Fighting back tears, an emotional Oprah Winfrey recalled her fondest memories of Maya Angelou at a memorial service honoring the late iconic poet, author and civil rights activist, who she called her "spiritual queen mother" and "greatest woman I have ever known."
Angelou died on May 28 at age 86 in her North Carolina home. A memorial service was held at Wake Forest University, where the poet taught for more than 33 years, on Saturday, June 7, in front of hundreds of people. Winfrey received a standing ovation after her emotional speech. Other speakers included First Lady Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton.
"The loss I feel, I cannot describe," Winfrey said, her voice wavering as she fought back tears. "It's like something I have never felt before. She was my spiritual queen mother and everything that that word implies. She was the ultimate teacher. She taught me the poetry of courage and respect."
Winfrey told the audience that she met Angelou in 1970 while interviewing her as a TV reporter. She spoke about how she identified with the poet, who wrote about her life in Stamps, Arkansas, in the then-segregated South, and about her horrific rape as a child in her 1969 autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
"I was that girl who loved to read," said Winfrey, who grew up in Mississippi. "I was that girl who was raised by my Southern grandmother. I was that girl who was raped at nine."
Winfrey had said on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1986 that she was raped as a child by a relative.
The longtime TV host, one of the most powerful and popular celebrities in the world, said she often sought advice from Angelou, including how to "navigate the pitfalls of fame, of a public life" and how to handle critics.
"She'd say, ‘Those people can't hold a candle to the light God already has shining on your face. Can't you see it? She'd say, ‘Look up! Look up and see the light,'" Winfrey said.
In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Angelou the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor. At the memorial service, his wife Michelle spoke about the poet's impact on people.
"In so many ways, Maya Angelou knew us," the First Lady said. "She knew our hope, our pain, our ambition, our fear, our anger, our shame and she assured us that despite it all, in fact, because of it all, we were good. And in doing so, she paved the way for me and Oprah and so many others just to be our good old black woman selves."
"She showed us," Obama continued. "She showed us that eventually, if we stay true to who we are, then the world would embrace us. And she did this not just for black women, but for all women, for all human beings. She taught us all that it is OK to be your regular old self, whatever that us."
Clinton also spoke about Angelou, who had read her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at his first presidential inauguration in 1993.
"God loaned her her voice," he said at the memorial service. "And he decided he wanted it back for a while."
Watch a video of Maya Angelou's memorial service, courtesy of Wake Forest University.