Friday, June 13, 2014

Famous Speech Friday: Michelle Obama's eulogy for Maya Angelou

It's tough for political and public figures to transcend their roles when they speak. After all, it's their position, most often, that puts them behind the microphone in the first place. And when an icon like Maya Angelou dies, the roster of speakers at the memorial service reads like a People magazine table of contents: Oprah. Former President Bill Clinton. Actress Cicely Tyson. But First Lady Michelle Obama's remarks, intensely personal in nature, only touched on her husband and her position. Widely praised, this speech -- but for a few critical phrases -- might have been given by any black woman who'd grown up with Angelou's words ringing in her ears.

And therein lies the success of this eulogy. It was about two women, one growing up on the south side of Chicago with a Malibu Barbie as the model of "ideal," the other a poet, author and activist. But it also embraced all black women effectively, particularly in this passage about the Angelou poem that's part of The Eloquent Woman Index: 
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.
It's always significant, in my mind, when speakers share how they feel about speaking--and in this memory Mrs. Obama shares of a private moment with Angelou, I hear echoes of what Caroline Kennedy said about her uncle, Senator Ted Kennedy, at his funeral. Both women used the moment to recall the deceased as a supporter of their public speaking, a source of encouragement significant to them. Here, Mrs. Obama on Angelou:
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.”
What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Don't overquote the deceased's most famous lines: One risk when an author dies is that every eulogy will sound like a Bartlett's Quotations, dense-packed with famous lines. Here, Mrs. Obama quotes Angelou just once, a restraint that lets the speech touch on more important connections in real life. There's also one clever allusion--"I do remember exactly how she made me feel"--to one of Angelou's most loved quotes, a good piece of advice for speakers: "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” The allusion got just as much reaction as the full quote would have done, and advanced the story faster.
  • Do share a private moment between yourself and the deceased: Like any speech, the audience isn't hoping you'll do a thorough review of the deceased's life, but that you'll share some private moments no one else witnessed. The story on stage with Angelou meets that bar for unique content, telling us about the subject of the eulogy and about the speaker, all at the same time.
  • Use your voice to create emotion and emphasis: In addition to merely elliptical references to her position, it's her voice that helps this eulogy sound like a deeply personal tribute rather than the pronouncements of a First Lady. Michelle Obama excels at this, using pacing and cadence and vocal variety to make her words sound realistic, human, approachable and emotional. You see and hear her as an individual here, and that allows the focus to be on Angelou--as it should be.
I agree with NPR host Scott Simon. You can read a transcript of the speech here and watch the video below--listen for her inflections and emphases in this delivery. What do you think of this famous speech?

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