President Obama remembered writer and poet Maya Angelou, who died Wednesday at 86, as not only one of America's greatest cultural figures, but a "fierce friend" whose work has long influenced Obama's family.
Obama's sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, was named after Angelou.
"As a girl, Marguerite Ann Johnson endured trauma and abuse that actually led her to stop speaking. But as a performer, and ultimately a writer, a poet, Maya Angelou found her voice," Obama said before presenting Angelou with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. It’s a voice that’s spoken to millions, including my mother, which is why my sister is named Maya."
Obama pinned the medal around Angelou's neck, held her shoulders and kissed her on the cheek.
In a statement Wednesday, Obama said Angelou was "one of the brightest lights of our time – a brilliant writer, a fierce friend, and a truly phenomenal woman."
"Like so many others, Michelle and I will always cherish the time we were privileged to spend with Maya. With a kind word and a strong embrace, she had the ability to remind us that we are all God’s children; that we all have something to offer. And while Maya’s day may be done, we take comfort in knowing that her song will continue, 'flung up to heaven' – and we celebrate the dawn that Maya Angelou helped bring," the statement said.
Angelou's relationship with Obama and first lady Michelle Obama started during the 2008 campaign. Angelou, an avowed supporter of Hillary Clinton, endorsed Obama when Clinton dropped out of the race. Angelou was asked to introduce Michelle Obama during a rally in North Carolina. Angelou wrote that she asked Oprah Winfrey for advice; Winfrey told her that Michelle Obama was "the real deal."
On the morning after the 2008 election, Angelou told CBS News she was filled with pride. "All of us are so proud and filled I can hardly talk without weeping, and so filled with pride for my country. What do you say? We are growing up. My God, I am so grateful," she said.
In 2012, Michelle Obama presented Angelou an award at the BET Honors ceremony. She recounted being "spellbound" when reading the works of Angelou, whom Obama called one of her "she-roes."
Later that year, Angelou told The Guardian that President Obama had done a "remarkable job" and deserved to be re-elected.
"Every suggestion he makes, the Republicans en masse fight against him or don't vote at all. It's about him being a Democrat and being the first black president," she said.
However, last year she criticized his school reform policies, including the Race to the Top initiative, and worried about the impact of standardized testing on children.
While she was a friend and supporter of Obama, Angelou's initial allegiance in 2008 was to Hillary Clinton. She had been close with the Clintons and stirred millions by reading her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at his 1993 inauguration.
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