Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Wrong song: Correct the Angelou stamp -- April 9, 2015 column


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.


1 comment:

  1. This post lets the Obama administration, the post office, and especially Ms. Angelou, off the hook much to easily.

    (1) First and foremost, Angelou PLAGIARIZED the quote. As you concede, "apparently never" attributed it to Anglund. Indeed, she posted it on her Facebook page on November 23, 2013 without crediting Ms. Anglund or even putting it in quotes. You can see this for yourself here:

    There is nothing remotely innocent about this literary theft. Angelou knew she was not the author yet claimed the quote as her own on multiple occasions. She accepted credit for the quote at various events, including, notably, the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Your claim that she merely "used" it is a bit misleading. Simply put, she stole it. She IS a twit. Why you are holding her up as some moral beacon for insisting MLK's quote be corrected is beyond me. She was a shameless thief.

    (2) The post office's excuse that Angelou used the quote and others on the internet attributed it to her is beneath contempt. They were obligated to confirm a PRIMARY source, a copyrighted publication of Angelou's in which it appeared. Of course there was none, and their alleged reliance on a Greek music blog is inexcusable. Furthermore, Anglund's authorship was easily ascertainable with a five second Google search, which was how the plagiarism was uncovered in the first place. Can you imagine what would happen to a private publisher that published 80 million copies of a book without bothering to confirm the authorship? Massive lawsuit, criminal charges and immediate bankruptcy.

    (3) The Obamas and Oprah went ahead with the ceremony despite knowing they were distributing a plagiarized quote. What kind of example does that set? It's an act of complete lawlessness. The fact that Ms. Anglund is too old (and probably too frightened) to object is irrelevant. The government is acting like a pack of gangsters.