Women's History Month
It's not the load that breaks you down, it's the way you carry it. (Lena Horne)
When I was a child, I was in no doubt that Lena Horne was my mom’s favorite singer. We had no victrola or radio at home, so mom introduced me to Lena Horne by singing “Stormy Weather” and showing me photos of Lena in celebrity magazines. As a child I mostly associated Lena with days when hurricanes or heavy rains kept me from playing outdoors with my friends. I learned to love and admire her later.
Mom’s photos of Lena puzzled me. Was she really Black? Hollywood film-makers seemed to have comparable difficulties with her skin color. They darkened her make-up as they feared she might not be easily identified as a “negro”. In colonial or even post-colonial Jamaica, people as light-skinned as Lena were offended to be called Black. Many of these shade-conscious Jamaicans were shocked to find that Jim Crow laws applied to them. On the contrary, Lena consistently identifies herself as Black.
Both sides of Lena’s family were mixed – African, European, and Native American. Her grandfather was an inventor and she grew up in an upper middle class Black community. Her grandparents raised her as her parents divorced when she was a small child, and her mother went away to find work.
In 1933, when Lena was 16 years old, she dropped out of school and joined the chorus line of the Cotton Club in Harlem. She later toured with bands, notably led by such persons as Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. By 1941 she had made a record with RCA Victor.
She was primarily a nightclub performer until talent scouts persuaded her to start a movie career. Lena became the first Black American performer to sign a long term contract with a major Hollywood studio.
She was never featured in a leading role. In those days, Black roles needed to be incidental to the story so sequences with Black actors could be edited out without loss to the storyline. Besides, there were codes blocking the possibility of inter-racial relationships in films, especially if they were shown in the South.
In the 1950s, Lena left Hollywood and concentrated on performing in nightclubs. She also made several television appearances in the decades that followed.
Lena was known for her civil rights activism. She worked with Paul Robeson, and as a result was blacklisted as a "Communist sympathizer". She performed at a rally with Medgar Evers, attended the March on Washington, and worked with Elinor Roosevelt to pass anti-lynching laws.
She received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989 and was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1991.
Do you or your elders have any memories of Lena Horne? Please share.
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