Michelle Obama: Maya Angelou Celebrated Black Women’s Beauty Like No One Ever Had Before

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Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
June 7 2014 5:00 PM

Michelle Obama: Maya Angelou Celebrated Black Women’s Beauty Like No One Ever Had Before

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President Barack Obama kisses Maya Angelou after giving her the 2010 Medal of Freedom in the East Room of the White House on February 15, 2011.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

First Lady Michelle Obama, former president Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey were three of the biggest names to speak at a memorial service honoring the late poet, author and civil rights activist Maya Angelou that was held Saturday. Obama gave a very personal tribute to Angelou, who died May 28 at age 86, saying that her poem Phenomenal Woman changed the way she saw herself:

I was struck by how she celebrated black women’s beauty like no one had ever dared to before.  Our curves, our stride, our strength, our grace.  Her words were clever and sassy; they were powerful and sexual and boastful.  And in that one singular poem, Maya Angelou spoke to the essence of black women, but she also graced us with an anthem for all women—a call for all of us to embrace our God-given beauty.
And, oh, how desperately black girls needed that message.  As a young woman, I needed that message.  As a child, my first doll was Malibu Barbie.  That was the standard for perfection.  That was what the world told me to aspire to.  But then I discovered Maya Angelou, and her words lifted me right out of my own little head.
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Winfrey fought back tears as she recalled her “spiritual queen mother” and the “greatest woman I have ever known,” noting she often took notes during her conversations with Angelou, reports Reuters. "The loss I feel, I cannot describe.”

For his part, Clinton highlighted just how remarkable Angelou’s life had been, but noted that her greatest strength came from something that seems relatively simple: observing the world around her. "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," Clinton said, according to the Associated Press. "But her great gift in her action-packed life was she was always paying attention. And from the time she starting writing her books and her poetry, what she was basically doing was calling our attention to the things she'd been paying attention to."

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.