Thursday, February 17, 2005

Rolonda Highlights Lena Horne for Black History Month

Rolonda: Tamara's entry on Harry Belafonte was really good and when she mentioned how many famous people played the go-along-to-get-along, it made me think that Belafonte and Eartha Kitt were brave but that someone else was as well and I want to highlight her.

Lena Horne was born in 1917 and by the time she was a teenager, she was a dancer at Harlem's Cotton Club. With her beauty and voice (and she was a graceful dancer too though that's often forgotten), Horne had everything needed to be a star and quickly became just that in the forties.
"Stormy Weather" remains one of the classic songs of American music and her version of it remains the standard. The silky way she navigates the melody still thrills.

And you can't be that talented and that beautiful without Hollywood coming to knock on your door, even if you are black and the civil rights movement is just getting started. But no matter how talented you are, you still hit the race wall. And Lena Horne was no exception.

Taking a brave stand, one that elevated the role of blacks in in movies, Ms. Horne refused to play the stereotypical roles. That meant that she had two significant films to her credit that were performed by an all black cast: the classic Cabin in the Sky and the sentimental and moving Stormy Weather. Otherwise, her roles were small and easily cut out of the film when it played to white audiences in the south.

Lena Horne was active in the civil rights movement. As a woman trying to establish herself in Hollywood as something more than a maid or nanny, Horne could have played it safe and gone the go-along-to-get-along route. She didn't. She spoke her mind and said her peace.

And the result was that a career (three film appearences in 1946 alone) were followed by the fifties blacklisting which found her unable to work in movies or TV. Ms. Horne was lucky and brave. She could always make a living thanks to her singing voice.

But think about the fall from being the highest paid black actor in Hollywood to being blacklisted.
Ms. Horne handled it with her usual grace and dignity. She kept working, giving great performances in night clubs and recording amazing albums.

She's left a legacy that says you can be proud on your terms. Lena Horne demonstrates the power of believing in yourself. ("Believe in Yourself" is a song she performs in 1978's The Wiz and it's one of my favorite of all her songs.)

The first time I ever saw Lena Horne was when I was eight years old and she was on Judy Garland's TV show. Among other songs, she performed "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" with Garland (who my mother kept saying was Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz but I wouldn't believe her until Judy started singing) and Noel Coward (who wrote the song). I felt awful, I was covered with pink lotion to keep from scratching (I had chicken pox) and my mother was frantic that I not scar myself by scratching at the pox. Lena Horne came on and I was spellbound.

After the show went off, I was dancing around and singing "Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun" which was the only line I could remember. My poor mother had to hear that one line over and over until I exhausted myself and fell asleep.

The next day, my mother pulled out some of her vinyl records and kept me busy (and not scratching) by letting me listen to Lena . . . Lovely and Alive, Porgy & Bess (with Harry Belafonte), Stormy Weather and Give the Lady What She Wants. Like most girls my age, I would later sing along with Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin (using my brush as a microphone) but Lena Horne always held a special place in my heart and there wasn't an album she put out that didn't quickly get put on my mother's record player. And in 1994, she released my all time favorite album, We'll Be Together Again (all time favorite by anyone).

She's conducted herself with professionalism, style and grace and she's recorded some amazing albums while elevating the public's notion of what a black woman (now we say African-American) can do. She's a trailblazer. I'll always be a fan of the singer but to the woman I owe a gratitude and admiration because she carved out a place that didn't exist before her. That's why I wanted to highlight Lena Horne and publicly say, "Thank you."