Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
This excerpt, taken from Maya’s Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise,” were the words spoken by her grandson, Elliot Jones, at the start of her memorial service.
Maya Angelou’s life and legacy were celebrated on Saturday, June 7, in Wait Chapel at Wake Forest University. A North Carolinian, she passed away on May 28 in her home in Winston-Salem at the age of 86.
At the age of 6, Nicole Johnson, Maya’s great granddaughter, declared that “people don’t love my great grandmother because she is famous. They love her because she loves them.” Indeed, both Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama stated that Maya had a significant impact on them through empowering their sense of identity as black women, helping to lead them to where they are today.
Bill Clinton spoke of how he discovered Maya in law school through her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. He was “struck dumb.” Much of Maya’s legacy stems from this book–a coming-of-age story that chronicles her rise from trauma in a culture of racism and misogyny to self-empowerment and a new identity. Having experienced the trauma of rape, she analogizes it to the racist brutality directed against her ethnic community. Like the caged bird that sings, literature and language are discovered as tools for transcending cultural oppression.
Clinton spoke of how even in Maya’s five year silence as a young woman, she continued to listen and pay attention to what was happening around her. He claimed that “her great gift in her action-packed life was she was always paying attention.” Thus her work was to call our attention toward things she paid attention to. She taught us that history does not need to be lived again. Every day we have a choice to choose light or darkness. Clinton expressed gratitude to Maya for “reminding us that on each new day we can give birth again to the dream, and that every day we should look into our sister’s eyes and our brother’s face, to all our nation, and say good morning.”
Michelle Obama spoke of the ways in which Maya empowered her as a young black girl to embrace her own beauty and to be courageous and proud in the person she is. Obama said that it was the power of Maya’s words that carried her “from the south side of Chicago all the way to the White House.” Maya taught young black women that it was okay for them to be themselves, to disregard the racist constructs propagated by a culture of white privilege.
Oprah described Maya as her “spiritual queen mother” and the “ultimate teacher.” Maya taught her that God was already shining a light on her face–that her enemies could not hold a candle to it–and that she was a “child of God.” Oprah proclaimed that Maya’s great gift to us was that “she made every one of us feel like we were the one.” Maya taught her that our legacy is every person we touch each and every day, not the glory of occasional things done in the spotlight.
In this way, Maya empowered all people to know that all of us have a legacy to leave in our daily lives whether we acknowledge it or not, and that we all have great dignity and worth as human beings. This truth is the bedrock of social justice.
You can watch the memorial service here: