The U. S. Post Office has just issued a stamp commemorating Maya Angelou. It is a very nice stamp with her picture and a quote. The only problem is that the quote is not from her. Josh Hicks wrote about the problem in his column in the Washington Post yesterday.
The U.S. Postal Service on Tuesday released a new Maya Angelou stamp featuring a quote from a different author’s book, propagating a popular misconception about the original source of the line.
“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song,” the stamp reads.
Angelou, the late African-American author who wrote the famous 1969 autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” used the same line in media interviews, and President Obama attributed it to her during the 2013 presentation of the National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal.
But the sentence never appeared in Angelou’s autobiography. The words came from Joan Walsh Anglund’s collection of poems, “A Cup of Sun,” published two years before the release of Angelou’s autobiography. (One difference: The pronoun “it” from the stamp quote appears as “he” in the poem).
Hicks goes on to compare the Angelou mistake with another: The inscription on the statue of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The release of the stamp comes less than four years after another fumbled attempt to honor an historic African-American figure. Controversy erupted in 2011 over an abbreviated quote on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorialthat critics thought would make the civil-rights leader appear immodest.
One of the inscriptions on the memorial read: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” But King actually said, “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”
I was one of those who thought the editing completely missed Dr. King’s point. But I think the Angelou stamp quote is different. Lonnae O’Neal interviewed Joan Walsh Anglund about the use of the quote.
Joan Walsh Anglund also was hearing about the Angelou stamp for the first time Monday night. “I haven’t read all of her things, and I love her things, of course,” she said of the poet and cultural icon. “But I think it easily happens sometimes that people hear something, and it’s kind of going into your subconscious and you don’t realize it,” she said.
“It’s an interesting connection, and interesting it would happen and already be printed and on her stamp,” Anglund said. “I love her and all she’s done, and I also love my own private thinking that also comes to the public because it comes from what I’ve been thinking and how I’ve been feeling.
“I don’t know about the stamp and I hope that it’s successful,” she added.
We can wonder if Angelou even remembered where she first heard the words that have come to be associated with her but the real lesson here is that we have to work harder at using words. We need to be careful about how we edit other people’s words lest we change their meaning. And we can all wonder at the human mind and how we associate certain phrases with specific people – so much so that even the person may come to believe it is theirs.
(Thanks to my friend Gary Bailey for bringing the story to my attention.)