“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Screenwriters James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck wrote this famous line for the John Ford directed 1962 film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” starring John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart.
Such a sentiment was most recently on display when the United States Postal Service (USPS) unveiled its Maya Angelou stamp on Tuesday with First Lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey in attendance. On it is a quote: “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”
Unfortunately, those are not Angelou’s words.
The Washington Post broke the story on Monday after contacting the correct author, children’s book writer Joan Walsh Anglund. Here is the original quote as it appeared in her 1967 collection of poetry “A Cup of Sun”: “A bird does not sing because he has an answer. He sings because he has a song.”
Besides the change in pronoun gender, the correct quote has proper punctuation; the USPS’s version requires either a semi-colon or period to avoid being a run-on sentence.
Google the quote and Anglund’s name nary surfaces with most sources including Brainyquote attributing the words to Angelou.
Before laying blame completely on the dubious USPS fact checkers, the misquote was often used when introducing Angelou at public appearances without a word of clarification by her, so admirers naturally assumed it was hers.
As a teacher who has his students study her works, I was hoping to discover an explanation why Angelou never cleared that up. As of yet, I have been unable to find a reason.
Another quotation controversy occurred in 2013 when the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C. had to be revised less than two years after officially opening because one of the quotes inscribed was shortened resulting in a different connotation.
Here is what King said in a 1968 sermon:
“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other things will not matter.”
Here is what was originally inscribed on the memorial:
“I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”
Among the critics who took umbrage with the abbreviated version was none other than Maya Angelou.
I had a similar experience happen to me. When the College Board released a report on the teaching profession in 2006, a large quote appeared on the front page attributed to a former IBM CEO. Except that he never said those words.
The quote came from my book, The $100,000 Teacher, verbatim without a single modified word. I guess quoting an executive from a large corporation carried more gravitas than a classroom teacher even though the subject was teaching and not computers.
No telling if the USPS plans on correcting its mistake or at the very least offering a public apology to the 89-year-old writer who has taken the high road with her graciousness about the blunder, telling the Post “I love her [Angelou] and all she’s done.”
The whole brouhaha could have been avoided in the first place if instead of using a 16-word quote that is not even her own, the postal folks selected the title from one of her best known poems that also embodies Angelou: Phenomenal Woman.