When Henry Louis Gates Jr. first called his good friend Oprah Winfrey to tell her that their “sister friend” Maya Angelou, who died at 86 in May, would soon have her own United States “forever” stamp, Winfrey’s first reaction was to laugh.
“I literally LOLd,” Oprah told a crowd of about 1,700 on Tuesday during the stamp’s official “day of issue” ceremony at the Warner Theatre in Washington. “I knew that is exactly what Maya would have done. Oh yeah, she’d get a big kick out of this moment today.”
After recounting how much she missed Angelou — the waves of sadness coming “at the most unexpected times” — Winfrey made sure to impress how important the day was. “To stand here as her daughter-sister-friend… I am honored to be here at the unveiling of the Maya forever — forever — stamp,” she said.
Not missing a beat, Winfrey glided from the podium to the middle of stage to perform a snippet of Angelou’s famous poem “Phenomenal Woman.”
When the talk show queen turned media mogul recited the lines, “Pretty women wonder where my secret lies. I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size,” the crowd, which could barely hear her, roared. There were shouts of “Tell it!” and “Preach!” in the semi-darkness of a theater missing the lights but perhaps not the electricity.
“They say Easter was Sunday, but we are still having church,” promised MSNBC talk show host Melissa Harris-Perry, the ceremony’s emcee and a former student of Angelou’s at Wake Forest University.
Down in front sat first lady Michelle Obama, Valerie Jarrett, Eric Holder, poets Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez, and singers Roberta Flack and Valerie Simpson, Angelou’s family, and Malcolm X’s daughters, Attallah and Ilyasah Shabazz, among others.
There was no mention of the quote controversy surrounding the stamp, which along with a photo realistic portrait of Angelou features the words, “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” Words attributed to author Joan Walsh Anglund, not Angelou, “the people’s poet” who wrote more than half a dozen autobiographies. The day felt more like a loving memorial than a stuffy government ribbon cutting.
Angelou’s friend, former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, said he was “inspired by her teachings but mostly by her phone calls in the middle of the night.” Sanchez said that her “sister Maya” always “stood tall as lightning.” Angelou’s grandson Colin Johnson added that doing the work of continuing Angelou’s legacy was “easy” because of the body of work she left.
“To hear you tell it nobody ever shows up at these things,” whispered one fan in the crowd to a friend. “I can’t believe this many people showed up to a stamp dedication.”
“This is something different,” replied the friend.