Beginning as early as 2001, according to my research, perhaps even before, this quote by writer/illustrator Joan Walsh Anglund began to be falsely attributed to Maya Angelou:
A bird doesn’t sing because he has an answer–he sings because he has a song.
Barack Obama himself famously and falsely attributed Ms. Anglund’s words to Maya Angelou.
A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.
The above quote was posted on Maya Angelou’s facebook page without attribution on November 23, 2013. That same year, she was interviewed and she repeated the quote, without attribution, as if those were her own words. An op-ed in the New York Times was too cute by half to claim that this was not a case of plagiarism:
… it doesn’t seem that Ms. Angelou, who died last year, claimed the words as her own.
“It doesn’t seem?” Well, I beg to differ. Things are not always as some would wish them to seem to be.
On Angelou’s facebook page and in her interview, the quote was modified from the original, with “he” changed to a more politically correct, gender-neutral pronoun (it), thus stymieing any attempt to search for other instances of the quote, which would have revealed Ms. Anglund’s copyrighted poetry from her book A Cup of Sun, which was published in 1967, two years before Angelou’s book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
I’m not alleging the modification was deliberate. It could as well have been made through political correctness or an attempt to avoid anthropomorphism.
It’s interesting to consider that Ms. Anglund was correct to use the pronoun he, given that on our continent most avian songsters are indeed male, which birds sing to mark their territories and attract the opposite sex. In any case, as the true author, she knew which sex she was writing about.
Even so, Angelou’s was an interesting modification. Run searches on the two different versions and see what turns up.
Recently the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in honor of Maya Angelou, which included the quotation that had been, for years, falsely attributed to her. Ms. Anglund’s granddaughter was quite surprised by the slight:
Emily Anglund, Anglund’s granddaughter, said she had no idea that the quote has been attributed to Angelou for several years, or that it is featured on her forever stamp. “We didn’t realize it until you brought it to our attention now. Wow,” Emily Anglund said.
Last year, in remarks at the presentation of the 2013 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal, President Obama attributed the quote to Angelou:
“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.”
Joan Walsh Anglund also was hearing about the Angelou stamp for the first time Monday night.
It’s an interesting connection, and interesting it would happen and already be printed and on her stamp. I love her and all she’s done, and I also love my own private thinking that also comes to the public because it comes from what I’ve been thinking and how I’ve been feeling. I don’t know about the stamp and I hope that it’s successful.
We could say that Joan Walsh Anglund writes because she has a poem, which expresses what she thinks and what she feels. In other words, that’s her song.
Michelle Obama and other celebrities failed to mention this “mistake” at the dedication ceremony for Angelou’s stamp. It probably goes without saying that Ms. Anglund likely was not invited to attend.
In my opinion, a great many people owe Ms. Anglund a very sincere apology. Obama himself ought to apologize to her. Perhaps his administration can make it up to her by putting her image and her poetry, correctly attributed of course, on a “forever stamp”.
Ms. Anglund is certainly as prolific a writer, if not more so, than Maya Angelou. One could easily argue that Ms. Anglund has had as big of an impact on people around the world as has Maya Angelou. If no stamp is forthcoming for Ms. Anglund, then at the very least the Postal Service should pay her royalties for (mis)using her poetry.
A little more about the lovely and multi-talented Joan Walsh Anglund:
Joan Walsh Anglund is the author and illustrator of more than 120 books that have sold over 50 million copies around the world in 17 languages. …
Famous Fans of J.W.A. – Eleanor Roosevelt, Queen Elizabeth, Cary Grant, Jackie (Kennedy) Onassis, Ethel Kennedy and Children, Carol Burnett, Helen Hayes, Phyllis Diller, Julie Andrews, Margaret Whiting, Dick Van Dyke, Rosemary Clooney, Shirley Jones, Emperor of Japan, Elizabeth Taylor …
It appears that Ms. Angelou made a habit of “borrowing”. Consider this excerpt from the poem, Sympathy, by Paul Laurence Dunbar:
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—When he beats his bars and he would be free;It is not a carol of joy or glee,But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—I know why the caged bird sings!
Dunbar died in 1906. On her facebook page, Angelou does acknowledge that she borrowed that theme from that other African-American poet. One wonders why she didn’t acknowledge borrowing from Ms. Anglund.