The United States Postal Service is set to honor Maya Angelou today in a dedication ceremony for a new postage stamp depicting the legendary author, poet and singer. But there's one problem: The quotation that accompanies Angelou's picture on the stamp was apparently not originally written by her.
The text on the new "forever" stamp reads: "A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song." It appears to be a reference to Angelou's best-known book, her 1969 memoir "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings."
But the Washington Post reported yesterday that the quotation can also be found in "A Cup of Sun," a 1967 poetry collection by children's author Joan Walsh Anglund. A Postal Service spokesman told the newspaper that the line, which has been widely attributed to Angelou by people including President Obama, was approved for use on the stamp by Angelou's family.
In a follow-up story, the Post talked to Anglund, who said the words on the stamp were hers. The newspaper notes that "Only the pronouns and punctuation are changed, from 'he' in Anglund’s original to 'it' on the stamp."
A spokesman for the Postal Service, Mark Saunders, did not deny that the quotation may have originated with Anglund. "Had we known about this issue beforehand, we would have used one of [Angelou’s] many other works," he said. "The sentence held great meaning for her and she is publicly identified with its popularity."
For her part, Anglund seems to hold no ill will toward Angelou or the Postal Service, telling the Post, "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."
It's likely too late for the Postal Service to do anything about the stamp, at least in the short term. A dedication ceremony for the stamp is under way in Washington, D.C., as of this writing. Expected guests include First Lady Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and writer and broadcaster Melissa Harris-Perry.
If the attribution is indeed mistaken, it wouldn't be the first time the U.S. Postal Service has featured an error on one of its stamps. In 2010, the service issued a stamp featuring the Statue of Liberty; months later, a collector noticed the image on the stamp wasn't of the New York landmark, but of a Las Vegas replica.