By MARSHA MERCER
In 2011, poet Maya Angelou insisted that a paraphrase of a quotation by Martin Luther King Jr. be removed from his memorial in Washington because it made him “look like an arrogant twit.”
Told that King’s actual quote was too long for the space on the granite edifice, Angelou replied, “Too bad.”
The National Park Service ultimately agreed the paraphrase had to go. The sculptor chiseled it off in 2013.
Angelou isn’t here to say how she feels about the quotation on her new commemorative stamp -- she died last May at 86 – but we can imagine that she would want her own words on the stamp in her honor.
Her fans should do more than complain about poor fact-checking at the post office. They should demand that the U.S. Postal Service issue a replacement stamp.
The beloved author left many original, quotable lines. “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song” is not one of them.
“That’s my quote,” author Joan Walsh Anglund told The Washington Post.
Only the pronoun – originally “he” -- and punctuation were changed from the line Anglund wrote in “A Cup of Sun,” a book of poems published in 1967. That was two years before Angelou’s acclaimed autobiography “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was published.
Angelou used the line frequently over the years in media interviews and appearances, apparently never attributing it to Anglund. The line became so associated with Angelou that last year in a White House ceremony President Barack Obama quoted it as hers.
That something as old-fashioned as a stamp (who sends letters anymore?) would be swamped by the ocean of misinformation online should be lesson to all of us. Multiple hits on Google does not a fact make.
Anglund, 89, had been unaware that Angelou had appropriated her words -- but was gracious about it.
“I think it easily happens sometimes that people hear something, and it’s kind of going into your subconscious and you don’t realize it,” she told the Post’s Lonnae O’Neal.
Anglund is nowhere nearly as well known as Angelou, but she has published more than 95 titles and sold 45 million copies of her children’s and adult gift books, according to her biography on Amazon. She said she loves Angelou’s work and hopes the stamp is a success.
The postal service issued the Angelou limited-edition “Forever” stamp Tuesday in an unveiling ceremony attended by first lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey.
“Had we known about this issue beforehand, we would have used one of [Angelou’s] many other works,” a USPS spokesman wrote the Post in an email.
Naturally, people jumped on the postal service, asking variations of the question: Don’t they have fact-checkers? Well, yes, they do. But the checkers evidently assumed from Angelou’s frequent use of the line and its repeats across the Internet that she wrote it.
“We found the phrase was widely attributed to Angelou in many mediums and by some dignitaries and we were not aware of Ms. Anglund’s 1967 book,” the spokesman said.
A writing professor at Emerson College in Boston who is a former editor at the Post was aware of Anglund’s book and the quote. Jabari Asim, author of six books for children and four for adults, keeps a notebook of quotes he likes – and their sources.
Asim had noticed the Anglund quote was being attributed to Angelou on the Internet but was unconcerned until the postal service announced the stamp. He found the quote in his notebook.
The misquote may make the postal service, and not Angelou, look like a twit. But it tarnishes the honor of having the portrait of the renowned poet on a stamp.
It sends the wrong message to millions of young people who need to know that proper attribution matters, the Internet can be a highly unreliable source and it’s never too late to correct your mistakes.
A stamp isn’t granite, and it need not be forever wrong. The postal service should quickly correct and reissue the stamp, with one of Angelou’s original phrases.
© 2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.