On Lena Horne

May 12, 2010

Maybe this isn’t the right time or place to be bringing this up. I’ll probably be vilified by my slightly older-than-me readers who’ll claim that since I didn’t grow up when Ms. Horne was in her prime, that I don’t know what I’m talking about. That, of course, hasn’t stopped me before, and won’t stop me now. But two things have to be said about the late Lena Horne that most reporters and commentators on her life have either overemphasized or glossed over completely. One, that there’s a huge difference between breaking down barriers and commenting on injustice and full-fledged civil rights activism. Two, that Horne represented the issue of double-consciousness in Hollywood and entertainment in ways that few want to discuss now that she’s no longer with us.

Yes, I have seen Horne on the silver and small screen, even in my limited years on the planet. Yes, I know what she did on behalf of Black soldiers during World War II, the ground she broke in film and music, the use of her position in entertainment to speak truth about discrimination, exclusion and harassment in Hollywood. That makes her a groundbreaking icon. It makes her a bit of a civil rights activist. But it doesn’t put her in the same sentence as Dorothy Height, Paul Robeson, or Ella Baker. Maybe that’s unfair and unrealistic, but the journalists and commentators have exaggerated Horne’s impact in this area.

I’ve always found the stories of the mesmerizing Ms. Horne interesting. Not that I didn’t understand, between the beauty and all of that talent, evident as late as her appearance on, of all things, The Cosby Show in ’89 or ’90. But a radio commentator recently suggested that the late Horne could’ve passed for White, but decided to be one of the rare ones to stand up for her race instead. Really? Really? Mostly light, bright and almost-White Blacks didn’t pass for White, even when it would’ve been convenient for them to do so. Although Horne was light, I don’t think it would’ve been easy for her to pass, for a whole variety of cultural, familial, and other reasons. She deserves credit for this, I suppose, but no more credit than the likes of Walter White, Nella Larsen or Mary Church Terrell.

Which brings up the one unspoken, complicated fact that has gone unmentioned, especially among Black pundits and writers. That Horne benefited from her looks — her light, bright and almost-Whiteness — as much as she had to fight discrimination because of them. Her beauty and her skin served as the embodiment of double-consciousness, in Hollywood and in mid-twentieth century African America. She was Black and yet not Black in the eyes of MGM and its execs. Yet she was also a Black icon who represented the ideal in terms of her lightness, at least as far as the times themselves dictated in African America. I’m not suggesting that the late Ms. Horne took full advantage of this reality — far from it. But I do believe that she gained advantages that didn’t fall so easily toward others, like Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers.

Was Lena Horne one of the great Black female  — heck, American — performers of the twentieth century? Of course! Did she entertain like few others could? Absolutely! Was her impact on race relations, African American civil rights, and our understanding of race and skin tone far more complicated that is being portrayed in commentaries and obituaries? You betcha!


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