down the faith of others, whenever someone would say to her, “I’m a Christian,” she would respond, “Already? I’m still working on it!”

Speaking on behalf of his family, Dr. Angelou’s son, Guy Johnson gratefully acknowledged the outpouring of love as “awe inspiring.” He said the memorial service was “A Rising Celebration of Joy” because she loved the concept of joy, believing it was the difference between striving and thriving. Mr. Johnson said his family was joyful knowing that, “When the good Lord called her, she left this mortal plane with full acuity and no loss of comprehension and she died in her sleep.”

He challenged all inspired to follow her example. “If you wish to honor her legacy, you will look upon yourself and ask what are you doing to improve the human condition?,” he added.

Mr. Johnson ended his passionate remarks quoting from a Mother’s Day poem he wrote especially for his mother, that best sums up the iconic figure. “This star, this nova, is my mother!”