The Postal Service is standing behind its choice of quotation for a new special-edition stamp in honor of poet and author Maya Angelou, despite the fact that "A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song," is actually the original words of children's book author Joan Walsh Anglund.
A representative told the New York Times that the sentence is an appropriate choice for Angelou's forever stamp because it "held great meaning for her, and she is publicly identified with its popularity."
The stamp featuring the quote was released Tuesday by the US Postal Service.
But even before the stamp dedication ceremony — which Oprah Winfrey, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Attorney General Eric Holder attended — it became clear that another writer said it (actually, wrote it) first.
Yes, the quote, which is easy to interpret as a riff on the title of Angelou's most famous work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, has been widely attributed to her, as a Postal Service rep told the Washington Post's Lonnae O'Neal when she asked about it origins.
Even President Obama gave Angelou credit for it at the 2013 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities ceremony, saying, "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."
And yes, as the USPS told the Post, it really can be traced to a 2013 interview in a blog about the blues, in which Angelou says, "I wrote the book because ‘Bird Sings Why The Caged I Know' is a song. A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song."
The only issue is that the very same words also show up in Anglund's book A Cup of Sun ... a full 46 years earlier. O'Neal found it on page 15 of the 1967 publication, exactly as it appears on the forever stamp. (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was first published two years later, in 1969.)
It's entirely possibly that this is a huge coincidence and the women each came up with the quote independently. Still, a better choice probably would have been words that were indisputably Angelou's alone. With the body of work that earned the poet the honor of being featured on a forever stamp, it's not as if there's any shortage of choices.