Random House editor Porscha Burke shares a slice of her experience working with Dr. Maya Angelou and the publication road to her latest, His Day is Done: A Nelson Mandela Tribute.
As usual, Maya Angelou preferred to travel via tour bus for this trip to New York—not surprising given her affinity for entertaining and her close-knit relationships with her staff. The atmosphere on Dr. Angelou’s bus felt like a family vacation: laughter and merriment, clothes and hangers strewn here and there, and itineraries and event schedules prominently placed on the table—her assistants always have it together.
That evening’s air was particularly festive. It was Doctor’s big night: the National Book Awards, where Toni Morrison would present her with a lifetime achievement award. Dr. Angelou looked absolutely regal, wearing a fitted, floor-length, black-lace gown and her signature shades, her close-cropped silver mane flawlessly coiffed—not a strand out of place. She was anxious to get the evening started as she sat on the bus, parked just outside the awards venue. I was called in: “Ms. Burke, Dr. Angelou is ready to see you now.”
Among the jokes and laughter, the reminiscences from her long career, compliments of “You look fierce,” from one woman to another, and check-ins from her longtime assistant, Dr. Angelou whispered something in my ear. She had written a poem in tribute to Nelson Mandela, having been asked to do so by the State Department. She didn’t want to think about losing yet another dear friend, but she certainly wanted to lend her talent, to share her gift in tribute to a man who gave his all in service to the international community and delivered justice to the doorstep of the oppressed not just in his native South Africa but around the world.
I wasn’t to speak about the poem at all—it was to be kept under wraps until the day of Mandela’s death, when the State Department would publicly release it. Truth be told, I questioned if that day would ever arrive: Mr. Mandela seemed almost immortal, recovering from one illness after another over the past few years. Surely this poem would be on the State Department’s shelf for years to come.
But on Thursday, December 5—only weeks after Dr. Angelou’s award-winning evening—we all received the news that the icon for equality among humans of all races had indeed passed away. Within moments, the world was abuzz with quotes from Mr. Mandela’s speeches and memoirs, activists and celebrities recalling their moments meeting the beloved world leader. The chatter in the Random House offices was equally heavy; I made note of his passing to my marketing colleagues sitting nearby and sat head in hand, thinking how I might also acknowledge the great life of such an important figure.
Phrases like “R.I.P. Mandela” and “Your legacy will never die, Madiba” were trending on Twitter, and yet none of those felt quite right for me. After all, I wouldn’t dare call a historical legend by his common name, and an “R.I.P.” just seemed so trite. But among the flood of quotes and Instagram photos, I came across something on Dr. Angelou’s Facebook page, a link to a YouTube video: her poem, HIS DAY IS DONE. Along with millions of others, I watched it and was stilled.
“The news came on the wings of a wind / Reluctant to carry its burden. / Nelson Mandela’s day is done.”
Dr. Angelou’s signature rich vocal tones, full of meaningful cadences, punctuated images of Mandela as they moved across the screen: a photo taken during his return to Robben Island, showing a man pensive, victorious, and strong; Mandela surrounded by young children, his youthful smile betraying his crown of stark white hair; seated majestically in an armchair, his fingers and hands bloated from illness later in his life; stoically standing next to F. W. de Klerk, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize; his victory pose—arms raised in triumph after winning the South African presidential election.
“We will not forget you. / We will not dishonor you. / We will remember and be glad / That you lived among us / That you taught us / And / That you loved us / All!”
Among the throngs moved by Dr. Angelou’s tribute was my boss, our group’s president and publisher, Gina Centrello, who e-mailed me late Sunday night with a link to the video: “Have you seen this? Beautiful. Let’s discuss.” Riveted by the lyricism of Dr. Angelou’s tribute and the arresting accompanying images, she would sit down several people in her office to view the video over the course of the day.
In publishing, sometimes things happen with such alacrity you can be thrown off kilter. After all, I’ve chased book projects that took months to acquire and others that required more than a year’s worth of editing and production work before having their day on the shelf. But we’d contacted Dr. Angelou’s agent by 10:00 am that Monday, had a deal in place by 10:45 am, and within 24 hours, had a typeset manuscript and photo list ready to transmit to production.
We were ready to go.
Having worked with Dr. Angelou on her two previous books, I was familiar with how she’d like to be queried (carefully and reverently, of course!), and after our magical night at the National Book Awards, I felt I understood what was important to her about this tribute: to help the world find the words to pay homage to an iconic figure whose very life was so much bigger, more impactful, more important than any 140 characters or post or quote we could come up with on our own.
Let’s face it, without an expert publishing operations team, these things don’t happen, especially not in one-tenth the time it usually takes to produce finished books. Our top-notch production and managing editorial staff worked tirelessly to get this project done, and the legendary head of our design department personally designed the book, making it even that much more special.
Finished books were due to arrive while our offices were closed for the holiday break. I couldn’t wait until we reopened to see how the books came out, so I went to the office that very day to see first-hand just what we’d pulled off. The small cardboard box of books was waiting on my desk. With the eagerness of a kid on Christmas morning, I opened and discarded the packaging and cradled the hardcover book, which was almost the size of a 5×7 photograph. My fingers traced the title, engraved in gold foil on the cover. I oohed and aahed at the sepia-toned photographs: regal, indeed. Holding this small but magnanimous project in my hands—welling with pride at the balance of images and text—I was thrilled to know we were helping others commemorate and participate in this historic moment. The hair on the back of my neck stood at attention as I considered schoolchildren possibly reciting this poem during Black History Month, just as I had “And Still I Rise” and “Phenomenal Woman.”
Mandela’s day may be done, but the gift and glory of his life and legacy will live on eternally. And I will be forever grateful to Dr. Angelou, to my publisher, and to my amazing colleagues and publishing team for allowing me to have a hand in producing a powerful tribute book for an icon by an icon.