Maya Angelou tread the line between artist and activist to become one of the most prominent in a highly competitive list of strong female voices in African-American literature — a legacy that has carried on past her death in 2014.
Maya is most commonly remembered for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an autobiography that Angelou wrote of her life up until the age of 17. Even if you’ve never read the book, you’ve undoubtedly heard the title of Maya’s seminal work referenced before. In 2013, even President Barack Obama referenced it when giving out the Arts and National Humanities Medal.
But there’s a problem with the title of Angelou’s book and the quote “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” Even though Obama and now the U.S. Postal Service have attributed the quote to Maya, there’s substantial evidence that it was not her who first wrote the famously repeated phrase, reported the Washington Post.
Jabari Asim, an Emerson College literary arts professor, told the Post that he was struck by what appeared to him to be a false attribution to Angelou when he first saw the quote that U.S. Postal Service had chosen for her upcoming commemorative Forever stamp. Even though the quote’s author is often cited as Maya, Asim believes that this is a case of a popular error eventually substituting the truth. Joan Walsh Anglund, a children’s book author, had written the same quote in her 1967 book A Cup of Sun — two years prior to the publication of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Angelou herself was quoted as recently as 2013 using the words to describe her premiere book, which was the justification the Postal Service made for choosing the quote. It ties in so well with the book that most readers probably don’t even given it a second thought. Jabari, however, says that he thinks that’s an affront to both authors given how “eminently quotable” Maya was.
“You can flip open one of her books at random and pull out something… So I’d rather she be remembered for her own words. It’s more about preserving the legacy of Maya Angelou than pointing out misattributions.”
It’s doubtful that these accusations will have any effect on when Maya Angelou’s commemorative quote stamp will be rolled out. It’s due to go into circulation on Tuesday in the Washington area, according to NPR Atlanta.
[Images via U.S. Postal Service]