Skip to main content

Lena Horne, a true breakthrough act

With the passing of singer, actor and entertainer Lena Horne in New York yesterday at the age of 92, we remember yet another person – an African-American woman – whose life and work paved the way for America to be what it is today. It was the perseverance and passion of people like Lena Horne that helped shift America away from the accepted segregation and discrimination of the 40s, 50s and 60s to having an African-American president in 2010. In Horne's day, being a black actress was a civil rights act within itself.
Lena Horne will be remembered as a woman who stood strong, for more than 70 years, in the face of what could have been spirit-crushing discrimination. In doing so, she leaves a legacy of inspiration and empowerment as well as wonderful music and memories for many Americans.
Horne's career started at 16 when her mother sent her to sing in the chorus at Harlem's Cotton Club (which still exists), an entertainment venue where black entertainers performed for wealthy white audiences. In 1942, the beautiful Horne signed a long-term movie contract with MGM, becoming one of the first African-Americans to do so and, by 1943, had become one of the highest paid African-American earners in the industry.

Life was not all roses, though. Horne's career was marked by her battle against racism and segregation. Indeed, it is that which made her triumphs and successes all the more fascinating. She was regularly passed over for major Hollywood roles because of her complexion, and was given roles as a singer instead; roles which could easily be edited out of movies once they reached the south. She was considered too dark to play a lead character, yet too light-skinned to play a maid, the character most often assigned to a black female actress. There's no doubt that Horne felt the weight and pressure of race on her life, writing in her autobiography:
"They didn't make me into a maid, but they didn't make me anything else, either … I became a butterfly pinned to a column, singing away in Movieland."
At that time, it was extremely rare to see African-Americans in the media and Horne was a breakthrough act, fearlessly fighting through the segregation in order to have her voice heard and her face seen. Considering the circumstances, it is amazing that she continued to perform at all, and her life is a testament to the strength of the human spirit in the face of strong external opposition.

Horne, always outspoken, persevered and became a singing star instead, eventually ending up on Broadway where she became a darling of white audiences. As a singer, she flourished, yet her skin tone still dominated her life and career. In the 50s, for example, Horne found herself banned from working on films in the US due to her friendship with actor and activist Paul Robeson.

African-American representation in entertainment and film has grown markedly since the 40s when Horne first became famous. However, there's no doubt that there are many black actresses who still feel that they are overlooked, or just outrightly discriminated against, in Hollywood due to their skin tone. Some of the same issues that Horne faced are still at work in Hollywood where black actors – with the exception of a handful of a few, such as Halle Berry – are rarely cast into lead or mainstream roles, and where discussions about skin tone still take place. After the success of the recent movie Precious, it was asked what other kinds of roles lead character Gabourey Sidibe would be cast in considering not only her weight, but her dark skin. The fact that a dark-skinned black actress played a lead role in a mainstream movie – albeit a role of someone who was troubled and went through difficult times – was in itself rather unusual. So, even though Horne accomplished much in that arena, much more is still to be done.

May all of us continue to be inspired by Horne's will to succeed and to overcome in the face of difficulties. We will continue to use her example to work for opening more doors towards an even more inclusive society and world. 
Horne's career started at 16 when her mother sent her to sing in the chorus at Harlem's Cotton Club (which still exists), an entertainment venue where black entertainers performed for wealthy white audiences. In 1942, the beautiful Horne signed a long-term movie contract with MGM, becoming one of the first African-Americans to do so and, by 1943, had become one of the highest paid African-American earners in the industry.
Life was not all roses, though. Horne's career was marked by her battle against racism and segregation. Indeed, it is that which made her triumphs and successes all the more fascinating. She was regularly passed over for major Hollywood roles because of her complexion, and was given roles as a singer instead; roles which could easily be edited out of movies once they reached the south. She was considered too dark to play a lead character, yet too light-skinned to play a maid, the character most often assigned to a black female actress. There's no doubt that Horne felt the weight and pressure of race on her life, writing in her autobiography:
"They didn't make me into a maid, but they didn't make me anything else, either … I became a butterfly pinned to a column, singing away in Movieland."
At that time, it was extremely rare to see African-Americans in the media and Horne was a breakthrough act, fearlessly fighting through the segregation in order to have her voice heard and her face seen. Considering the circumstances, it is amazing that she continued to perform at all, and her life is a testament to the strength of the human spirit in the face of strong external opposition.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

What England means to me

[Essay originally published on What England Means to Me] England to me means home. It means fond memories of school days; Sundays holed up in a pub drinking wine and eating a succulent roast while discussing the state of the weather with good friends; running to catch a train from Victoria station after a hard day’s work and breathing a sigh of relief once I’m on it and as the train rolls out of central London into the leafier suburbs. England is what I signify to people when I’m abroad. My accent, my sarcastic sense of humour, my values and politeness (such as saying sorry when I really don’t need to) are all products of being brought up in England. “Oh! You’re from England!” people exclaim before asking me whether it really does rain all the time. England is also a part of me that non-English people sometimes don’t understand. “Are there black people in England?” I’m asked that on a regular basis. Yes there are, but we clearly don’t fit into the idea of what Englishness means to ot…