WASHINGTON — The Maya Angelou stamp unveiled on Tuesday has a mistake on it.
The U.S. Postal Service is honoring the life of the world-famous author and poet by creating a Forever stamp in her memory. Angelou’s portrait appears on the stamp alongside the quote: “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”
But the quote isn’t hers.
Children’s book author Joan Walsh Anglund tells the Washington Post, that phrase on the stamp is a nearly direct quote from her book “A Cup of Sun,” published in 1967 — two years before Angelou’s autobiography, “‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was released.
Jabari Asim, associate professor of writing, literature and publishing at Emerson College, tells WTOP he also recognized the quote when reading a news release about the Maya Angelou Forever Stamp announcement.
“I saw stamp and I saw the quote on it. It occurred to me pretty much immediately that it’s not a Maya Angelou quote,” he says. “It’s actually a Joan Walsh Anglund quote.”
Postal Service spokesman Mark Saunders defends the quote.
“Maya Angelou cited this sentence frequently in media interviews and other forums and it provides a connection to her first memoir ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.’ The sentence was chosen to accompany her image on the stamp to reflect her passion for the written and spoken word. The sentence held great meaning for her and she is publicly identified with its popularity,” Saunders says.
But Saunders could not provide WTOP with a list of dates or news outlets that attributed this quote to her.
“I don’t have access to that on Google,” he writes in an email.
But Emerson College’s Asim says it’s a mistake the Postal Service shouldn’t have made.
“But I don’t think the mistake should overshadow the initial impulse to honor Maya Angelou with a stamp, which I think is excellent. It’s just a little ironic because Maya Angelou is one of the most imminently quotable writers of the 20th century, without question. It’s very easy to stumble upon a quote that she actually said that would work very eloquently and persuasively on a stamp.”
The Internet is full of misattributed quotes. Asim points to the saying “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit” — a quote frequently attributed to retired basketball star Shaquille O’Neal. But for centuries before the advent of the Internet, it was attributed to the ancient philosopher Aristotle.
“We have to be really careful. Our intentions are often good and we make these mistakes because it’s so easy to cut and paste,” Asim says.
Controversy also surrounded the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial when it was first built. Etched in the granite statue was a paraphrased quote that some critics said made the civil rights leader sound arrogant. That quote was later removed.
Asim wants the sentence on Angelou’s Forever Stamp to be changed out of respect for both women’s legacies.
“I think it’s important to put the right words on there. It could be as simple as ‘Maya Angelou: Phenomenal Woman,’ which is one of her most famous poems and also happens to describe her. Or just ‘Maya Angelou.’ I think that would be eloquent in itself.”
The stamp was unveiled Tuesday morning in a ceremony at the Warner Theatre in D.C. Angelou died in 2014.