Her legend on stage and in show business is widely known: at 16, she was in the chorus line at the famed Cotton Club.
She was the first Black person to sign a long term contract with a major Hollywood studio. She endured some of the everyday snubs, slights and insults that great Black performers routinely put up with during the hey day of mad dog racism. Through it all, Lena Horne survived, and indeed, thrived as one of the great lights, bar none, in the history of American entertainment. In a word, Lena was the bomb, for all of her 92 years. The mention of her name brings great joy, pride, courage, hope with optimism, to people across generations and across the world.
There is also a side of Lena Horne's life that is less generally known, and for which she was less appreciated. It is the side of her human generosity and deep love for Black people. At the onset of her career in Hollywood, she was given the option of "passing" because of her mostly "non negroid" features. It was requested by the movers and shakers of that day that she change her name so that she could pass, not as white--but as Mexican or some other exotic type, that was "non negro". It was suggested that she change her name to perhaps Sanchez, Gomez or Rodriguez.
This offer revealed Hollywood for what it was: just another racist American institution and the long held strategy of the ranking the so called "races" under the doctrine of white supremacy. To be Mexican, Hispanic, or Latina was more acceptable to a race ridden American society than to be an American negro. This little-big episode gives us an appreciation of the immeasurable depth of racist thought in American life, of how it engulfs the thinking of even the most intelligent and "creative" among white Americans.
Lena Horne's reply to this irrational thinking, this racial madness, was simply this: "My grandmother is a proud American Negro, that is what I am." In the language of that day, she communicated a monumental life lesson for all persons of African descent, which teaches that, who you really are is not a color, or a nose shape, but a deeply lived experience, through time, space, history, culture, and personality.
Lena took a stand, defending the particular and beautiful humanity of African descended people in America, again in the racial nightmare of her times.
Lena Horne was a very intelligent and perceptive woman. Being in show business did not blind her to life that surrounded her.
Lena Horne was a product of a proud family from Brooklyn New York, where she was born, but also had deep family roots in Georgia. During the summers seasons of her youth, she visited her relatives, mingled with the southern whites who were of the same class as her people,--poor, isolated, and ignored.
Lena Horne's political growth and development was not some sudden understanding that occurred in the 1960s. She was from a long line of distinguished family who had always fought for social justice. She came from a family of staunch NAACP members when that civil rights organization was high on the "person of interests" list of the FBI.
Lena Horne was a personal and loving friend of Paul Robeson, who during his time (the 40s and 50s) was considered "the most dangerous negro in America.” Robeson at that time was the most famous American in the world who dared to condemn American racism all over the world while commanding attention as a celebrated concert artist. Although he was considered as the first real Black movie star, Shakespearean actor, and spokesman for the world's labor movement, the American government deemed Robeson persona non grata or not wanted in America. Many recognized Black leaders (Benjamin E. Mays was an
exception) avoided him.
Lena Horne too, of course, was on "the persons of interest" list. After Paul Roberson, Lena was among the first Black entertainers to protest performing in front of Jim Crow audiences during the days when segregation was normalized like breathing. She practically single-handledly (until the likes of Harry Belefonte) desegregated the night clubs of Miami beach during the 1950s. There is simply too much to tell about Lena Horne as a fully fleshed, sensitive and caring, human being. She was one of a kind. And those of us who knew her, love and honor her-even from afar- are blessed to have shared the God's good earth with her. Better than most humans, she defined herself.
Lena Horne's own words best capture the weight and complexity of a marvelous, challenging, and beautiful life:
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.