Maya Angelou’s moving tribute to fallen South African leader Nelson Mandela, called “His Day Is Done,” will be preserved in book format just in time for Black History Month.
“I’m delighted, honored, pleased and just over the moon,” Angelou told the AFRO of Random House’s decision to publish the slim tome.
When news of Mandela’s declining health first made headlines nearly two years ago, Angelou said she was contacted by the U.S. State Department and asked to write a tribute to the beloved African leader on behalf of the American people. They wanted to be prepared for his possible death, they said, and asked her to keep the request and the poem secret until at least 48 hours after his passing.
“I knew President Mandela; we had met 50 years ago in Egypt [and] over the years we had developed a close friendship [and] we had great respect and affection for each other,” the acclaimed poet recalled. “It was very hard to write about this person who I liked and adored as if he were dead.”
But she set herself to the task—pouring the thoughts, memories and feelings in her heart and head onto the page before snipping and tucking them into poetic form.
As the wife of South African freedom fighter Vusumzi L. Make of the Pan African Congress, Angelou was often present at gatherings of Mandela and other activists—who were a rowdy lot, she said.
“But among those loud, boisterous voices he [Mandela] was as gentle…and he was generous,” she said. “He spoke to everybody; he had time and a kind word for everybody from the doorman to the housekeeper.”
She hailed his strength, writing in the poem that Mandela was the world’s “David armed with a mere stone, facing down the mighty Goliath” of apartheid. And, after 27 years of imprisonment on Robben Island, this “hope of Africa” burst through the prison doors with “His stupendous heart intact, his gargantuan will hale and hearty.”
She honored his grace, which he demonstrated when he gave his former jailers seats of distinction at his inauguration.
“I think that was one of his great gifts to us—he taught us how to forgive,” Angelou said. “He was a great friend to the world.”