“We, Too, Sing ‘America’”

by Duke Ellington

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 10 per cent of the mammoth chorus that today, with an eye overseas, sings "America" with fervor and thanksgiving, I say our 10 per cent 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.

Source: Excerpt from speech by Duke Ellington, 1941. For the full text of this speech, see pp. 146-148 of The Duke Ellington Reader, edited by Mark Tucker, Oxford University Press, 1993.

Duke Ellington Communicates Beyond Category

Black Studies, Music, America vs Europe

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