The phrase and sentiment, “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song,” is one of the best-known expressions of the intrinsic nature of art and beauty. It has been quoted by presidents and school teachers, and practically everyone in between. And we all “know” that the quote comes from Maya Angelou. The US government even said so. In 2015, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp honoring Maya Angelou as one of the most important American poets of modern times. It put the “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song” quote next to her portrait on the stamp. The problem, Buzzkillers, is the same as it always is when it comes to quoting famous people. Maya Angelou never said this, and she never claimed it as her own.
The quote actually comes from Joan Walsh Anglund, a children’s book author, who wrote it in a poetry collection entitled “A Cup of Sun” in 1967. When the Post Office unveiled the Maya Angelou stamp in 2015, Anglund and others noted the misattribution publically. The Post Office responded in a very un-Buzzkilling way: “Had we known about this issue beforehand, we would have used one of [Angelou’s] many other works. The sentence held great meaning for her and she is publicly identified with its popularity.” And they kept the stamp in circulation.
One of the reasons that “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song” is usually attributed to Maya Angelou is that the title of her famous 1969 autobiography is “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” When searching for a title that encapsulated the nature of her story, Maya Angelou turned to a poem entitled “Sympathy” published in 1899 by Paul Laurence Dunbar, an important late 19th-century American poet, and child of slaves. Dunbar died in 1906 and there are no recordings of him reciting his work. This is especially unfortunate because Dunbar was praised for his wonderful use of African-American dialect of his age. But here is the text of the poem.
Sympathy Paul Laurence Dunbar
I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!
I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!
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!
At the very least, Dunbar’s ideas lived on through the work of Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, and others. We encourage all of you to read him. But also to read Joan Walsh Anglund’s poems in A Cup of Sun to your Buzzlings at night before they go to sleep.