This morning’s Washington Post points out that the U.S. Postal Service’s newest “Forever” stamp has apparently done something that has vexed quotation-checkers since, well, forever. Evidence indicates that the USPS has taken a statement originally spoken/written by one lesser-known person and put it in the mouth of a more famous person. The USPS’ new stamp–which will be officially released on Tuesday (April 7) honors poet Maya Angelou, a fine choice. The image of her face is beautiful, the work of Atlanta artist Ross Rossin. The designers of the stamp, however, ignored the many lyrical statements that legitimately and clearly belong to her and, instead, included a quote often attributed to her but of less certain origin:
“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”
Well, this stamp needs some kind of “return to sender” applied. Post writer Lonnie O’Neal (with the help from longtime quote-collector and Emerson College professor Jabari Asim) writes that the statement most likely originated with Joan Walsh Anglund, an author of children’s books. As the Post points out today, the statement appears on Page 15 of Angland’s book A Cup of Sun, published in 1967.
Angelou’s name is much more famous than Anglund’s, however. And as noted quote-checker Ralph Keyes has said many times: “Famous quotes need famous mouths.”
(That’s something that Mark Twain might have wished he had said.)