Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Shit Happens

A letter doesn't get mailed because it has a stamp on it. A letter gets mailed because you wrote it. Or maybe somebody else wrote it and you accidentally on purpose signed your name to it. And since millions of postage stamps, especially the forever ones, don't get recalled or retracted just because of a little plagiarism issue, let's just call it a day and put a stamp on it. Let's not relitigate the past. We must look forward, not backward.  We must progress to the next chapter of our long national nightmare narrative. As we have recently learned so sadly and so painfully, a Rolling Stone gathers no moss.

The phrase on the stamp honoring the late Maya Angelou was actually written by Joan Walsh Anglund and originally appeared in her poetry collection called "A Cup of Sun." The quote has been wrongly attributed to Angelou for many years, not least because she often quoted it herself without attribution, and thus was the plagiarism perpetuated, even recently by the great man himself. Barack Obama requoted the quote during a 2013 award ceremony for Angelou, who is said to have stood mutely by without bothering to correct either the record or the president. I know not why the caged tongue. I can only assume that she didn't want to embarrass the president, whom she had endorsed for reelection. However, as Angelou herself wrote, "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."

The Postal Service is not going postal over the malattribution, so why should you? Spokesman Mark Saunders shrugged it off, telling the Washington Post that attribution doesn't  matter if it's been part of the False Narrative since forever. Why else would they call it a forever stamp?
“Had we known about this issue beforehand, we would have used one of [Angelous's-sic] many other works,” USPS spokesman Mark Saunders said in an e-mail on Monday. “The sentence held great meaning for her and she is publicly identified with its popularity.”
“The Postal Service puts a great deal of time and energy into vetting the stamps it releases each year,” Saunders added in a follow-up email. “This stamp was similarly vetted. We found that 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.”
Even the official unveiling of the Stamp was fraught. Just as Oprah Winfrey got up to speak at the event, the lights went out. Because electricity doesn't happen because Oprah wrote a speech. It happens because the infrastructure is properly maintained and chunks of metal don't fall onto power lines for no apparent reason.

Maybe the Postal Service can make good on its error by issuing a forever stamp for Joan Walsh Anglund. One of her iconic children's illustrations can be matched with an original saying by Maya Angelou. 

'Life's a bitch. You've got to go out and kick ass'


annenigma said...

"Life's a bitch. You've got to go out and kick ass". I love it! Is that a Karen original or one of Maya Angelou's?

Barack 'Just Words' Obama can't very well call someone else on plagiarism. Nor can Joe 'Kinnock' Biden. You could excuse a postal worker working on this project (who might have gotten their job on political patronage or veteran points) who might not have had the benefit of a formal Ivy League education, but politicians have no excuse. Nor do the well paid upper level executives in the Postal Service who can't be bothered to do their jobs properly by at least paying attention to the finished product.

I just tried to do a quick search of USPS executive salaries and didn't find it yet, but I did discover that one of the board members of the USPS is affiliated with the Carlyle Group and another with BP. Trojan Horses.

I have a feeling that is an interesting area to explore. The Carlyle Group google search result begins with this laughable intro:

'Carlyle professionals collaborating seamlessly and selflessly across funds, industries and geographies to deliver the wisdom, knowledge and resources required to ...' They're a big wealthy private equity firm up with profits being their only goal. Selflessly? Give me a break.

Karen Garcia said...

Hi Anne,

The quote has been *attributed* to Maya Angelou. Here's another one of her gems that I have adopted as my own personal mantra:

"Try to be a rainbow in someone's cloud."

For even more original inspiration, there's a listicle from where else? The Huffington Post.

I found it right below their daily "Michelle STUNS!" story.

Oh I almost forgot, "You go, Girl!!!"

Zee said...

If Maya Angelou used the Joan Walsh Anglund quote many times over a period of many years without ever making proper attribution, then she is, indeed, guilty of plagiarism.

And if the U.S. Postal Service failed to properly “vet” the quote, well, then they, too, are guilty of aiding and abetting said plagiarism. (Though they get a tiny bit of sympathy from me in an easy internet era of prolific misattributions and, indeed, outright, made-up, “popular” quotes attributed to famous and influential people.)

As someone who has published a few papers in the scientific literature that still get cited from time to time, I can attest to the fact that plagiarism in all its forms is rightfully seen as an execrable crime: the quiet theft of the intellectual creation of another person, said “creation”—at least for us lesser mortals of few accomplishments—being quite possibly the only [semi-]lasting proof that we ever had existed on this earth at all.

Think of it as theft of even our smallest hope for immortality.

Why would Maya Angelou, a woman of undoubted accomplishment, resort to plagiarism when it clearly seems so unnecessary?

Vanity? Or self-doubt?

4Runner said...

Early on in my freelance writing career, I was a minor victim of non-attribution. An article I wrote was featured on the front page of the features section of the Miami Herald. Later in the day, a colleague on the U of Miami campus told me I should read " a wonderful article"---yes, mine---"you'll really enjoy it". Innocently, I asked her, "Who wrote it?" Of course, she hadn't noticed the by-line, even though it was printed in boldface. My later experience indicated to me that only other writers look at by-lines.

uncaged boid said...

Oh, Good Lord.

It's true, in her later life, Maya Angelou sometimes seemed like a joke.

But her books and her activism changed countless lives. Angelou showed us so much about what it was like to grow up black in the Jim Crow South and to live as a teen and unwed mother in the urban North and West.

And, for those of us who first read her work when we were in junior high and who continued reading her into adulthood, she told us so much about what it was like to be a woman - the pleasures and the - wow - grave perils. Those books were revelatory on so many levels.

On top of that, she was a fantastic and generous and motivational teacher.

If you haven't recently re-read her early work, including the remarkable "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings", then I truly recommend you take the few hours that her deceptively "simple" early memoir requires.

It is beautifully written, it is painfully honest, and it is an essential American document. It spares no one, least of all the author.

Frankly, the plagiarized quote is ridiculous on its face, and it did a disservice to Angelou in two ways - first, because she had apparently wrongly appropriated the expression, consciously or not, and second, because it's so insipid.

Either way, taking potshots at an icon of the civil rights movement, a writer whose work inspired so many men and women to be political activists, to fight against racism, and to lead more thoughtful lives, is, IMO, beneath you. I don't understand it.

It's a disproportionate amount of rage for an act that, frankly, is not THAT unknown in literary circles. Melville's "Benito Cereno" is essentially lifted from Chapter 17 of Amasa Delano's memoir. It's tweaked just slightly, and it's a masterwork in Melville's capable hands. Obviously, these are very different situations, but it does seem that the level of outrage you're expressing over this is kind of more about you than about Angelou's theft.

There's legitimate anger, and then there's lashing out. We could all excoriate Martin Luther King, Jr., for cheating on his wife. But looking at the broad scope of his achievements and what he offered the world, it would be missing the point entirely.

Kat said...

Anyone who is a FOO (friend of Oprah) is immediately suspect in my book. She is one of the worst and most insidious perpetrators of this idea of rugged individualism. She sort of disguises it though.
I recently finished My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass. One thing that struck me is how much he indicted the system rather than individuals- to the point of having empathy for his masters as in "they are a product of the system and doing what the system requires". This is not to say that he does not have harsh words for those working in the system and he does have an especial ire for those that hide behind religion (they tended to be the most brutal and as Douglass was religious he couldn't stand the distortions.)
Douglass was an amazing man and overcame odds that we could not imagine, but he realized that he got some breaks from his owners and did not edit these out of his bio.

Karen Garcia said...

@uncaged boid,

My post wasn't a personal attack on Angelou, whose autobiographies I have read and admired. It was a criticism of the free market, bureaucratic banality, celebrity branding, and identity politics. I attempted a humorous, ironic tone, which obviously fell flat. I was chuckling when I wrote it, not fuming in "disproportionate rage" as you suggest.

Otherwise, I would have gone beyond the whole stamp silliness and needless plagiarism to dwell more upon her collusion with Oprah, her association with Hallmark, and worst of all, her NY Times endorsement of Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court. That was truly a blot on what otherwise was an admirable literary life. Not only did she throw Anita Hill under the bus, she threw millions and millions of other Americans under the bus.

Her rationale was that even though he was a loathsome human being, blacks should support him because he was born poor and had the courage to go to Yale... and if not a creepy black justice, then we'd only get stuck with a creepy white justice. Better that black children have a reactionary black guy to look up to than no black guy at all.

Here's the link:

Kat said...

Wow Karen, that op ed. That is the worst sort of racial essentalizing.
Frederick Douglass recognized that his spirit would have been broken if he hadn't escaped being sold off to a slaver in the deep south.
The other day I saw a story about that kid that had been accepted by all the ivies,. Moral of story? He's black. He can do it. Anyone can. He is black, yes. He is also Nigerian. I know that Nigerian is African which in the US operates as shorthand for "probably illiterate and poor" , but there are a lot of educated professionals from Nigeria. His parents were educated, but had to take jobs as clerks at Target. They moved here specifically to give their children more opportunities. But because he is black, his experience represents that of all black people!

Jay–Ottawa said...

I’m not a writer, just a reader. I find––POLITICAL CORRECTNESS ALERT!––little to admire in Maya Angelou’s life or writing.

Before posting this comment, which I’d been mulling over for a day, I see that Karen beat me to it this morning in listing some of Maya Angelou’s disservices to blacks and average Americans generally.

Darryl Pinckney is a black writer who published a long article covering Farrakhan’s Million Man March back in the mid-1990s. For a taste of good reading, check out his article. In it, with a one-sentence aside, he hints at what a gifted writer like him thought of her. Looks like he was calling her a chameleon.

“Two cute children recited and Maya Angelou, who will play any venue, moved herself to tears.”

Angelou has performed brilliantly as a tool for public figures the average American might be wise to loathe. On the other hand, unsuspecting readers might understandably come away with a brighter view of her life after reading her eight autobiographies. True, she does give fact checkers headaches, and within her circle of self-promoting autobiographies they don’t all square with each other. That might have been resolved in her ninth autobiography, which she was laboring over when she died.

Will said...

Only nine autobiographies, huh? Interesting.

Here's a story I've heard before about the time Maya and James Baldwin walked into a bar. Hope it's true because it's hilarious: