MICHELLE OBAMA thanked Maya Angelou for empowering her through words in a moving tribute at the acclaimed poet's memorial service on Saturday (June 7).
Calling the poet "one of the greatest spirits our world has ever known”, the First Lady said Angelou's words "carried a little black girl from the south side of Chicago all the way to the White House.”
Obama said Angelou taught all women that self-worth “has nothing to do with what the world might say”.
She added: “She touched me, 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.”
Angelou died last month at the age of 86.
The former president Bill Clinton and TV star Oprah Winfrey were also among speakers and performers at a more-than two-hour memorial service held at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, where Angelou taught for 30 years.
Obama went on: “She was the master. For at a time when there were such stifling constraints on how a black woman could exist in the world, she serenely disregarded all the rules with fiercely, passionate unapologetic self.
“She was comfortable in every last inch of her glorious black skin. But for Dr Angelou, her own transition was never enough. You see, she didn’t just want to be phenomenal herself. She wanted all of us to be phenomenal right along side her.
“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 old black woman selves.”
The first lady's nine-minute speech was met with a standing ovation.
Angelou was a favorite of the Obamas. In 2011, Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, quoting her as he did so: "History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again."
A woman of many talents, Angelou was known for her civil rights work, as well as her literary offerings, but was also a singer and dancer.
She was affectionately called 'Dr Angelou' even though she had never been to university, but did go on to become a professor.
Angelou was born on April 4, 1928, in St Louis, Missouri. She grew up between St Louis and the then-racially-segregated Stamps, Arkansas.
She famously dropped out of school at the age of 14 and went on to become San Francisco's first female African American cable car conductor.
Angelou later returned to finish her education and became a mother weeks after graduating. She was 17.
Still, her passion for performance and poetry remained strong, and she went on to tour Europe in a production of the opera Porgy and Bess; dance with the renowned choreographer Alvin Ailey; and record her first album, Calypso Lady in 1957.
The years that followed led her to Africa: first Egypt, where she served as the editor of the weekly publication The Arab Observer, and then Ghana where she taught at the University of Ghana's School of Music and Drama, worked as feature editor for The African Review and wrote for The Ghanaian Times.
During her time in Ghana, she met civil rights campaigner Malcolm X, and in 1964, Angelou returned to the US to assist him in building his newly founded Organization of African American Unity.
Following X’s assassination in 1965 and the subsequent demise of his organisation, Angelou was enlisted by Dr King to be the northern co-ordinator for his Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Left devastated by Dr King’s assassination in 1968, it was with the help of her friend, author James Baldwin, that Angelou began working on a book that became I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings; the iconic autobiography – the first of six – which charted the author’s early years, encountering racism, becoming a young mother and discovering her love of literature.