WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - Former President Bill Clinton remembered poet, orator and sage Maya Angelou as a woman who seemed to have lived five lifetimes in one, with a sweeping experience that defined modern America.
Family, friends and famous admirers led by Clinton, first lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey gathered in a chapel at Wake Forest University on Saturday to remember Angelou, one of the 20th century's most famous black writers.
Angelou died May 28 at age 86 after a remarkable life with important roles in civil rights and the arts.
"We could just all be up here talking about how Maya Angelou represented a big piece of American history, And triumphed over adversity. And proved how dumb racism is," President Clinton said at the private memorial service.
Tall and majestic, Angelou added heft to her spoken words with a deep and sonorous voice, describing herself as a poet in love with "the music of language." She recited the most popular presidential inaugural poem in history, "On the Pulse of Morning," when Mr. Clinton opened his first term in 1993. She inspired many and became a mentor to Winfrey before she became a talk show host.
Mr. Clinton remembered that voice, and how Angelou chose not to speak for five years after she was raped by her mother's boyfriend as a child.
"She was without a voice for five years and then she developed the greatest voice on the planet. God loaned her His voice," President Clinton said. "She had the voice of God. And he decided he wanted it back for a while."
Mr. Clinton compared Angelou to a firefly, who would light up at the most unexpected time, illuminating "something right before your nose you've been overlooking something in your mind you've been burying. Something in your heart you were afraid to face."
Michelle Obama recalled Angelou as the first person who let her know she could be a strong, powerful and smart black woman.
She remembered reading Angelou's poem "Phenomenal Woman," and how it changed a woman whose first doll was Malibu Barbie.
"She celebrated black women's beauty like no one had ever dared to before. Our curves, our stride, our strength, our grace," Obama told those seated in the wooden pews. "Her words were clever and sassy. They were powerful and sexual and boastful."
The service included several rousing gospel songs. There were tears, but laughter too, as Angelou's friends remembered a clever woman with a deep spiritual faith.
Winfrey remembered Angelou as her spiritual queen mother, saying she always took notes when they spoke on the phone. She cried a few times as she remembered how Angelou was a vital part of her career.
Winfrey said she struggled to put what Angelou meant into words, then realized she owed the poet not words, but actions. "I cannot fill her shoes, but I can walk in her footsteps," Winfrey said.
Earlier, Angelou's grandson Elliott Jones welcomed the audience by telling them they were celebrating "an amazing life -- a life well-lived." Jones then read a passage from his grandmother's poem, "Still I Rise."
"Just like moons and like suns. With the certainty of tides. Just like hopes springing high. Still I'll rise."
Born into poverty and segregation, Angelou rose to become an accomplished actress, singer, dancer and writer. Although she never graduated from college, she taught for more than 30 years at the private North Carolina university where she was regularly addressed as Dr. Angelou out of respect for all the honorary degrees she received.
Her magnetism also drew her into friendships with famous figures from Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela to Mr. Clinton and Winfrey.
- Maya Angelou: Her quotes, poetry and prose
- Maya Angelou's "Note to Self"
- Looking back on the lessons Angelou learned (and taught us)
Angelou was born Marguerite Johnson in St. Louis and raised in Stamps, Arkansas, and San Francisco. Her life included writing poetry by age 9, giving birth as a single mother by 17, and becoming San Francisco's first black streetcar conductor. She also once danced at a strip joint, shared the stage with comic Phyllis Diller and garnered career advice from singer Billie Holiday. She wrote music and plays, received an Emmy nomination for her acting in the 1970s TV miniseries "Roots" and danced with Alvin Ailey.
Angelou once worked as a coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and lived for years in Egypt and Ghana, where she met Mandela. In 1968, she was helping the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. organize the Poor People's March in Memphis, Tennessee, where the civil rights leader was slain on Angelou's 40th birthday.