Lena Horne: an actress of color who refused to be defined by it

Lena Horne passed away Sunday. The world-famous actress and singer was Hollywood's first African-American starlet, known for her refusal be stereotyped in 'black' roles.

Aubrey Reuben/AP/file
In a June 23, 1997, file photo, Lena Horne (c.) holds the Ella Award. Singer Horne, who broke racial barriers as a Hollywood and Broadway star famed for her velvety rendition of 'Stormy Weather,' has died at age 92. ()

Lena Horne, the light-skinned, African-American singer, best known for her signature song, “Stormy Weather,” passed away at age 92 Sunday night in Manhattan.

The first black performer to be signed to a long term contract by a major Hollywood studio, Ms. Horne has remained a singular inspiration to generations of African-American women – someone who opened important doors and walked through them with a kind of self-confidence and brio that resonates still.

“I certainly admired the way she kind of bucked the system and stayed true to her culture and roots,” says Miki Turner, west coast senior writer for Jet magazine in an e-mail.

In a statement today President Obama called her "one of our nation’s most cherished entertainers."

In many ways, Horne began to change the way Hollywood looked at African-Americans, refusing roles that she found demeaning as a person of color and taking on causes that sometimes angered studio executives.

On one hand, her bravado and beauty elevated her to an unprecedented level of movie stardom for an African-American – featured alongside the likes of Rita Hayworth in Metro Goldwyn Mayer films and advertisements. Yet it also led to her eventually being frozen out of the movie industry – though her departure from Hollywood marked the rise of a luminous career as a singer.

“The most valuable lessons that today's young people of color can learn from Horne's career is that acceptance by the dominant culture can be fleeting,” says Ms. Turner.

Standing up to Hollywood stereotypes

The lesson that Alicia Cornish, a liberal-arts undergraduate at Long Beach City College, takes from Horne's life is her unwillingness to bow to the stereotypes that popular media traded in throughout most of her career and still exist.

“Even today,” she says, “all you get in the popular media like TV or movies are the loud or the sassy black women. Lena was never like that,” she says.

In a time when black actresses were generally servants or sultry vamps, she was pointedly unwilling to be either. When she went to a studio-sponsored USO event – and saw German prisoners of war seated in front of black American soldiers – she filed a complaint together with the NAACP.

Later in her career, when the luxury hotels where she was scheduled to perform asked her and her musicians to find lodgings in black parts of town – as was tradition – she successfully refused.

"She always spoke her own mind and did things her way, but she did it in a classy way,” says Ms. Cornish.

The beauty of a Lena Horne, adds Earl Ofari Hutchinson, cultural critic and author of several books on the Black image in America, is that she had the looks and voice to play along with either of Hollywood's stereotypes, but she wanted more.

Born in 1917 to a politically aware middle-class family, the young Lena was enrolled in the NAACP at the age of 2. With a theater actress for a mother, she also attended dance and singing lessons. At age 16, after the death of her grandmother – who was pushing Lena toward teaching or motherhood – Horne followed in her mother’s footsteps and took to the stage.

An NAACP member at age 2

She joined New York city’s Cotton Club chorus where she began a 70-year showbiz career that took her to Hollywood and Paris. Along the way, said Mr. Obama in his statement: "she worked tirelessly to further the cause of justice and equality," nothing that "in 1940, she became the first African American performer to tour with an all white band."

Jet magazine's Turner suggests that her own career has been shaped by Horne's achievements.

“She stepped up to the plate and took the hits so that I and others like me could come to Hollywood and try and right some of the perpetual wrongs that still exist when it comes to women and particularly people of color,” she says. “The doors to this promised land are still only ajar when it comes to equal opportunities, but Horne was savvy enough to create her own openings.”

The lesson of her life is still relevant today, agrees cultural critic Mr. Hutchinson. While the overt Jim Crow barriers of Horne's time are gone, they are still alive in varied and subtle ways.

“Hollywood is an industry that specializes in stereotypes and typecasting,” he says. Horne's answer to this: “Accept me for who I am, do not try to typecast or compartmentalize me.”

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