“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.” LENA HORNE dies at 92 (30/6/1917 – 9/5/2010).

Posted: May 11, 2010 in Jazz, Pop Culture, Uncategorized
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Where does one begin to describe this remarkable woman, or describe the immense legacy left in her passing? During a time when racial bigotry and hatred dangerously permeated the American political and social climate of the early 1930’s, Lena Horne stood poised and armed with fierce courage and determination, outspoken in her Civil Rights views, fighting the Hollywood ignominies that plagued her everywhere she would go. If you were to describe her as one of the pioneers for African-American’s in the entertainment industry, she was quick to reject being the first for anybody. Indeed she wasn’t the first but she was the first to make an impact. Hollywood didn’t know what to make of this woman who was not black enough to play a maid, but too black to star in lead roles. To those on the surface, Lena Horne was famous for her starring roles in ‘Stormy Weather’ and ‘Cabin in the Sky’, but underneath all that was a fighter.

“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.” PBS interview, 1997.

Born June 30th, 1917 in Brooklyn, Lena Horne of Native American, African and European descent, was raised by her grandparents from a well-to-do affluent middle class family whom were members of the National Association of the Advancement of Coloured People. Even before understanding the consequences of being dark skinned, she graced the front cover of the NAACP at the tender age of 2. The NAACP is an organization that was first established in protest against black lynching, where 10,000 members marched down the streets in retaliation of the race riots in Springfield, 1908. This organization continues to break down the barriers of racial injustice with over half a million constituents and supporters.

Her childhood was far from a fairytale, so don’t be misguided by the fact that she grew up with an affluent middle class family. Lena Horne’s mother and father separated at age 2, her father a bookie and her mother was also an aspiring actress. As a child, Lena Horne was plucked from location to location by her mother who was living the black bourgeois lifestyle in Brooklyn trying to find work, dragging her daughter through the South, dumped in foster homes, even as far as being abandoned in a whore house. Her formative years took place in Georgia, Atlanta and from there her grandparents raised her from strength to strength. According to autobiographer James Gavin who recently penned her autobiography titled ‘Stormy Weather’, she was chosen by founding member Walter White as NAACP’s image of African Americans at the age of 24. The NAACP hoped that her face could sway the public’s opinion about black folks in the country. She did more than contribute to the history of America – she  opened doors in areas that many did not expect to remain open for long.

“My mother wanted me to be a star and I worked hard for her goal, though I hated it so much that when later I achieved what she wanted for me I could really not enjoy it,”

Lena Horne made a mark in the entertainment industry not on her sole merit as a singer, but as an entertainer heavily intertwined in the Civil Rights Movement. This big screen and Broadway thespian, singer and dancer first made her career move as a 16 year old chorus line dancer at the infamous Cotton Club, which mostly facilitated mobsters and class A actors, featuring only light dark skinned dancers. Focused largely on her nightclub career which most ‘coloured’ actors at the time were limited to, MGM executives discovered her at a club called Little Troc and signed her during most of the 1940’s in musicals that featured her role as subservient background noise, mostly starring as a sultry jazz singer in movies she appeared in.


Lena Horne was the one of the first black actress to be signed on to a major motion picture label, earning her the title of the highest payed Negro actress of her time. On set, segregation was enforced therefore it was rare for her to exchange dialogue with any white cast members during her early years in the industry. World War II was the catalyst for her fame, entertaining the USO troops on various tours, however, upon realizing her crowd consisted of German POW’s with the African American troops seated behind, she refused to continue which severed her business relationship with the USO, shunning her from the tour. That and her long standing ties with various Civil Rights organizations, her candidness towards women’s rights and friendships with NAACP’s founding members most especially acclaimed author and activist William E. B Dubois and leftist activists and singer Paul Robeson, Hollywood blacklisted her for years as a result of her ties. Furthermore, claiming affiliation with Communist parties had an even damaging effect, preventing her from progressing in her career labeling Lena Horne as ‘the bad little Red girl’.

Married twice, she had two children in her first marriage, with her youngest son dying from kidney failure in 1970. Her last marriage was to MGM’s primary musical director and composer Jewish born Lennie Heyton in December 1947, separating in the early 60’s to remain estranged not divorced, later confessing that she married him for career advancement. During their first 3 years of marriage, both had kept their marriage a secret when interracial marriages were illegal in California and most parts of the states, and in fear of Hollywood ostracizing them.

With 15 films to her name, her accolades includes 4 Grammy awards and 4 Grammy nominations between the years 1961 to 1995, a Tony award for her Broadway musical Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music and a Tony nomination for the broadway show ‘Jamaica’, an NAACP Image award for Outstanding Jazz Artist, Sammy Cahn Lifetime Achievement Award for Singers Hall of Fame, a special Kennedy Center’s Honour award (JFK Center for the Performing Arts), and was inducted in the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame (Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site) in 2006. Aside from all that she had managed to accomplish professionally under harrowing circumstances, her greatest moment was marching amongst 250,000 people during Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I have a dream’ speech in Washington’s Lincoln Memorial steps on August, 1963. Lena Horne had proactive participation in Eleanor Roosevelt’s campaign to abolish lynching and segregation. Although her visibility stemmed largely from the fighting the system of racial intolerance, Lena Horne made ‘Stormy Weather’ her signature track which shed light on the complications of career and the issue of race.  “I’ve had stormy weather all my life, and if anybody can sing about the trouble they’ve seen, it’s this old broad,” she remarked during her own broadway show in 1981.

Her legacy will forever be experienced by future generations – it’s the ripple effect. She wore the burden of racial slurs directed at her through-out most of her life, often fighting back verbally or physically in self defense. There are many detailed accounts of racism experienced by Lena Horne from people in the industry to strangers seated in restaurants. There was no denying her fighting spirit. Lena Horne is of Legendary status and will continue to live in the very fabric of American history, not just as a Civil Rights Activist, but as an entertainer who fought to achieve her dreams. She achieved her dreams HER unique way. Lena Horne found the key, unlocked the door and walked right on in without looking back. She is survived by her only daughter, 6 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren.


Interview on the Johnny Carson show 1982 PART 1

Interview on the Johnny Carson show 1982 PART 2

In this interview she humorously explains the struggles of not being allowed to stay after shows, borrowing money from her father to attend her first audition, forging at strong kinship with Eva Gardener and sings her signature song “Stormy Weather”.

Just a side note which compelled me to write this: Take a moment to ponder those in your life who’ve made it possible for you to do what you’re doing now. Whether it be in your chosen profession as a woman or man of  a particular ethnic origin, or of a particular socio-economic background, or as the individual that you are, and consider those who have forged the way for your freedom and the possibilities made by our ancestors. We have it good growing up in a world where the struggles aren’t as limiting in the way it has been in the past. Our struggles are essentially the same and mostly carelessly self inflicted through selfish desires. With the amount of knowledge one can learn from the past to make our lives better, only to aimlessly wander this earth without purpose, then, there’s something you have missed. Educate yourself and look back at those in your family who’ve made it possible for you, or those in our history who’ve paved the road for endless possibilities. If you’re argument is that you as the individual is holding yourself back, true, but the freedom to move amongst options with ease is not to be taken for granted. I must learn that too. All good! Ah, wisdom with age is a funny thing that brings humility.


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