1941 February 12

Duke Ellington: “We, Too, Sing America”


On this day, with war in Europe and totalitarianism on the rise around the world, the great jazz musician Duke Ellington was asked to make some remarks in Los Angeles. His words were a powerful message about the place of African-Americans in a still-segregated country, with observations on the importance of freedom of speech. The title of his remarks was a slight modification of the title of a poem by the great African-American poet Langston Hughes: “I, Too, Sing America,” but one that gave it far greater social and political significance. Ellington’s 1941 words seem almost prophetic, and particularly appropriate for the great years of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

 Ellington: “We — this kicking, yelling, touchy, sensitive, scrupulously-demanding minority — are the personification of the ideal began by the Pilgrims almost 350 years ago. . . We’re the injection, the shot in the arm, that has kept America and its forgotten principles, alive in the fat and corrupt years intervening between our divine conception and out tragic present.”

And on freedom of speech in a world of war and totalitarianism: “Here in America, the silence of Europe, silent that is except for harsh echoes of the dictators’ voices, has made us conscious of our privileges of free speech…”

Read Ellington’s complete remarks: http://www.autodidactproject.org/quote/elling01.html

Find the remarks and more about Ellington: Mark Tucker, ed., The Duke Ellington Reader (1993) [pp. 146–148]

Check out the official Duke Ellington web site: http://www.dukeellington.com/

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