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Black History Month Tribute to Lena Horne: The Actress and Activist

 By Imani Davy

“My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman. I’m free. I no longer have to be a ‘credit.’ I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody; I don’t have to be a first to anybody. I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become. I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.” The words of the late Lena Horne resonate throughout history. Confident, sassy, and straight-forward are just a few words that describe the fallen legend.

She carved her name in the stone of Black history by not only being a famous, jazz singer, but an actress and a civil rights activist as well. Horne is known for being one of the first black performers to be signed to a major Hollywood film studio. She used her talents to bring awareness to the struggles and hardships that the Black Community faced.  She was successful in her profession for over 60 years featuring in a number of popular films such as The Wiz and Stormy Weather and performing on Broadway, receiving a number of Grammys and a Tony Award for her one-woman show Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music in 1981. She became known as the highest-paid Black entertainer of her time.

Lena Mary Calhoune Horne was born in Brooklyn, New York on June 30, 1917. Unlike most African-Americans of that time, Horne and her family was a part of what W.E.B Du Bois labeled as “The Talented Tenth”, African-Americans who were of the educated, upper middle-class. Her mother, Edna Louise Horne, was an aspiring actress and her father, Edwin Fletcher Horne, Jr. worked for the New York State Department of Labor as a banker. After her parents divorced, Horne’s mother went off to pursue her acting career, leaving Horne to live with her grandparents. Horne’s mother later came back for her when she was six years old and brought Horne along to travel with her in further pursuit of her career.

Horne lived nomadic lifestyle. While living with her mother, they both moved to various locations in the South and Midwest. At the age of 12, Horne went back to live with her grandparents in Brooklyn, but later lived with a family friend due to the death of her grandmother. She attended Girls High School in Brooklyn where she took dancing lessons. Horne’s mother, once again, came back to retrieve her where they moved from Brooklyn to the Bronx and from the Bronx to Harlem. Because of The Great Depression, Horne’s mother struggled financially, so Horne dropped out of school at the age of 16 to work at The Cotton Club as a chorus girl. 

Years later, she joined the Noble Sissle Society Orchestra under the name Helena Horne. She appeared in the Broadway musical Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of 1939 and later joined the Charlie Barnet Orchestra, an all-white band. This was the first instance of an integrated musical band. Because this was a time of racial discrimination, Horne was not allowed to socialize wherever the band played. Disagreeing with this treatment, she left the band to work at the Café Society nightclub in New York, where the crowd consisted of a mixture of people.

At the age of 19, Horne married political operative Louis Jordan Jones and later had a daughter and son. After her divorce, Horne moved to Hollywood in pursuit of a career as a nightclub singer. She then remarried to Lennie Hayton, a white bandleader. They both kept their marriage a secret for three years because anything interracial was frowned upon.

 She experienced a breakthrough in her career after appearing in an all-black musical “Stormy Weather”, in which she sang the infamous tune “Stormy Weather”. She signed a seven-year contract with MGM studios, but not before having a representative from the NAACP review the contract with her to make sure that she was not agreeing to play any demeaning African-American roles.

Horne’s skin color and race was a controversial aspect within her career. Because she was an African-American woman, it was hard for her to land roles within White movies. Surprisingly, it was hard for her to land roles in all-black films as well because she did not look like a typical African-American woman. Not only that, Horne refused to accept roles that portrayed a stereotypical Black woman.

Horne was deeply disturbed by the treatment of the African-American people. In the late 1940s, she became a member of the Progressive Citizens of America, a leftist group. She sued restaurants and theaters for discrimination. She performed at multiple rallies that were held by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Council for Negro Women (NCNW).  She even marched in The March on Washington in 1963. Because of her outspoken personality and radical behavior, she was blacklisted and unable to work in any aspect of her profession (film, radio, television, etc.). In 1956, she was back on television in the comedy Meet Me in Las Vegas.

Horne credits pianist and composer Billy Strayhorn as her main influence for pursuing music. “I wasn’t born a singer…I had to learn a lot. Billy rehearsed me. He stretched me vocally,” said Horne to Strayhorn’s biographer.

 Despite her candid personality, Horne shows her modest side the last time she sang on television in a 1998 interview with Rosie O’Donnell. While they played her performance, she was shown covering her face and shying away from watching herself. “I’d prefer not to see myself. I want to be Aretha Franklin…I want to sound like her…she’s incredible…” said Horne.

Horne died at the age of 92 due to heart failure on May 9, 2010 in her hometown, New York.