June 7, 2014, Wake Forest University's Wait Chapel, North Carolina, USA
To the family — Guy, to all of you — to the friends, President Clinton, Oprah, my mother Cicely Tyson, Ambassador Young — let me just share something with you: My mother, Marian Robinson, never cares about anything I do. But when Dr. Maya Angelou passed, she said, “You’re going, aren’t you?” I said, “Well, Mom, I’m not really sure, I have to check with my schedule’ she said “You are going. Right?” I said “Well, I’m gonna get back to you, I have to check with the people, figure it out.” I came back and said that I was scheduled to go and she said “That’s good. Now I’m happy.”
It is such a profound honor — truly a proud 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, our dear friend Dr. Maya Angelou. In the Book of Psalms it reads, “I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are your works, my soul knows very well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.”
What a perfect description of Maya Angelou and the gift she gave to her family and all who loved her. She taught us that we are each wonderfully made, intricately woven and put on this earth for purpose far greater than we could ever imagine.
When I think of Maya Angelou I think of the affirming power of her words. The first time I read “Phenomenal Woman” 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. Her message was very simple: She told us that our worth had nothing to do with what the world might say. Instead she said, “Each of us comes form the creator trailing wisps of glory.” She reminded us that we must each find our own voice, decide our own value, and then announce it to the world with all the pride and joy that is our birthright as members of the human race.
Dr. Angelou’s words sustained me on every step of my journey. Through lonely moments in ivy-covered classrooms and colorless skyscrapers. Through blissful moments mothering two splendid baby girls. Through long years on the campaign trail where at times my very womanhood was dissected and questioned. For me, that was the power of Maya Angelou’s words — words so powerful that they carried a little black girl from the South Side of Chicago all the way to the White House.
And today as First Lady whenever the term “authentic” is used to describe me I take it as a tremendous compliment because I know that I am following in the footsteps of great women like Maya Angelou. But really, I am just a beginner. I am baby authentic.
Maya Angelou, now she was the original. She was the master. For at a time when there were such stifling constraints on how black women could exist in the world, she serenely disregarded all the rules with fiercely passionate unapologetic self. She was comfortable in every inch of her gloriously brown skin.
But for Dr. Angelou her own transition was never enough. You see, she didn’t just want to be phenomenal herself. She wanted us all to be phenomenal right alongside her.
So that’s what she did throughout her lifetime. She gathered so many of us under her wing. I wish I was a daughter. But I was right under that wing — sharing her wisdom, her genius and her boundless love.
I first came into her presence in 2008, when she spoke at a campaign rally here in North Carolina. At that point she was in a wheelchair, hooked up to an oxygen tank to help her breathe. But let me tell you, she rolled up like she owned the place. She took the stage as she always did — like she’d been born there. And I was so completely awed and overwhelmed by her presence I could barely concentrate on what she was saying to me.
But while I don’t remember her exact words I do remember exactly how she made me feel.
She made me feel like I owned the place, too. She made me feel like I had been born on that stage right next to her. And I remember thinking to myself, “Maya Angelou knows who I am! And she is rooting for me! So now, I’m good. I can do this. I can do this.”
And that’s really true for us all. Because in so many ways Maya Angelou knew us. She knew our hope, our pain, our ambition, our fear, our anger, our shame. And she assured us that in spite of 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 ol’ black women selves. She showed us that eventually, if we stayed 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 okay to be your regular old self, whatever that is. Your poor self, your broken self, your brilliant, bold, phenomenal self. That was Maya Angelou’s reach.
She touched me, she touched you, she touched all of you she touched people all 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.
So when I heard that Dr. Angelou had passed, I felt a deep sense of loss. I also felt a profound sense of peace — because there is no question that Maya Angelou will always be with us. Because there was something truly divine about Maya. I know that now as always, she is right where she belongs.
May her memory be a blessing to us all.
Thank you. God bless.
This is the poem Michelle Obama refers to. From poetryfoundation.org
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman