Born in the U.S.A.

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duke ellingtonFirst of all, I should like to extend my sincere appreciation to the Rev. Karl Downs for the opportunity to appear on this very fine program and express myself in a manner not often at my disposal. Music is my business, my profession and my life … but, even though it means so much to me, I often feel that I’d like to have my say, on some of the burning issues confronting us, in another language … in words of mouth.

There is a good deal of talk in the world today. Some view that as a bad sign. One of the Persian poets, lamenting the great activity of men’s tongues, cautioned them to be silent with the reminder that, “In much of your talking, thinking is half murdered.” This is true no doubt. Yet in the day when men are silent because they are afraid to speak, indeed, have been forbidden to speak, I view the volubility of unrestricted with great satisfaction. Here in America, the silence of Europe, silent that is except for the harsh echoes of the dictators’ voices, has made us conscious of our privileges of free speech, and like the dumb suddenly given tongue, or the tongue-tied eased of restraint, we babble and bay to beat the band. Singly, as individuals, we don’t say much of consequence perhaps, but put together, heard in chorus, the blustering half-truths, the lame and halting logic,
the painfully sincere convictions of Joe and Mary Doaks … compose a powerful symphony, which like the small boy’s brave whistle in the dark, serves notice on the hobgoblins that we are not asleep, not prey to unchallenged attack. And, so it is, with the idea in mind of adding my bit to the meaningful chorus, that I address you briefly this evening.

I have been asked to take as the subject of my remarks the title of a very significant poem, “We, Too, Sing America,” written by the distinguished poet and author, Langston Hughes.

In the poem, Mr. Hughes argues the case for democratic recognition of the Negro on the basis of the Negro’s contribution to America, a contribution of labor, valor, and culture. One hears that argument repeated frequently in the Race press, from the pulpit and rostrum. America is reminded of the feats of Crispus Attucks, Peter Salem, Black armies in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, the World War. Further, forgetful America is reminded that we sing without false notes, as borne out by the fact that there are no records of Black traitors in the archives of American history. This is all well and good, but I believe it to be only half the story.

We play more than a minority role, in singing “America.” Although numerically but ten percent of the mammoth chorus that today, with an eye overseas, sings “America” with fervor and thanksgiving, I say our ten percent is the very heart of the chorus: the sopranos, so to speak, carrying the melody, the rhythm section of the band, the violins, pointing the way.

I contend that the Negro is the creative voice of America, is creative America, and it was a happy day in America when the first unhappy slave was landed on its shores. There, in our tortured induction into this “land of liberty,” we built its most graceful civilization. Its wealth, its flowering fields and handsome homes; its pretty traditions; its guarded leisure and its music, were all our creations. We stirred in our shackles and our unrest awakened Justice in the hearts of a courageous few, and we recreated in America the desire for true democracy, freedom for all, the brotherhood of man, principles on which the country had been founded. We were freed and as before, we fought America’s wars, provided her labor, gave her music, kept alive her flickering conscience, prodded her on toward the yet unachieved goal, democracy — until we became more than a part of America! We — this kicking, yelling, touchy, sensitive, scrupulously demanding minority — are the personification of the ideal begun by the Pilgrims almost 350 years ago. It is our voice that sang “America” when America grew too lazy, satisfied and confident to sing … before the dark threats and fire-lined clouds of destruction frightened it into a thin, panicky quaver.

We are more than a few isolated instances of courage, valor, achievement. 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 our near tragic present.   

The late Duke Ellington was a preeminent jazz composer, pianist and big-band leader of the 20th century. The above is an edited excerpt from a speech he gave on Feb. 9, 1941, at Scott Methodist Church, Los Angeles, on the occasion of the church’s Annual Lincoln Day Services.