Today, according to the Associated Press, the United States government honored Edward Kennedy Ellington — in its own fashion:
Jazz musician Duke Ellington has become the first Black American to be prominently featured on a U.S. coin in circulation with the release of a quarter honoring the District of Columbia. U.S. Mint and D.C. officials celebrated the release of the coin Tuesday during a ceremony at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “Like many great Americans who succeed in what they love doing, Duke Ellington was equal parts talent, hard work, passion and perseverance,” U.S. Mint Director Ed Moy said. Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was born and raised in Washington. He and other Black music legends, such as Ella Fitzgerald, helped establish the city’s U Street as an entertainment corridor. Ellington beat out designs featuring abolitionist Frederick Douglass and astronomer Benjamin Banneker. Last year, the Mint rejected a proposed design for the D.C. quarter that included the slogan “Taxation Without Representation,” a phrase borrowed by D.C. residents to voice objections that they pay federal taxes without full representation in Congress. Instead, the Ellington coin includes the D.C. motto “Justice for All.” The coin with Ellington resting his elbow on a piano was officially released Jan. 26, but officials took time Tuesday to hand out some of the “mint condition” quarters to D.C. schoolchildren. “With Duke on the coin, we are sending an important message to the world that D.C. is a lot more than a government town,” D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said. Prior to the Ellington quarter, the only U.S. coin to depict a Black person was a 2003 Missouri state coin that featured explorers Lewis and Clark with a Black slave named York, Mint spokeswoman Carla Coolman said. Commemorative coins have also featured Black figures, but those coins weren’t put into circulation.
I don’t know. It does my heart good to see Ellington honored. But am I carping when I point out that he was denied the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes? And that this government waited until he was dead nearly a quarter of a century to give him this honor. And that it isn’t the hundred-dollar bill? Of course, more people will see and handle those quarters, I know. And perhaps when I go to the laundry room I can have the pleasure of a whole pocketful of Dukes. But we DO seem to honor artists in this country oddly. And if they happen to have been African-American and “popular,” well, they do end up on the bus — but far too late, and in the back. Things ain’t what they used to be, and they never were.
Thanks to Bill Gallagher for reminding me, and to Ian Bradley, from whose Ellington-themed site, MIDRIFF, I borrowed the image.