activist, actress, dancer & singer lena horne transitioned monday, may 10 at the remarkable age of 92. born in (do-or-die) bed-stuy, brooklyn, new york, june 30, 1917, the classy & elegant lena mary calhourn horne took the stage as a dancer at harlem's famed cotton club when she was just 16. she later became a singer there, playing to packed houses (of white patrons only) with band leaders cab calloway & duke ellington.
nine years later she signed with mgm studios & became one of the first women of african descent to be showcased in hollywood for her stunning beauty & wonderful talent. at 25, horne was the first african-american to sign a long-term movie contract with a major hollywood studio. she was given a screen test by mgm & signed after a studio scout saw her performing in a new york club.
horne brought something uniquely her own to every role, whether cast as a principle or extra. her presence was captivating yet not intimidating; she exuded a quintessential spirit despite enduring anti-black & anti-female oppression in the white male capitalist patriarchal entertainment industry. oscar-winning actress hattie mcdaniel once said, "i'd rather get paid $200 a week to play a maid, than $2 a week to be a maid." horne's signature song was "stormy weather," & she was determined to break the prevailing stereotypes of black women as domestic servants, nannies or wenches.
african-american film historian donald bogle wrote, "she would sing a song in the film, then she would disappear...the studio could cut those scenes out if they felt that audiences in the south might object." horne's butterscotch complexion became a blessing & burden as she was often expected to pass for white in order to appear desirable for a leading white male actor. she worked during the jim crow era when interracial marriage was illegal, yet never compromised her dignity, faith & self-respect.
horne complained she was used as "window dressing" in white films, mostly limited to singing performances that could be easily edited out for play in southern theaters. she defiantly rejected studio plans to promote her as a latin american. also, her stepfather, miguel rodriguez, negotiated her contract for her never to play a maid or "tarzan extra." she began taking singing lessons in 1935, eventually landing a part in the all-black broadway production "dance with your gods." five years later she became the first african-american singer to tour with a white group.
the black community admired her tireless efforts to foster fair treatment & racial equality in the workplace. she remained steadfast yet fully aware of the career risks. while touring with the uso during world war 2, horne stood up for black soldiers who were forced to sit behind german prisoners during one of her performances. after the uso withdrew her from the tour, she used her own money to travel to sing for the troops. horne sued american restaurants & theaters for racial discrimination, knowing she'd be using the "coloreds only" back door entrance before going on stage.
horne has a daugher & son from her first marriage, which ended in 1944. she married again in 1947 to lennie hayton, who was then mgm's music director. she decided to keep the marriage secret for several years - hayton was white. but when the public learned of their marriage the couple received hate mail & threats of violence.
during the turbulent 60's horne became an associate of paul robeson, a man whose political & social consciousness inspired her to seek justice. like horne, robeson was an artist of integrity who believed in his convictions & was convicted for his beliefs. the black power movement fueled their desire to awaken the spirit of oppressed folk globally. horne joined in the historic march on washington. later that decade, she was invited with james baldwin, harry belafonte & lorraine hansberry by robert f. kennedy to a special dinner to discuss growing racial tension in the country.
by 1981, horne enjoyed a resurgence of her career with a hit show on broadway. "lena horne: the lady & her music," garnered her a special tony award & two grammys. in 1978, her passionate role as glinda, the good witch, in the all-black musical the wiz, co-starring michael jackson & diana ross, was critically acclaimed. in 1989 she received a lifetime achievement award for her soulful singing. in 1995, her jazz album, "an evening with lena horne," earned her another grammy. she became a cultural icon.
horne's memorable guest appearances on such emmy-award winning television shows as sesame street, the cosby show & a different world broadened her audience & widended her appeal. we learned, in fact, from the youth inspired cosby spin-off, a different world, jada pinkett-smith's character, lena james, the free-spirited transplant from baltimore, was named after lena horne.
lena horne embodies self-determination. she once said, "my identity is very clear to me now...i am a black woman...i am 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 & i'm like nobody else."
long live the spirit of the legendary, lovely, luminous lena horne...
- mark j. tuggle
- harlem, usa
- same-gender-loving contemporary descendant of enslaved africans. community activist, feminist, health educator, independent filmmaker, mentor, playwright, poet & spiritual being. featured at, in & on africana.com, afrikan poetry theatre, angel herald, bejata dot com, bet tonight with tavis smiley, blacklight online, black noir, brooklyn moon cafe, gmhc's barbershop, klmo-fm, lgbt community services center, longmoor productions, nuyorican poets cafe, our corner, poz, pulse, rolling out new york, rush arts gallery, saint veronica's church, schomburg center for research in black culture, sexplorations, the citizen, the new york times, the soundz bar, the trenton times, the village voice, upn news, uzuri, venus, vibe, wbai-fm, wnyc-fm & wqht-fm. volunteered with adodi, bailey house, inc., black men's xchange-new york, colorofchange.org, drug policy alliance, east harlem tutorial program, imagenation film & music festival, presente.org, save darfur coalition, the enough project, the osborne association, the sledge group & your black world. worked on films with maurice jamal & heather murphy. writing student of phil bertelsen & ed bullins. firstname.lastname@example.org.