“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer”: a famous quote and the stamp of (in)authenticity

Published on: Author: James Chalmers Leave a comment




On the IPKat blog, Mira T. Sundara Rajan comments on a fascinating drama in which the principal actors are two literary ladies and, making a relatively rare appearance centre stage, the United States Postal Service. This is how Mira unrolls the sequence of events and explains their legal significance:

In a commendable gesture, the United States Postal Service has issued a stamp honouring that most-maligned of modern professionals, a poet. Maya Angelou, an African-American writer, has been described by the Post newspaper in her native St Louis as “star, icon, woman,” and by Michelle Obama as “the master”, She died in May of last year, at the age of 86. Her contributions were numerous – and, indeed, they transcended literature and spilled over into dance, music, and drama – but she remained best known for an early autobiography. Entitled I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the book became an internationally-acclaimed bestseller and, as her website notes, continues to be widely read as “a course adoption at college campuses around the world”.

The U.S. Postal Service chose an expressive and wonderfully appropriate quotation to accompany Angelou’s picture on the stamp: “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” As noted by Ron Nixon of the New York Times, the U.S. Postal Service explained the choice of the quotation by commenting “that Ms Angelou had cited the quotation frequently in interviews and that it provided a connection to her 1969 autobiography, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.’”

The picture and quotation were a perfect match. The stamp, and the honour intended, promised spectacular results.

Or did they? Life is never so perfect. Despite the best of plans and intentions, something had gone astray: Angelou never wrote the words that appeared beside her picture on the postage stamp. They were actually authored by Joan Walsh Anglund, a writer of “children’s and inspirational books.”

How, then, did these words come to be attributed to Maya Angelou, and to find their way onto the postage stamp?

To find out, read the full post on the IPKat blog.

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