New stamp honoring Maya Angelou features quote she lifted from another poet’s work

The United States Postal Service, the exemplar of all that can go wrong when government is permitted to grow big, has blundered again. For its latest stupid pet trick, the USPS this week released a postage stamp dedicated to the late Maya Angelou that features a line of poetry written by someone other than the honoree. But this time, Angelou, who died last year, deserves at least some of the blame. It appears she boosted the line from another lesser-known poet.

The quote, “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song,” is widely assumed to have originated with Angelou’s 1969 memoir “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” But as the Los Angeles Times reports, the line can be found — in slightly altered form — in “A Cup of Sun,” a 1967 poetry collection written two years earlier by children’s author Joan Walsh Anglund.

Angelou Anglund
Angelou and Anglund: Which one really knows why the caged bird sings?

The line has been attributed to Angelou often, perhaps most recently by Big Government’s staunchest proponent and practitioner, Barack Obama. Known for his own occasional gaffe, the president said last year in his remarks at the presentation of the 2013 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal:

The late, great Maya Angelou once said, ‘A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.’ Each of the men and women that we honor today has a song — literally, in some cases. For others, it’s a talent, or a drive, or a passion that they just had to share with the world.

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The Washington Post reached out to the actual author, who confirmed that the line was hers and that Angelou had changed only the pronoun he to it and altered the punctuation. Anglund was nevertheless gracious, submitting:

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. … I don’t know about the stamp and I hope that it’s successful.

The Post also solicited comments from the Postal Service. A spokesman, Mark Saunders, replied:

Had we known about this issue beforehand, we would have used one of [Angelou’s] many other works. The sentence held great meaning for her and she is publicly identified with its popularity.

Compounding the USPS’s error is the fact that the stamp is part of its “forever” series.

maya angelou stamp

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Howard Portnoy

Howard Portnoy

Howard Portnoy has written for The Blaze, HotAir, NewsBusters, Weasel Zippers, Conservative Firing Line, RedCounty, and New York’s Daily News. He has one published novel, Hot Rain, (G. P. Putnam’s Sons), and has been a guest on Radio Vice Online with Jim Vicevich, The Alana Burke Show, Smart Life with Dr. Gina, and The George Espenlaub Show.


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