When one thinks of Black icons in the entertainment industry, there is one who shines so brightly, few can claim to reach her heights. She was a first, a true groundbreaker and a woman who will be remembered for centuries to come for a few tiny words in her MGM contract that said nothing short of she would never be cast as a maid or a servant in a film.
Lena Horne died last week in New York City at age 92.
Ms. Horne was the first genuine African-American movie star. She rose to fame in the 1940s during World War II because the Black GIs felt it was safe to put pin-ups of her in places where they did not feel comfortable putting up Betty Grable or other white stars of the day. A child of the NAACP–her grandparents were among the first members of the organization–she was a woman who was very clear about who she was and her place in the world.
When I think of her, two words come to mind: pride and dignity. Whether she was on the Broadway stage sharing her memories of the difficult, bygone Hollywood days when Blacks were only allowed to be porters or maids in the movies–which she contractually refused to play and she was therefore relegated to singing roles that could easily be cut out of movies when they were shown in the South–or turning away from white German prisoners of war during USO shows so she could perform for the Black troops, she was a woman who took chances.
She was not a soft woman, at least not to the public. She was from a time when being soft would have left her crushed by a white majority that did not know what to do with a woman like her.
She was beautiful and sexy–at a time when there were no real media role models for being a beautiful, sexy Black woman in Hollywood or in the public eye–but always remained a lady.
And a great lesson that Ms. Horne’s life was her ability to change with the times. When Hollywood ended her contract in the early 1950s–partly because she was accused of being a Communist because of her friendships with the great activist and actor Paul Robeson and other progressives–she remade herself into a successful cabaret singer and television star.
And when the early 1960s Civil Rights Movement went into full swing, she was, along with Harry Belafonte and Marlon Brando, one of the important stars to stand with Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders at the 1963 March on Washington. She had her tragedies in life: 1970 and 1971 were particularly bad years when she lost both her husband and her only son. But she managed to continue on, and in 1981 at an age when most people are ready to retire, she got up on Broadway stage and shared her life in words and song, amazing audiences for more than a year and essentially redefined the one-person show for both Broadway and America.
She was the epitome of the strong Black woman: forceful, opinionated, defiant, a true force of nature.
And as she broke barriers, she came more and more into herself as artist, as a voice for her people, and as a woman and icon. For more than 60 years, she made her mark on the world and left her rich legacy in show business and in activism. And for generations of Black women performers she showed that you don’t have to sell your soul or compromise your convictions to leave your mark on the world.
Goodbye, Ms. Horne, and God bless you.