Postage stamp errors have been plentiful since pre-paid stamps were first introduced in the U.S. in 1847. Stamp mistakes often are related to spelling, color, using an incorrect image, or perhaps printing an image upside down. None are more likely to cause a brouhaha, however, than factual inaccuracy.
It is highly unlikely that the U.S. Postal Service intended to create a controversy, but a recently released Forever commemorative stamp has caused such a brouhaha. Issued on April 7, the stamp pays tribute to the late poet, writer, singer, producer and actress Maya Angelou. Ms. Angelou died in 2014 at the age of eighty-six.
The new stamp, which received much media attention upon its release, was revealed at an event in Washington, D.C. that was attended by a huge roster of dignitaries and elite. Among those attending were First Lady Michelle Obama, television host and producer Oprah Winfrey, poet and activist Nikki Giovanni, Angelou’s son Guy Johnson, Postmaster General Megan Brennan, Ambassador Andrew Young, and many others.
Throughout her life, Ms. Angelou authored dozens of books, including poetry, autobiography, cookbooks, religion and children’s books. Her first published work and one of her most famous, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), created an enduring legacy. Arguably, this legacy may have contributed to the stamp inaccuracy. The controversial stamp features a quote that is widely attributed to Angelou: “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”
The inscribed quote is actually that of another American writer, children’s book author Joan Walsh Anglund. It was published in her book A Cup of Sun (1967). Anglund, however, does not appear to be among those who are angry at the mistaken attribution. ‘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 explained to the UK’s Daily Mail. She added that she hopes that the stamp is successful.
Many, however, are unhappy about the USPS decision not to reissue the stamp with a different quote. Among the milder comments on the New York Times Twitter blog, Elizabeth Seger noted, “…it’s a shame they couldn’t have used one of Dr. Angelou’s real quotes.”
In a side note, it is somewhat distressing to see the kinds of comments that are posted on major news sites on the Internet.
In a Newsday editorial opinion piece, Alvin Bessent wrote, “Postal Service officials should pick a quote, any quote, from that wealth of material. If you’re going to honor a writer, at least use her own words.”
The mistake in the attribution is compounded by the fact that Ms. Angelou herself apparently used the quote in speeches that she made, at least according to citations on the Internet. The Angelou/Johnson family approved the use of the quote.
Lonnae O’Neil, a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote, “It leaves unanswered questions about the cut-and-paste nature of the Internet, where it is always possible to unintentionally take one person’s comment and attribute it to someone else.” Ms. O’Neil also notes the enduring nature of Internet errors.
Writing for The New Yorker, Ian Crouch takes the discussion of the nature of the Internet a step further, noting that the caged bird quote actually may pre-date Ms. Anglund’s book, and possibly is based on an ancient Chinese proverb.
Postage stamp errors can add to the value of the stamp for philatelists. In a long ago printing error, the Flying Jenny image was inverted. The stamp was never released, but a postal employee sold 100 of the Inverted Jenny stamps in 1918. One of those 100 stamps was sold in 2013 for $1 million.
Ten and a half billion Forever stamps featuring the Statue of Liberty were released in 2010. Three months later, it was discovered that the image was of a replica sculpture of the Statue, located at the New York-New York Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. The sculptor sued the U.S. Postal Service for copyright infringement.
Eighty million Maya Angelou stamps were issued on April 7. The USPS has no plans to recall the stamp.
Maya Angelou and the Internet’s Stamp of Approval by Ian Crouch. The New Yorker, April 10, 2015.
Maya Angelou honored by US Postal Service with commemorative stamp – but featured quote belongs to another writer. The Daily Mail, April 9, 2015
Postal Service Slips Up. NPR News, April 8, 2015
Maya Angelou’s Stamp Features a Quote That Wasn’t Hers. The Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2015
Maya Angelou’s new stamp uses a quote that may not be entirely hers. The Washington Post, April 6, 2015
Maya Angelou. Wikipedia.
Sculptor Sues U.S. Postal Service. The Washington Post,
Newsday, April 9, 2015